Take Tests Like A Boss

Antonis Achilleos 

Don’t let standardized test insanity drag you down. This guide will help you survive the toughest part of the school year without losing your cool.

No one loves test season—that stretch of days when you feel trapped in your classroom, tapping away at a computer or bubbling in answers for what feels like f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Part of the anxiety comes from the big-picture pressure (Did I really soak up the Pythagorean theorem way back when?) while the rest takes the form of random, in-the-moment, very nervous energy. (Am I tackling these questions fast enough? And how can I focus when someone keeps tapping his foot against his desk?)

That’s why we asked experts of all kinds for tricks on how to avoid getting tripped up by test anxiety. (And guess what? None of them have to do with studying the material!) Bonus: You can use most of the stress-busting strategies here to conquer all types of academic pressure, from presentations to pop quizzes—making our tip sheet this season’s most essential extra credit. 

Rule 1: Take sleep seriously. 

No more denying it: Test scores have been scientifically proven to benefit from sleep, says Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, a neurologist and sleep expert. Use these tips to fall asleep faster.

NOON Cut off your caffeine. It may help you plow through sports or homework, but—even if you consume it hours before bedtime—it can keep you up.

AFTER SCHOOL Get moving! A little exercise will help you de-stress and tire you out, which will prime you to fall asleep more easily and sleep more deeply.

8 P.M. Set your thermostat to 67-68 degrees. Cooler temps in the evening are linked to the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep.

9 P.M. Shut down your screens. The light from your phone, computer, and TV is an activating signal for the circadian clock that keeps your brain awake.

10 P.M. Bedtime! It doesn’t have to be 10 p.m. exactly—to find yours, work backward from when you need to wake up, allowing for at least 8 hours of sleep.

Rule 2: Don't skip breakfast. 

Admit it: You’ve complained about your lack of exam stamina, aka that sleepy “who cares?” feeling you get midway through a marathon morning of testing. But the only formula you need to keep you going is this one.

Rule 3: Learn this sneaky stretch. 

During a test, it will: (a) get oxygen flowing to wake up your brain; (b) make you feel more confident. And you can do it without leaving your desk! 

1. Sit toward the front of your chair.
2. Reach your arms back to hold the sides of your chair (as shown).
3. Lift your chest and squeeze your shoulders together behind you.
4. Repeat a few times, breathing as you do it.

Rule 4: Have a secret stress weapon. 

Some stress is good: It gives you an energy boost and motivates you to try your best, says Dr. Dzung Vo, author of The Mindful Teen. “But when we get overwhelmed with stress, our ‘lizard brain’ takes over,” he explains. This primitive instinct is designed to help us survive danger (like animal attacks!) but isn’t capable of focusing on a test. So how can you halt a mid-test meltdown? Try the STOP approach:

Stop. In lizard-brain mode, you’re on autopilot and might not make the best decision. So put your pencil down for a second!

Take three deep breaths. Breathe in and out, slowly.

Observe. Close your eyes, and recognize that you’re not in danger. You’re OK. 

Proceed. Now that you’ve calmed your body and mind, your good ol’ human brain can concentrate again!

Rule 5: Pace Yourself 

You’ve been there: Everyone appears to be racing through the test while you’re still on question No. 1. (Or you reach the end first, then panic: Did I skip something?) Pacing yourself is tricky, so let these strategies from test-prep experts help:

1. Understand the rules. Find out before test day whether your exam is timed and what you’re allowed to bring into the room. The last thing you want is the wrong calculator or a mid-test snack that’s against the rules.

2. Track your progress. If your test is timed, write the start time, midpoint, and end time at the top of the test or on a scrap sheet of paper. 

3. Answer the easiest questions first. Put a star next to ones you’re not sure of (or note them on your scrap sheet), and go back to them after you’ve nailed the answers you know. 

4. Practice! You may not want to hear it, but practice will help you build up your stamina—and confidence. Ask your teachers ahead of time for practice questions or the prep tips they recommend.

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