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By Eric Lynne


It’s a stressful time of year — especially for many of our juniors who are preparing for the ACT. Even for our students not taking the ACT, this time of the year can be tough for students. Most are in the thick of their second semester, meaning tests are happening more regularly than at the beginning of the term. February and March (especially in Wisconsin) can seem particularly stressful for students as they work toward the relief of a rejuvenating spring break. 

So — just in time! — here are three ways students can help manage that test stress.

  1. Plan and Prepare

Simply put, feeling prepared on test day can relieve a lot of that test anxiety. For our students who have been preparing dutifully for the ACT or SAT at Galin Education, they should be able to unload some of that stress knowing that they have put in the time and energy to do their best on test day. In addition to their months of preparation, they may also find it stress-reducing to put together a test-day plan. A few days in advance, students should figure out when they will go to bed the night before, when they’ll get up, what they’ll have for breakfast, when they’ll leave the house, and what they’ll make sure to take with them on test day (click here to see out what the ACT suggests). Having this plan in place will help you feel rested and ready to perform your best.

For other tests, I often have students work through a process called TRUDGE (which I have discussed more thoroughly in this previous blog). Essentially, this template of questions asks students to define the task at hand, list the resources available to them, decide how they will use these resources, estimate the amount of study time they have to work with, and finally build a plan within that framework. Trudging through the TRUDGE process is a good way to make sure you are putting together a comprehensive plan for test day.

But all of the planning in the world won’t help unless students follow through with the plan. For students, this likely means allotting a little bit of extra time toward school leading up to big tests. For parents, this means supporting these students in ways that help them stick to the plan.

  1. Focus Exercises

Whether students have prepared their best or not at all, anxiety on test day can still be a problem. For students dealing with that type of anxiety, there are some simple exercises students can do to help curb these nerves. You’ve probably heard of many such exercises and might have a few of your own to share with your students. Here are two of our favorites:

Create a Script for Test Day: Mental rehearsal is the process of using creative visualization to imagine positive outcomes. Athletes use this technique in a variety of ways, from visualizing the ball going swish before shooting a single freethrow, to mentally playing out each and every shot through 18 holes of golf before stepping up to the first tee. In preparation for an academic test, we suggest using the same technique to make a script for test day — that is, imagining a great test day before test day actually arrives. Using positive imagery and helpful reminders throughout, write out or imagine a perfect test day, including details such as what you’ll think about on your route to the testing site, how you’ll move through each section or problem of the test, and what you’ll do after the test is done and you’ve done a great job. Repeat this visualization multiple times leading up to test day to replace those feelings of dread with positive associations.

Breathing Exercises: Scour the internet, and you’ll find loads of controlled breathing exercises to help your body calm your nerves. My personal problem with some of them is that they require large movements — spreading your arms over your head, stretching and holding elaborate poses, etc. Therefore, my personal favorite that I share with my students is a very simple and rather inconspicuous breathing technique. Place your hand palm down on the desk or table in front of you in a relaxed manner. As you take in a deep breath, apply increasing pressure with your thumb to match. Once you are ready to breath out, release your breath and the pressure in your thumb. Repeat the same action with each finger, focusing just on your breath and the pressure in your fingers. 

These are simple exercises that can help you keep yourself focused and feeling positive on test day.

  1. Challenge and Change Your Mindset About Stress

Stress has a bad reputation, but it doesn’t have to be all bad. To prove my point, I cannot recommend enough Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk titled “How to make stress your friend.” Whether you are stressed about tests or anything else, I’ve found this TED Talk both interesting and encouraging; and it’s one I return to quite frequently when I’m feeling stressed.

The main point of the TED Talk is this: when feeling stressed mentally, your body responds physically—and you have the power to control this response. As Kelly McGonigal explains, “When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” If you see your stress as a negative agent, it can hinder your performance. But if you see your stress as a helpful agent — that is, a set of biological processes and chemical reactions that are preparing you for the challenge ahead — your body “actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”

So if students are feeling a bit stressed for a test, it’s not only normal, it can actually be beneficial! To fully understand McGonigal’s research behind this idea, please watch the entire TED Talk. Again, I cannot recommend it enough.

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