How to Overcome Test Anxiety: 8 Effective Strategies for Students

by | Jan 30, 2024 | Anxiety

Your child or teen needs to take an exam — maybe it’s a mid-term or end-of-semester test or a standardized test like a provincial literacy assessment.. However, when they sit down to take the test, they feel like their mind goes blank, their heart races, it’s hard to focus, and they think, “I’m going to fail.”

Feeling nervous before or during an exam is common for students. However, overwhelming or extreme feelings of anxiety and stress can negatively impact a student’s performance and how they view themself, called test anxiety.

Unfortunately, test anxiety and academic stress may be higher than many adults realize.

Studies published before the COVID-19 pandemic found that:

  • At least 10-40% of students suffer from test anxiety [1].
  • About 64% of Canadian students report feeling very anxious before tests even when they prepared well [2].
  • 75% of American high schoolers and 50% of middle schoolers reported themselves as “often or always feeling stressed” by schoolwork [3].

However, more recent research suggests test anxiety and academic stress levels may be higher than ever. Researchers are still trying to discover the full impact of the pandemic on students, including the impact on test anxiety, academic stress levels, and mental health.

Fortunately, students can reduce test anxiety by using strategies tailored to address their specific needs.

In this article, we explore what test anxiety is, its symptoms, its causes, and 8 strategies to help students overcome test anxiety.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety occurs when a student’s physical or emotional response to taking tests interferes with their ability to perform their best. It’s a type of performance anxiety that can negatively impact students’ preparation habits, test performance, and self-esteem.

Students can also experience varying levels of test anxiety for different reasons. So, understanding the student’s specific test anxiety symptoms and triggers can help you develop an effective intervention strategy tailored to their needs.

Which students are likely to have test anxiety?

Some students may be more prone to test anxiety, but anyone can develop it.

Individuals who are more likely to have test anxiety include those who:

  • Worry a lot
  • Have ADHD
  • Procrastinate
  • Have perfectionistic tendencies
  • Have an emotional or learning disorder
  • Struggle to maintain good study habits

Students with test anxiety may end up feeling unprepared, lack confidence in their abilities, or feel paralyzed by making a mistake — leaving them feeling anxious or out of control.

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Symptoms of test anxiety

The signs or symptoms of test anxiety can look different from student to student. Students can experience physical or emotional reactions of varying intensity.

Physical symptoms of test anxiety

The severity of the physical response varies per student. However, some students can be so impacted that they report experiencing panic attacks — feeling an intense fear or discomfort where they feel like they can’t breathe or take in a full breath, which comes on abruptly.

Other common physical symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling faint
  • Rapid heart rate

Emotional symptoms of test anxiety

As with physical symptoms, the impact of the emotional and cognitive symptoms varies per student. Additionally, these symptoms may occur before the day of the test. For instance, some students may struggle with fears and paralyzing negative self-talk in the weeks leading up to the test, hindering their ability to fully prepare.

Some common cognitive and emotional symptoms include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling stressed
  • Nervousness
  • Fear of failing
  • Fear of not measuring up to expectations
  • Helplessness
  • Negative thoughts
  • Mind going blank
  • Procrastinating
  • Racing thoughts
  • Memory retrieval difficulties

Common causes of test anxiety

Many students with test anxiety report multiple underlying reasons that contribute to their test anxiety.

Identifying the underlying causes of a student’s test anxiety can provide insight into specific strategies that can best help them manage and reduce their emotional and physical responses.

Here are some potential causes of test anxiety:

  • Fear of failure
  • Perfectionism
  • Overemphasis on one test
  • Low self-esteem
  • Pressure from others or high expectations
  • Being unprepared
  • Poor studying or test-taking history

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8 Strategies for reducing test anxiety

Any student who feels anxious about tests or exams, regardless of level of anxiety experienced,   can benefit from learning ways to overcome test anxiety. These strategies can help students have a better test-taking experience and stress less over tests and their academic performance.

That said, incorporating coping strategies and preparation methods takes time and consistency. But with effort, these strategies can help your student manage and reduce their test anxiety.

Here are 8 effective strategies you can share with your student to help them learn how to reduce and manage test anxiety.

1. Identify what contributes to your test anxiety

As mentioned earlier, understanding the root causes of your test anxiety allows you to focus on techniques to address your specific situation. For instance, you may notice that you tend to put off studying, or you find yourself putting yourself down or putting lots of pressure on yourself on the day of the test. Combating these causes will likely require different solutions.

So, take time now to identify habits, thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms that contribute to your anxiety so you establish an effective plan to beat your test anxiety.

When brainstorming possible causes, you’ll want to:

  • Keep an open mind.
  • Be honest and kind to yourself — avoid putting yourself down or blaming yourself; many students struggle with test anxiety.
  • Think about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours leading up to test day, on test day, and during the test.
  • Reflect on situations, subjects, or circumstances that intensify your stress.

2. Incorporate good study habits

You may have a study system in place. However, sometimes study habits that worked in the past may no longer be enough, especially if your current courses or workload are more challenging.

Additionally, you may benefit from learning additional study techniques if you find yourself cramming, struggling to keep up with your workload, or having trouble understanding or retaining the content causing you to fall behind.

When evaluating your study habits, you’ll want to be honest but gentle with yourself. This process isn’t about judging yourself but honestly finding new solutions and habits that work well for you now.

As you evaluate your study habits and incorporate new ones, consider:

  • What current study strategies work well for you.
  • Past study habits that used to work well for you.
  • Consulting with your school’s resource or learning center for college students or your school counselor for middle and high schoolers. They may have programs or materials to help you learn new study habits that fit your current needs.
  • Creating a structured study plan and routine so you consistently set aside the amount of time you need.

3. Get organized

Being organized can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your study sessions, helping you be and feel prepared for your exams.

If you struggle with organization, it can help to break the task down. For instance, you’ll want to organize your:

  • Study materials so you can find what you need quickly.
  • Study space so you ideally have a quiet area with enough workspace so you don’t feel cramped and have easy access to the materials you need.
  • Study time and schedule so you know exactly what you need to focus on when you sit down to study and can set aside enough time for each task.

4. Talk to your teacher in advance of the exam

Talk with your teacher or instructor well in advance if you’re getting anxious about an upcoming test. Your teacher can provide additional tips, clarification, and advice that can help you feel more prepared, alleviate uncertainties, and reduce your anxiety. They may also provide accommodations, such as time extensions or writing tests in an alternate setting.

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5. Learn time management strategies

As a student, you have many demanding responsibilities that can make managing your time challenging. But time management is a skill that can be learned.

Developing effective time management skills helps you stop procrastinating, increase your productivity, and feel less stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. So you avoid cramming or studying at the last minute and can have the time to break study tasks into smaller chunks that are more manageable.

When learning more effective time management techniques, it can help to:

  • Consult with your school’s resource or learning center for college students or your school counselor for middle and high schoolers. They may have programs or resources to help you.
  • Evaluate your current time management strategies — look for what is working well and aspects that may be hindering your productivity.
  • Talk with friends or fellow students who have good time management skills and see what works well for them.

However, keep in mind that developing time management skills takes time and practice. Additionally, not all strategies work for everyone so you may need to adapt techniques to better fit your needs.

6. Actively challenge negative thoughts and perfectionistic tendencies

What we tell ourselves matters. Telling yourself, “I’m going to fail,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or “I have to be perfect,” can make it harder to perform your best. These negative thoughts and unrealistic expectations can contribute to procrastination, trouble with motivation, increased stress, and fear of failure.

Fortunately, there are many strategies to help you challenge and reduce negative self-talk and unrealistic expectations.

  • Start noticing what you’re telling yourself. For example, you can keep a thought journal where you write down your thoughts and how you “talk” to yourself to increase your awareness of your inner dialogue.
  • Explore any negative self-talk or unrealistic expectations like perfectionism. For example, think about how you feel when these thoughts arise, how they impact your behaviours, and whether you typically have trouble meeting your own expectations?
  • Brainstorm realistic and helpful statements that you can use to replace negative and self-critical thoughts, such as telling yourself, “I studied for the test.”
  • Contact your school’s resource or learning center, or school counselor if you struggle with self-defeating thoughts. They may have workshops or resources to help you.

7. Stay calm with brief meditation and relaxation techniques

If you feel physically anxious or like your mind is going blank when taking a test, brief meditation and relaxation strategies can help you calm your body and mind. These strategies don’t have to take a long time and can be done before or during the exam. But they can have a powerful impact, helping to put you in a positive emotional state, reducing your stress, and quieting negative or racing thoughts.

Here are some examples of techniques to help you stay calm and focused:

  • Create one or two positive affirmations that are meaningful to you, such as “I have been consistently studying and am proud of myself.” These positive statements should focus on feeling good about yourself and/or success. Ideally, focus more on your effort and not expectations about your grade.
  • Complete a short deep breathing exercise before or during the test to stay calm and focused. For example, you can breathe in slowly for a count of three and exhale slowly for a count of four or take a series of deep breaths.
  • Use visualization by visualizing yourself completing the exam successfully.
  • Repeat a positive word or phrase silently to calm and focus your thoughts.

8. Establish a pre-exam routine

If your anxiety is high right before a test, consider creating a pre-exam routine. This routine can consist of activities that help you feel calm, prepared, and focused — reducing your test anxiety.

Some examples of pre-exam activities you can consider include:

  • Packing up needed test materials the night before so you don’t feel rushed.
  • Reviewing key concepts a set time before the test.
  • Engaging in a brief relaxing or motivating activity, like listening to a particular song that makes you feel good or doing a breathing exercise.
  • Taking a short walk.
  • Listening to nature sounds.

The key is to find specific activities that help you feel ready, confident, and calm.

Can students overcome test anxiety?

Students can learn to manage and reduce test anxiety with the right strategies, support, and mindset.

They will need to take time to:

  • Identify what contributes to their test anxiety
  • Learn effective strategies that address the causes of their test anxiety
  • Use the strategies consistently

By using strategies to manage test anxiety, students can overcome their fears, improve their test performance, and enhance their mental well-being. They will feel more confident and can approach tests and similar stressful situations with a positive mindset.

What to do if your student needs additional support with test anxiety

Test anxiety can be reduced, but some students may need professional help and support. If your student is struggling to overcome test anxiety on their own, talking with a psychologist  can help.

Your student can work with a professional who understands the emotional, cognitive, and physical impact of test anxiety. Together, they can create an effective intervention plan with strategies tailored to meet your child’s specific needs and help them thrive at school.



  1. Gregor, A. (2005). Examination anxiety: Live with it, control it or make it work for you? School Psychology International, 26(5), 617–635.
  2. OECD. (2015). PISA 2015 Students’ Well-being Country Note, Canada.Website:’%20Well-being-Country%20note-Canada.pdf
  3. Imed Bouchrika, “50 Current Student Stress Statistics: 2023 Data, Analysis & Predictions.”, October 31, 2023 (Accessed December 18, 2023),