Thomas Broderick

Test Anxiety on the ACT or SAT

It’s Saturday morning and you’re not in bed, playing video games, or even working an early shift at your part-time job. Instead, you’re sitting at a desk. Your 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 what test day looks like for students with test anxiety on the ACT or SAT.

If this describes your experience with standardized tests, know that a lot of students are in the same boat. Even better, there are some things you can do right now to decrease your test anxiety on the ACT or SAT.

A visual approximation of your test proctor.
This shouldn’t be what you think of when envisioning your test proctor.

What is Text Anxiety?

Do any of the following statements sound like something you’d say?

  • “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!”

Sound familiar? You may have test anxiety. And that’s okay. The tips and tricks we’ll look at will help you master your test anxiety on the ACT or SAT, no matter what your previous experiences or fears are.

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

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 invading hordes when he wrote the above quote 2,500 years ago, his strategy will also help you beat test anxiety. Let’s break it down.

Know the Enemy

The unknown is always scarier than the known. In terms of test anxiety, this means that a little information can go a long way to defeating your nerves. So what do you know about the ACT or SAT? Here are a few good sources to get you started:

Beyond learning the basic information, practice will also prove invaluable to helping you lower your anxiety. 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 to 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 the time a practice exam takes a thousand times over.

Know Yourself

So you’ve mastered the test content and you’re still nervous? 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, and may even increase your anxiety.
  • 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, though. You don’t want to get sick, and coming off a sugar rush will kill your energy level halfway through the test. Think protein.
  • 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. Inhaling and exhaling to a count of four should help calm you down.

Know That You Can Take It Again

Test anxiety on the ACT or SAT might affect your performance on your exam the first time you take it. That’s okay. It happens. Learn from what went wrong, and sign up to take the test again.

I always advise that students take the exam again. No matter what, you’ll feel more confident, more sure the second time you approach 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 are for after high school.

Good luck, everyone! Remember, we’ve all been there—even the proctor at the front of the room.


  • 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.

More from Magoosh