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Thomas Broderick

Test Anxiety on the ACT or SAT

It’s Saturday morning and no, you’re not in bed, playing video games or even working an early shift at your part time job. You’re sitting in a desk at your high school. You’re heart’s pounding, hands sweating profusely, and the only sound is the ticking clock on the wall. A sense of dread falls over you as a bored-looking adult at the front of the room says “You may begin.” No, this isn’t a nightmare, it’s ACT (or SAT) day!

A visual approximation of your test proctor.

A visual approximation of your test proctor.


What is Text Anxiety?

In my teaching career, I’ve come across many students who suffered from test anxiety on the ACT/SAT. Here are a few of their reasons:

  • “I need a good score to get a scholarship!”
  • “I’m not a good test taker!”
  • “I’m stressed out because I didn’t get enough sleep last night!”
  • “I forgot to eat this morning!”
  • “The college I want to go to won’t take me unless I get a good score!”
  • “I don’t do well on timed tests!”
  • “Being around all these people stresses me out!”

Any of these sound familiar? Maybe your reasons are different. That’s okay. The tips and tricks provided in this article are a universal remedy no matter what high-stakes tests await you in the future.

Defeating Test Anxiety

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu knew what he was talking about. Though he might have been thinking of the Mongol hordes when he wrote the above quote 2,500 years ago, his strategy will help you beat test anxiety. Let’s break it down.

Know the Enemy

What do you know about the ACT or SAT? Here’s a few good sources to get you started:

Beyond learning the basic information, you need to practice. That’s right, it’s time to bust out the practice tests.

No matter how many weeks or days you have between now and test day, set aside time where you can take practice tests under timed conditions. Not only will you discover your strengths and weaknesses, you will become more accustomed to testing under pressure. That skill alone is worth a thousand practice tests.

Know Yourself

Unfortunately, I am not a licensed medical professional, and cannot diagnose the reasons for your anxiety. Considering my experience as an educator, though, here are a few things you can do to make sure your anxiety is low as possible on test day.

  • Don’t change your routine the night before the test. Cramming at the last minute isn’t going to help.
  • Make a plan to do something fun after the test is over. Believe it or not, this will put you in a better state of mind during the test.
  • Make sure you have everything you need to take to the test site: photo ID, entry ticket, and/or calculator.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. I know, the idea of going to bed at 9PM on a Friday night doesn’t sound too appealing. Just trust me on this one.
  • Even if you don’t usually eat breakfast, eat breakfast on test day. Nothing too greasy or sugary, either. You don’t want to get sick, and coming off a sugar rush will kill your energy level halfway through the test.
  • Get to your test site early. Nothing amps up test anxiety more than the feeling you’ll be late.
  • As you’re waiting for the test to begin, focus on your breathing. In…out…in…out. It should help calm you down.


Know That You Can Take It Again

No matter how much you prepare, no matter how well you think you’ve got it, things might still go wrong on test day. ACT/SAT test anxiety, or any number of other things might affect your performance. That’s okay. It happens. Learn from what went wrong, and sign up to take the test again.

But here’s the thing, something I told students who performed well the first time they took the ACT or SAT: take it again. No matter what, you’ll feel more confident, more sure the second time you “go to war” with the ACT or SAT. The questions will be different, but the test is still the same. You’ll likely do better, and it’s worth it no matter your goals after high school.

Good luck everyone, and remember, we’ve all been there, even the proctor at the front of the room.

About Thomas Broderick

Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

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