Knowing the meanings of laconic, loquacious, or lugubrious does not prove you are smart. Nor does knowing the rules of logarithms, apostrophes, or parallel structure. Not knowing things can feel scary, and it’s easy to mistakenly conflate knowledge with intelligence. But tests, including the ACT and SAT, measure acquired knowledge and skills. You can expect there to be things you don’t know…yet! That’s what study and practice are for, and it’s why effective preparation can also lower your anxiety and relieve stress.
One of the best scientists currently researching stress and how brains react to it is Dr. Sonia Lupien. Dr. Lupien has a really clever model of what causes anxiety in humans, or to put it another way, what makes people “nuts”: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to Ego, and Sense of Control.
Novelty – New situations, though sometimes fun, are also generally stressful.
Unpredictability – Not knowing how things will turn out is rarely fun. We like happy surprises!
Threat to Ego or Self –Whether physical peril or threat to “who we are,” it’s stressful.
Sense of Control (actually a lack of control) – A sense of helplessness is about as bad as it gets.
Here are a few things you can do to relieve stress:
1. Understand the test and be very familiar with what’s on it so that what you encounter on test day isn’t new. The SAT and ACT are consistent, from month to month and year to year. That’s what we mean by “standardized” tests. Learn the format and content. Know how to pace yourself for both speed and stamina with practice tests. Learn from what you get wrong.
2. Yale or McDonald’s? Not likely, but it can feel that way to some kids. Have confidence that you’ll go to college but decrease the unpredictability by creating a Plan B. Now, it’s not about whether you’ll succeed but when and how. One at-bat, one test, one chance for all the marbles? Likely overwhelming. Give yourself time for practice and opportunities for a retake or retakes of the test. Also visit fairtest.org for the 1000+ colleges that are test-score optional. There are many paths you can take to be successful, and knowing more of them will actually make it easier to achieve Plan A.
3. Lower the threat by reminding yourself that you are more than a test score. One remarkable experiment had kids write about a core value, such as kindness, honesty, the environment, etc. Another asked them to write about who they are as people: “I’m a sister, a soccer player, a leader, a good listener, etc. Both tasks reduced stress by nearly half and increased academic performance, in part because stress interferes with thinking and performance. Lowering stress improves both.
4. This is the time to get personal to increase your sense of control. Didn’t do as well as you would have liked? Ok. Why? Dig deep to really explore and ask good questions (or get a teacher, parent, friend or tutor to help you). Did you run out of time? Did you get stuck on questions that were hard for you when your time would have been better used on other questions? Was there something else that affected your ability to concentrate? Was it not getting enough sleep, showing up late to the test center, seeing the proctor make a mistake, forgetting to bring snacks, distracting thoughts about what you had to do after the test? Any one of these elements could hurt your attention and lead to sub-par performance. Figuring out the cause or causes of under-performance will increase your sense of control by providing a path to future success.
Be personal about your strategy, but don’t take the tests personally. Know the assignment, practice, evaluate your own performance, and then get in there and nail it!
Remember: It is completely normal and in fact helpful to be a little nervous about tests – but don’t go nuts!