Article Highlights

  • Taking tests are some of the most stressful events of the college experience
  • Why worrying about your test just makes it worse
  • Ways to relax and take the best test of your life

Taking tests, exams, and quizzes are some of the most stressful events of a person’s college experience.

Most of the time, tests and exams carry more weight toward the successful outcome of graduating from college than anything else.

As a result of this importance, we frequently find ourselves getting stressed about quizzes, tests, and exams. We perceive it as an enormous threat the impact of possibly doing poorly.

Why We Perceive Tests as a Threat

Remember that the definition of stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat. The consequences of doing poorly are very threatening–at least we think they are.

Remember also, that when we feel threatened, the body’s fight-or-flight response turns on to help us escape from or fight something that could cause physical harm. The only problem is there is nothing that will physically harm us if we don’t do well on the test. But your body doesn’t realize you aren’t in physical danger, so it responds as if you were.

“The dumbest thing we can do, if we want to do well on a test, is to worry about it. Alternatively, the best thing we can do in order to do well on the test is to be as relaxed as possible.”

When we perceived stress, our higher order thinking tends to shut down. In other words, our ability to remember, process, and analyze important cognitive information is dramatically reduced when the stress response is activated. As stress goes up, the cognitive ability goes down.

Alternatively, the best thing we can do in order to do well on the test is to be as relaxed as possible. That’s easier said than done, you might be thinking. So here are some steps that will help you do better on your tests, and get yourself into a more relaxed state as you prepare for and take tests.

How to Prepare

First, it is vital that you prepare. This may seem obvious, but preparing means more than cramming as much information into your brain the night before the test or right before you go where you’re taking the test. Research on test preparation suggests that we are able to remember more if we study things on several occasions and then sleep on it.


Speaking of sleep, it is important that we feel rested when we take tests. When we are drowsy, our ability to recall important information decreases. It’s better to study earlier in the evening and then get a good night’s sleep than staying up all night trying to cram more information into your brain.

Exercise Your Body and Eat Well

Along with sleep, our minds work best when we follow the guidance that should be common knowledge to most of us: as frequently as possible, eat well and get an appropriate amount of regular exercise. There is some evidence suggesting that protein is brain food. In other words, if you want to maintain clear thinking, prior to the exam, eat a meal or two that is primarily protein. Most importantly, do not go into a test having recently eaten a really large meal.

Do Something Relaxing

One of the most valuable activities you can do just prior to taking a test is to do something that profoundly takes you out of the stress response. Fortunately, the activities and tools found on this website are specifically designed to do just that. Try this breathing exercise on the day of the test to reduce anxiety and nervousness.

When the mind and body are deeply relaxed, that is, not in the fight or flight mode, the mind moves into an optimum state for clear thinking. A deeply relaxed mind is the kind of one you want to have prior to and during the test.

Be Mindful

Finally, while you take the test, stay mindful. Keep your mind focused entirely on the question at hand. If the answer doesn’t immediately come to you, stay focused on the here and now. Don’t let your mind bring up thoughts of what might happen because you don’t know the answer–The bad outcomes. This will activate the stress response again.

Instead, when you don’t directly know the answer, skip to the next question. Later on, come back to the question and watch for the answer to pop into your mind. If it doesn’t this time, again, let go, and move on to other questions on the test.

If you come back to the question and still have no idea, give it your best guess. It is really important that you don’t let your mind bring up thoughts of bad outcomes–don’t bring up worst case scenarios of how bad things will be because you might miss a few points.

Keep Perspective

Missing answers to a question won’t result in devastating consequences. Things usually work out. Trust that this is how it will be for you, especially consequences, where you will encounter physical harm. Consider how many tests you have taken, and how many tests others have taken. And realize things usually turn out okay for us. So relax and enjoy your opportunity to work your mental muscles.