I still remember sitting down for my first exam as a pre SLP major, it was Phonetics. I thought I was prepared. Felt a little jittery not singing on a stage as a means of demonstrating competency but no biggie. As the professor handed out the exams and the room fell silent, I began to thumb through the stack of pages. My heart began to race, I thought "oh crap this is long....and entirely short answer" , my palms became sweaty as I read through the directions and my mind went completely blank. I wanted to cry. To curl up in a ball in the corner and disappear. I had studied so hard for this, my first foray in to a new career path and the professor was going to think I was an idiot or worse a slacker because I could not stop shaking long enough to hold the pencil straight. I left that test knowing I'd bombed (and I was right) and there were many more to follow in other courses before I became so discouraged I considered quitting the major or even dropping out. But I still wasn't ready to let this dream die so I decided to fight...
Find a Test Anxiety Support Group
You are not alone, there are other people who suffer from this everyday. Through the counseling department at my school I was able to get connected with a wonderful support group full of test takers just like me that was facilitated by a counselor. We talked about our struggles, practiced identifying triggers for panic attacks and helped each other develop compensatory strategies and repair our damaged GPA's.
Identify your Triggers
This was big for me. I didn't realize how my life as a musician had influenced the way I took tests. For me an exam was almost always an audition or a performance. I've sung in front of over 30,000 people before without flinching but that cold classroom with the florescent lights sent me into a tailspin EVERY TIME. So I had to practice. I went into classrooms, set a timer and did practice tests. Eventually, I became de-sensitized to it. I also refrained from engaging with my classmates before a test as well all that pre test anxiety talk only made things worse for me. Before an exam, I would find a quiet, hidden place put on some classical music and simply practice breathing. I used the technique of Visual Imagery during this time. I visualized myself doing every single detail of the next hour. Standing up. Walking toward the door. Finding a seat. Making small talk with a classmate. Being handed the test. taking out my pencil. breathing deeply. Looking over page 1. Not knowing some of the answers, forgiving myself. Looking over page 2. etc. I used this technique beginning the night before any test up into the moment I walk in. It really helped me to release that fear of anticipation and anxiety about the unknown.
When you know you have test taking anxiety you simply cannot expect to study like everyone else and get the same results. Your study schedule has to involve mind, body and spirit preparation. This means you have to start early! I had to change the way I prepped for tests period. Gone were the days I memorized an aria the weekend before an audition/jury and still did well. At the beginning of the semester I had to designate check point dates for myself that I would have the material mastered and those dates HAD to be at least a week before the test in order to give me time to rest my brain, make corrections and still feel relaxed. Does that sound crazy? Probably. But it was my new normal and necessary for me. Find your new normal when it comes to test preparation and you will reduce your anxiety. Do you need to exercise before a test to feel calm? What about a good meal? Maybe you can't drink the weekend before? Whatever it is, do some research on yourself and commit to a regimen that works for you.
Be Transparent with Your Professors
I credit my professors in the SLP dept for getting me through undergrad. After I failed my first couple of exams I went to each and everyone of them and explained what was going on. I told them how much I love speech language pathology, showed them my notes from test anxiety support group and let them know I was committed to being successful in their class. I asked for supplemental assignments to remediate my grade and committed myself to PERFECT attendance. I sat up front and engaged them in discussion throughout class regularly so that they knew I was mentally present and had reviewed the material. In turn, they supported me 100%. I even had one professor who would create mock exams for me to take weeks before the test to "take the edge off", he would administer them to me and sit and review them with me so that I could further identify if it was an anxiety issue, lack of preparation issue or both. People cannot help you unless you let them in. It was difficult to humble myself and be so vulnerable because I am a staunch perfectionist. But developing that level of rapport with my professors as resulted in lifelong friendship and a MA, CCC-SLP after my name.
Do you have any tips or strategies for battling test taking anxiety! Leave them in the comments below!