It's normal to feel anxious before a test. In fact, it's even desirable--a moderate amount of anxiety enhances your performance. If you didn't have some anxiety about your academic work, you might not be motivated to study or even show up for your exams. As your anxiety increases, you become more focused and more productive--to a point. When your anxiety moves beyond the optimal level, you start to get diminishing returns. In other words, at higher levels, your anxiety no longer helps you--it hinders you--perhaps resulting in the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. This is known as test anxiety. Contrary to what you may think, the goal of addressing test anxiety is not to eradicate anxiety altogether but to reduce it to a manageable level so it's working for you rather than against you.
There are three main components to test anxiety: (1) worry, (2) physiological arousal, and (3) a preoccupation with the worry and physiological arousal. For example, during a test, you may become so consumed with thoughts of failing out of school and so focused on how fast your heart is beating that you have no mental energy left to tackle the exam itself. Interestingly, studies have shown that it is not anxiety per se that gets in the way of your test performance, it is the preoccupation with the anxiety--the worry and the physiological arousal--that is so detrimental.
Test anxiety usually develops through one of two pathways. It may be caused by an actual skills deficit. If you were able to coast through high school without having to study, you may find yourself lacking the study habits and skills necessary to succeed in college. Poor performance on one test can lead to anxiety, which then worsens with each successive low grade-- the more anxious you become, the worse you perform, and the worse you perform, the more anxious you become. With the second type of test anxiety, you have the requisite skills and habits necessary to succeed but your anxiety becomes so high that you "blank out" and are unable to adequately demonstrate your knowledge. As with the first type of test anxiety, it tends to become exacerbated with each successive negative experience.
What You Can Do About It:
Daily Note Review: Review your notes after each class. Highlight anything you don't understand and ask the professor for clarification at the next class. If you keep up with the material, then you won't have to cram when it comes time for the test.
Study Strategies: 1) Use active versus passive study methods. Don't just read and reread the texts or your notes. Instead, pretend that you are the professor and generate your own exam questions or practice explaining the material to others. The deeper your level of understanding of the material, the more impervious to test anxiety it will be. 2) Start studying for a test early enough that you don't have to pull an all-nighter. Regular sleep improves memory and performance.
Challenge Anxious Thoughts: Use self-talk to bring your anxiety down to an optimal level. Keep the magnitude of the test in perspective. Even with high-stakes tests such as the MCAT or LSAT, there are always more important things in life than the results of one test.
Test Day Routine: Establish a test day routine and follow it. Make sure to eat a good meal and avoid excessive caffeine use.
Mindfulness: Accept that you are going to feel anxious during a test. If you tell yourself that you can't perform well when you are anxious, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Try to co-exist with the anxiety--realize that you can feel anxious and still perform well. Rather than focus on your internal experiences--that is, your thoughts and physical reactions--focus on the exam material in front of you.
Write About It: A recent study showed that students who wrote about their test anxiety 10 minutes prior to the exam, performed better. Give it a try!
Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing: Shallow or chest breathing tends to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and exacerbate anxiety. To counteract your anxiety, use deep abdominal breathing to stimulate the relaxation response.
Test-Taking Strategies: Learn good test-taking strategies. Don't get stuck on a question that you can't answer--move on and come back to it later. The goal is to use your time wisely without becoming overly focused on the clock. Time pressure is often the biggest culprit in test anxiety. If you had unlimited time on an exam, your anxiety would eventually dissipate and you would eventually be able to complete the exam successfully. If your anxiety gets too high, take a short break and engage in some deep breathing to bring down your anxiety level.