Surviving Test Anxiety and Final Test Attempts

It’s that time of year!

No, I don’t mean Hanukkah, Christmas, or the New Year.  It’s the season of final test attempts!  In this annual ritual for high school seniors the world over, students rush to submit their most recent test scores along with admissions essays, and hour logs for extra-curricular activities in order to meet application deadlines.

Seniors taking their final shot at testing face an altogether stressful situation. The same goes for juniors prepping for the current SAT who are hoping to be done by the January test date, the last testing opportunity before the College Board introduces the redesigned SAT in March.

In this era of competitive college admissions, students find themselves under more pressure to perform well on standardized tests than ever before.  Test anxiety is a significant and persistent obstacle with which many students struggle.  For some it is crippling. Compounding normal test anxiety is the pressure of knowing that this is their “final shot,” which can overwhelm many students.  This is why, as a tutor, I try never to let my students feel upcoming attempts are their last. Even if a senior is facing one last attempt at the SAT or ACT tests, we can still find successful ways to mitigate their stress and anxiety and set them up for success on test day.

Because I am working with a few students who find themselves in this situation, I have found myself spending more time than usual discussing anxiety and self-esteem issues.  I mention self-esteem because students who struggle with anxiety tend to attach far too much of their self-worth and future prospects to their test scores.  For these students, test scores translate into admission to the right school, which confers the right degree, which opens the right doors to the right job that provides for the right lifestyle. Failure with the first step of that series results in failure for all. This kind of catastrophic thinking can be detrimental to students’ performance on the very tests they believe to be so important.

This is, of course, an unrealistic depiction of the situation.  Nevertheless, this narrative is exactly what you will hear from students who struggle with test anxiety.  The most important thing we can do, as tutors or parents, is to help students replace this narrative with a positive narrative grounded in reason.  

I have one student who is working very hard to get into Stanford or Harvard.  She is close to getting into schools like Georgetown and The University of Pennsylvania and is already in the median score range for Georgia Tech.  Regardless of a student’s particular college goals, having a list with dream schools, reach schools, and safe schools is always a good idea and can help alleviate anxiety. Here is an example of a new narrative which I helped her write:

“I would really like to get into Stanford and Harvard.  But it is not necessary to go to either of those schools in order to be successful, well respected, and able to do amazing things in my lifetime.  I am one or two points away from UPenn and Georgetown.  I am already in at a phenomenal school, Georgia Tech.  I could go to any one of these other schools where, with my work ethic and intelligence, I would be incredibly successful and still go to Harvard Business School.  In fact, many people [employers] put more importance on the graduate degree anyway.  I could [also] have an amazing opportunity to participate in the Thiel Foundation and pursue my business dream.  If Georgia Tech and the Thiel Foundation are my ‘fallback’ options, then I am doing pretty darn well and should be proud of myself regardless.”  

Signed, A Less-Stressed Student

The student and I then decided that she would read this aloud to herself three time before bed every night, and three times every morning. Of course, every student’s situation is unique in terms of current test score and score goals; however, I believe the way we frame the challenge – negatively or positively – can have a profound influence on test anxiety and test performance. This is just one way of attacking this problem (feel free to get creative), but I hope this article will help illustrate the challenge many students will face in January and can help students, tutors, and parents start a conversation about how to confront it.

For additional resources, see Jed Applerouth’s article on “Taming the Tiger of Test Anxiety,” originally published in the April newsletter for the Independent Educational Consultants Association.


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