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Worried about SAT/ACT/AP Tests? How to Handle Test Anxiety

With the pressure of SATs and ACTs (and APs and subject SATs and all the other tests our teenagers are required to take), we know there are lots of nervous teenagers out there. So, we asked our expert, Dr. Meredith Bonacci, for her advice on how to handle test anxiety. Bring it on.

Test anxiety refers to a combination of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms that occur leading up to and/or during a test. Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety. When you are in a situation where you feel the need to perform well (e.g., a test), a little bit of anxiety can actually be helpful because it keeps you alert and focused.

It is not helpful, however, when anxiety rises, because it can impair functioning and impact your performance.

Symptoms of Text Anxiety:

The symptoms of test anxiety fall into 3 different categories.

Physical symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • sweating
  • nausea/diarrhea
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heartbeat
  • if left unaddressed, panic attacks

Emotional symptoms refer to the feelings that emerge in association with tests and grades, such as:

  • fear
  • helplessness
  • anger
  • disappointment

Cognitive symptoms of test anxiety are often the most pervasive, and include:

  • difficulty concentrating,
  • negative thoughts about school/grades
  • low self-esteem,
  • comparing yourself to others

Causes of Test Anxiety

1. Poor test history

If your teen has struggled in the past or has had bad experiences with test-taking, they could develop a negative outlook and test anxiety.

2. Lack of preparation and procrastination

This often has a cyclical effect. Your teen may be overwhelmed with the amount of material to study, so they leave it to the last minute, which actually makes them feel even more overwhelmed.

3. Fear of failure

The pressure to do well is powerful. This pressure can be direct or indirect and come from themselves, parents, and teachers. If your teen may be so scared that they will not score as well as they expect to or hope for that the fear increases their anxiety to the point where it impacts their performance. Fear of failure also connects to low self-esteem.

How to Handle Test Anxiety:

Before a test:

  • Be prepared. Allow enough time to study before the exam. If feeling overwhelmed, ask a teacher for help breaking down the material into smaller more manageable parts, or to clarify confusing material.
  • Test yourself. Recreate the testing environment, by practicing sample questions and timing yourself.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat breakfast, get enough sleep, exercise. All these things help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Write it down. Take a couple minutes to write down worries and concerns about the test, so that it does not become a distraction during the test.

During a test:

  • Use those test-taking skills. Read and understand the directions, answer the easy questions first and then go back to those tough ones. If it is an essay exam, outline the essay before writing.
  • Stay focused. Concentrate on the test, not other people or distracting thoughts.
  • Use a coping statement. Choose a positive statement that helps in the moment. “I can do this!” “It probably won’t be as bad as I expect.” “Even if I make a mistake, it won’t be the end of the world.”


  • Focus on yourself. Try not to talk to other students about the material before or after this exam, this will just lead to more stress.
  • Stay positive. Catch those negative thoughts, and replace them with a positive or neutral thought. Negative thinking is only going to drag you down.
  • Try a relaxation exercise. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, guided imagery. Try the app “” for a helpful relaxation tool, to use anytime and anywhere.
  • Talk to someone about it. If your teen continues to struggle and needs help with test anxiety, encourage them to talk to a trusted adult (teachers, parents, school psychologist).

Good luck!

Meredith Bonacci is a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in adolescents and young adults. Get in touch with Dr. Bonacci at

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