An illustration of a girl sitting at a table looking frustrated and being surrounded by books and papers.
Test anxiety associated with exams like SAT can manifest as both physical and mental symptoms that could affect a student's performance. Illustrations by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Ask the Experts

Starting Early and Staying Ahead of Stress: How To Beat Test Anxiety and Ace the SATs

'Anytime you announce your limitations use the words ‘yet’ or ‘so far.’'

With the next SAT test date less than a month away, millions of students are in prep mode to take their first step towards college. But this is no ordinary year as most of the world is still battling the challenges caused by COVID-19.

Young people have been hit hard, especially by the sudden changes to schools and social life, reporting higher rates of mental challenges like depression and anxiety. So how does this affect their test prep for college admissions like SAT and ACT? “Kids are stuck at home, not getting to socialize with their friends, not getting any physical activity that they had [before],” said Jim Treadway. The CEO and founder of GrowthWise, a test prep service, believes that apart from academic preparation, focusing on mental and emotional wellness is also key for students who wish to perform well in these tests.

For many, the pressure to excel could lead to test anxiety which can show up as physical and mental symptoms. “Their heartbeat will start to kick up… their breathing will become shallow, shoulders will tense up, stomach will feel tight,” Treadway said. He emphasized that it’s necessary that students notice these so that they can course-correct and adjust for better results. With the test season now in full swing, Treadway shared his top tips to help navigate the stress and work toward better results. 

Start early

“The mistake that a lot of people make is that they wait till junior year,” Treadway said. To give yourself adequate time to prepare and better manage the stress, he suggests starting test preparation in sophomore year because junior year usually means an increase in the academic workload. Schools usually recommend starting in junior year but staying ahead could help you reach the score you desire by the time you’re ready to apply for colleges, he added.

Take plenty of practice tests 

When they say practice makes perfect, they mean it. With regard to the number of practice tests students should aim to take, Treadway believes 10 is a good number to aim for. But, he added that it could be more or less depending on which sections of the test you’re looking to work on.

Set a goal for yourself 

Most people have an instinct about the score they’re capable of getting, Treadway said. “Maybe it’s a number a little higher than you would’ve guessed, I would write it down…on a notecard and put it under your pillow,” he said. He suggests looking at this notecard every night before bed and vizualing how you would feel when this number does come true. Treadway believes that putting these visions in your subconscious and accessing the emotions you’re going to feel can help you motivate yourself to study more and feel more confident while giving the test. 

An illustration of three girls, one is reading, one is playing basketball and the other is listening to music.

Taking adequate breaks and refreshing the mind during test prep is key.

Dealing with disappointment 

While giving your practice tests, it’s possible that the results don’t match your goal, yet. Emphasis on the word: yet. Often, students experience frustration making them more apprehensive about putting in the work to improve. 

“Put your attention, not on the disappointment of the score,” Treadway told Re:Set, but instead focus on retraining your attention to what you can learn from it. 

He reiterated the importance of asking yourself questions like “What are one or two things that I can do differently next time?” Ensure you set another date to practice these changes.

Becoming aware of your language

Treadway observed that making yourself aware of the language that you’re talking about the test to yourself and others is key. “If the language I’m using is ‘I’m terrible at math,’ you’re now announcing this as your identity,” he said. “Your subconscious is listening and it will look to confirm that you’re terrible at math.”

He said that this misconception then prevents the students from taking any interest in these subjects or finding more opportunities to learn. “Anytime you announce your limitations use the words ‘yet’ or ‘so far’” so that you believe that there’s room for improvement, Treadway recommended.

Breathing techniques

Learning to breathe properly is great practice for health and anxiety. But especially around tests, Treadway underlined that this habit can help you feel calm and grounded and can help reduce mental fatigue. 

 Since most families don’t prioritize emotional and mental wellness, kids don’t recognize the importance of strengthening their mindset, he said. And in stressful situations like tests, having a regular meditation practice or knowing breathing exercises can be beneficial. 

Taking adequate breaks

He also advocates for having a daily exercise routine or even just taking walks to break up the day. Read books and listen to podcasts in your area of interest to help you become more of an expert and make a better impression in your eventual college interviews, Treadway recommended.

Also read: The Re:Set Guide to Nailing Your College Applications


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Starting Early and Staying Ahead of Stress: How To Beat Test Anxiety and Ace the SATs