How to Feel Confident Before an Exam

Three Parts:Preparing for the ExamReducing Test AnxietyLeveraging Your Test-Taking Support System

Even a pop quiz generates a little anxiety in most students, and some students find exams completely terrifying.[1] But test anxiety can be decreased by thorough preparation, mental and physical relaxation, and help from others. Knowing that you've done everything you can to prepare can help you feel more confident before going into an exam.

Part 1
Preparing for the Exam

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    Make a study schedule. To make sure you don’t leave studying to the last minute, create a schedule for when you will study during the days or weeks before the exam. For example, you could commit to studying for one hour a day right after school for one week before the exam.
    • Making a study schedule can help you to avoid allowing other activities to interfere with studying.
    • Plan to study for about 45 minutes at a time. It’s difficult to concentrate for more than 45 minutes. You may find it easier to concentrate if you take short breaks once an hour.[2]
    • If the test will cover a lot of material, consider using the “chunking” technique. Break your topic into sections so that you can focus on each one comfortable instead of trying to cover all of the material in every study session.[3] You can then plan your study sessions around specific sections of the material.
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    Create, revise, and review your study tools. Choose tools that fit the subject matter and your learning style. Options include flash cards, outlines, timelines, charts, and sample test questions.[4]
    • Create a one-page summary with the most important ideas, equations, or methods for the exam. The process of creating this summary will prompt you to identify the most important information that you need to know for the exam, which will help you to study more efficiently. If the exam is open-book, this summary sheet can also be a helpful guide to your notes or textbook while you’re taking the test.[5]
    • Keep your learning style in mind when creating your study tools. For example, if you are a more visual learner, you may retain more information by drawing diagrams or mindmaps.[6]
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    Prepare based on the kind of test you’re taking. You’ll need to prepare differently depending on whether your exam will require you to write an essay or answer multiple choice questions. Make sure you know what kind of test you’ll be taking and prepare accordingly.[7]
    • If you are taking a standardized test, take a few practice tests to familiarize yourself with the structure and timing of the test. For national standardized tests like the SAT, you will be able to find copies of previous versions of the test which you can take for practice.[8]
    • If you will be taking an essay exam, practice writing essay responses while you study. It can be helpful to time yourself so that you know you’ll be able to complete the essay during the allotted test period.
    • If your test involves a lot of memorized material, remember that you probably won’t remember everything on the first try. Memorization and recall improve with repetition.[9]
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    Collect your supplies the night before the test. Make sure that you have everything you need -- pencils, pens, a calculator, your notes -- to take the test prepared and ready to go the night before to avoid test day anxiety.[10]
    • If you’ll be using a calculator or other electronic device, check the batteries and/or bring a spare with you.[11]
    • Find out which optional items you are allowed to bring, such as snacks or your textbook for an open-book test.

Part 2
Reducing Test Anxiety

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    Think positively. Scientific research has shown that our expectations can affect our performance. If you expect to do well on the exam, you will still have to study; but if you expect to do poorly, studying may not be enough to help you do well.[12]
    • Practice self-affirmation - the process of transforming your thoughts to focus on the positive and downplay the negative. For example, remind yourself that you worked hard to prepare for this test.
    • Challenge your negative thoughts. For example, if you think that doing badly on the exam will ruin your life, tell yourself that this is not true. Then replace that thought with a more accurate one - failing a test may hurt your grade, but it’s not the end of the world.[13]
    • If you’re having a hard time quelling negative thoughts, try distracting yourself using humor. Watch a funny movie or TV show, read a funny book or comic. You can even try to remember all of the jokes you know.[14]
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    Maintain perspective. Remind yourself that your grade on this one test will not determine your success or failure in life. Even an extremely important test such as the bar exam can be taken again if you don’t pass.
    • Research shows that some anxiety can actually help your test performance. Remind yourself that manageable levels of anxiety can increase your alertness and energy.[15]
    • To combat anxiety that arises when you’re first given the exam, make sure to read over the entire test before beginning. Look for “easy” questions - when you’re prepared, you shouldn’t have trouble finding them. Finding the questions you’re sure you know the answers to will help to remind you that you do know the material.[16]
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    Visualize success. While you’re studying, imagine yourself taking the test and answering the questions with confidence. Imagine yourself getting the test back with the grade you want. While visualization can’t replace preparation, it can help you to feel more confident, which can improve performance. [17]
    • Visualization works because your brain and body react to visualization as if you were actually experiencing the event you’re imagining. Your brain forms and strengthens connections as a result - in this case, between test taking and success.[18]
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    Calm your body. Fear releases adrenaline, preparing the body to deal with danger. Your heart rate and breathing speed up and you may feel shaky, sweaty, and/or dizzy. Anything you can do to counteract these physical reactions will help you think more clearly and feel more confident. Remember to use these techniques during the test if you feel anxious.[19] Calming techniques include:
    • Breathing. Breathing exercises can help you to relax, including slow, abdominal breathing and ‘equal breathing’ - equalizing the time you spend breathing in and breathing out. [20]
    • Stretching. You don’t have to do a full yoga routine to get the benefits of stretching. Try stretching your arms above your head and behind your back to release shoulder tension; standing forward bends can release back and neck tension.[21]
    • Relaxing your muscles. You may not even be aware that you’re holding tension in your muscles. To become aware, try a body scan, which involves focusing on each body part for a few seconds, starting with the toes and moving up progressively to the top of your head.[22]
    • Walking. Moving your body will help clear your mind. Just remember to pay attention to your surroundings -- don’t spend the whole walk worrying about the exam!
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    Eat before the exam. Don’t skip breakfast to study. Make sure you eat something an hour or two before taking the test. Choose protein-filled snacks and avoid sugar, which can give you quick energy that may run out in the middle of the exam.[23].
    • Eat something even if you feel nauseous - try crackers or toast to settle your stomach.[24]
    • Avoid caffeine and energy drinks, which can increase anxiety.[25]
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    Get a good night’s sleep before the test. Studies have shown that you will do better on an exam if you get enough sleep than if you spend all night studying.[26]
    • If the test is later in the day or the evening, or if you just couldn’t get a full night’s sleep, take a nap. Research has shown that a short nap - less than an hour - can improve alertness, memory, creativity, productivity, and mood, and can decrease stress.[27]

Part 3
Leveraging Your Test-Taking Support System

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    Ask questions. Don’t just rely on your books and notes. If you have a question as you study, ask your teacher, parent, or tutor. You’ll feel more confident knowing you got the answer to your question from the most reliable source.
    • Don’t forget to ask your teacher what materials will be covered. For example, ask if the exam will be based on homework, reading assignments, and/or on class discussion.[28]
    • If you are having trouble understanding a topic, you can also ask a librarian to help you find other resources that you can use for clarification.
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    Form a study group. Make sure you study with other students who are serious about studying. You’ll feel more confident if you have worked with other students to make sure you are studying the right information and understanding the material.
    • Invite students at a variety of ability levels into the group. Students can learn from teaching each other.[29]
    • The members of a study group may benefit from sharing class notes. Different students may have taken note of different information during class - compiling and verifying this information from a number of students can help ensure you know the material that will be on the exam.[30]
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    Rely on your support group. Friends and family may not be able to help you understand calculus or learn French, but they can help you to feel more confident.
    • Ask a member of your support group to let you explain the material that will be on the test to them. You need a solid understanding of a concept to be able to explain it to someone who doesn’t know much about it. If you can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire to your grandmother, you may feel more confident that you have a grasp of the material.
    • Friends and family may also be able to help you in peripheral ways. For example, if you know you tend to sleep through your alarm clock, ask a reliable member of your support group to call you to make sure you’re awake.

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