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Overcoming Test-Taking Anxiety in Graduate School: Practical Strategies for Success

Don’t let test-taking anxiety hold you back in graduate school. This expert guide provides practical tips and strategies for reducing stress and achieving academic success. Keep reading to take the first step to exam excellence.

Author: Ellery Weil

Editor: Staff Editor

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A young man in a denim shirt, sitting at a library table, looks stressed with his hands on his temples and books open in front of him. shelves full of books are in the background.

Are you still struggling with test anxiety in graduate school? You are not alone. Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety that can plague students at all levels of their education, particularly as the stakes increase with age. Some level of nervousness before a test can be healthy and prompt you to study harder. But sometimes reasonable concern and the desire to do well on a test cross the line into test anxiety resulting in a physical bodily response before an exam.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have found no correlation between test anxiety and test performance in graduate students. That means your test anxiety isn’t necessarily a sign you haven’t studied enough–and it can become a distraction, even if it is one you can’t completely control. So how can you defeat test anxiety and approach test day well-studied, well-rested, and confident? Read on for advice on how to battle test anxiety in grad school.

Defeating Your Anxiety: Before, During & After

Test anxiety is the feeling, sometimes overwhelming, of fear and nervousness leading up to and on the day of a test. Students at all levels of education suffer from test anxiety. However, just because you struggle with test anxiety doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. Take a look at these strategies and remedies for defeating test anxiety at every stage of the testing process.

Before the Test

  • Give yourself plenty of time to study.Studying well in advance of test day, instead of saving everything for the last minute, prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and panicking as test day draws near.
  • Create a study plan (see below for our best tips). While it can seem challenging to study an entire semester’s worth of material for one test, a study plan helps you break the work you need to do into manageable parts.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before. Being well-rested can help you feel calmer and ensure that you don’t make careless errors on your test or rush through it out of exhaustion.
  • Eat a light meal and hydrate. Make sure you’re not going to be hungry or thirsty during the test. Avoid heavy meals though, as they might make you sluggish or sleepy.
  • Avoid too much caffeine, which can amplify anxiety symptoms. Morning coffee might be tasty, but it can cause your heart rate to increase and lead to other symptoms similar to anxiety, making it a bad idea for anxious test-takers.
  • Dress comfortably. Minimize distractions and discomfort during the test by wearing comfortable clothes that fit you well and make you feel good on test day.

During the Test

  • Close your eyes and take some deep, relaxing breaths. If you find yourself feeling anxious, take a moment to center yourself with a few deep breaths before you tackle the test material.
  • Focus on positive thoughts and affirmations. Remind yourself that you’ve got this. Self-doubt is never helpful, and affirming how hard you studied can motivate you.
  • Read through the instructions carefully so you can start to focus and turn your brain on. This is also a great way to ensure that you’re not rushing and are following all test instructions to the letter–which can help you avoid careless mistakes.
  • Stay focused on the task at hand. Try not to think about things you plan to do after the test or wish you’d done before. You’re here; all you can do is the work in front of you.
  • Answer what you know first. This can help calm you down and build your confidence for the harder parts of the test. Plus you’ll maximize points earned in the time allowed—and it might help you realize how much you already know before you tackle harder questions.
  • Take a break if needed. If you’re feeling too anxious to do your best work, it’s fine to take a break, spend a few minutes taking deep breaths, and get a drink of water if permitted. Then return to the test refreshed.

After the Test

  • Do something fun to help you relax.You did it! Now it’s time for a break. Hang out with friends or watch a favorite movie.
  • Reward yourself (in a healthy way). You deserve a treat. Being mindful of your budget and physical health, treating yourself to a favorite food or small just-for-fun purchase can be a great reward for a job well done.
  • Try not to dwell on the outcome. Your score is out of your hands now. Try not to think about it until you get the test back; fill your mind with other things instead if you need a distraction.
  • When you receive your test back, learn from your mistakes. Read over the test to see what you did right and where you went wrong. Use this information to adjust your study plan for future tests.
  • Don’t let a possible bad grade define you. You are more than one grade. Even if you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped, it’s only one test. You’re bigger than your test grades, so never let a bad grade harm your self-image.

Step-by-Step Test Prep

One of the best ways to avoid test anxiety is to have an effective study plan and stick to it. That way when test day arrives, even if you’re feeling a anxious you’ll know that you’ve done the work and are prepared. Remind yourself of that as you begin the test and see questions that you know the answers to. Crafting and implementing an effective study plan can take time, though, and shouldn’t be rushed. Here’s a step-by-step guide with tips for using your study plan, from the first day of class to test day:

Step 1: Take Excellent Notes

Before test days are even announced, begin preparing by taking excellent class notes. You’ll need to know what note-taking strategy works best for you—handwritten notes, typed pages, recorded class lectures (if permitted), or even setting up slides on different topics. Whatever your note-taking style, utilize it throughout your classes to create a good portfolio of study notes. You’ll have plenty of material to prepare with for test day.

Step 2: Create a Study Schedule

If you’ll pardon the pun, they say that cram doesn’t pay. To avoid last-minute cramming, which can lead to sloppy errors and missed opportunities for test prep and on test day, create a study schedule with plenty of time to prepare. Set aside small amounts of time leading up to test day to review materials, increasing time spent and intensity of prep as test day draws nearer.

Step 3: Find Out About the Exam

Knowledge is power, and that includes knowledge of the exam. If your professor offers office hours, either in-person or virtually, take advantage of the opportunity to ask any questions you may have about the test. Beyond that, see if you can speak to students who have taken this test before to ask for advice or even (if your school’s academic integrity policy allows it) to get old copies of previous years’ exams.

Step 4: Create a Study Checklist

Not sure if you’re hitting all the right points when you study? Create a study checklist to make sure you’re preparing your study plan properly and following it well. Your study checklist can include each individual unit you need to review, practice tests, and meetings with your study partners to go over everything before test day. Follow your checklist as you go through your study process.

Step 5: Attend a Study Session

If your professor is hosting study sessions, Q&As before exam day, or review sessions, make sure you attend. These are great resources for you to take advantage of. However, if your professors and teaching assistants aren’t hosting anything like this, you can always plan your own. Contact your classmates well in advance and discuss getting a review group together to bounce ideas off each other and quiz each other on tricky questions before test day.

Step 6: Create Flashcards

Flashcards are a great way to review technical terms, key concepts, and other important aspects of your class material. Make your own, either physically with index cards or using an app or website. Making them is a good review technique in and of itself, then you can use them to quiz yourself or share them with friends for group review sessions. You may also ask friends to trade their flashcards with you for a different slant on prep materials.

Step 7: Take a Practice Test

They say practice makes perfect, right? Take a practice test if one is available, and review the answers to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. If you can’t find a practice test and your professor hasn’t prepared one, another good strategy is to write your own practice test questions and answer them. To get a more varied experience, write practice questions with a classmate and then swap off to answer each other’s questions.

Step 8: Study for the Unexpected

Review sessions and practice tests are great, but they can’t cover everything. Be sure to study ALL the materials from your semester, even if only briefly, rather than only studying the materials on the practice test or a review sheet. While these are good guides to use you never know if the exam will throw you a curveball, so don’t neglect course material just because it wasn’t on the practice sheets.

Test Day Tips to Raise Your Score

It’s here at last: test day. You may think that you’ve done everything possible to prep and it’s out of your hands on test day, but that’s not true. There are a variety of test-taking strategies that you can implement during the test itself to raise your score. Be sure to read the instructions carefully on the test and then, once you begin, use these strategies as your test-taking game plan:

Getting Started

  • Quick read through: Scan the test to get a feel for the content. You don’t have to read every single question, but flip through the entire test to see what you’re dealing with and what the test format is (multiple choice, essay questions, etc.).
  • Brain dump: Start with a quick brain dump of things you want to remember. There were likely a few key concepts and terms you knew you needed to focus on during your study sessions. Go over them in your head, possibly even making notes on scrap paper, to make sure that you don’t forget them now that you’re actually taking the test.
  • Make a game plan: Decide in what order you’ll tackle the exam, from easiest to most difficult. Maybe you’re a wizard at multiple choice questions but tend to get bogged down in the essay questions. Make a plan to finish the multiple choice questions first, to ensure you get around to them and to build your confidence, before hitting the tough stuff with the essay.

Tackle Questions by Type

  • For multiple choice: Try to eliminate incorrect answers first. Say there are five potential answers to a question. You’re not sure which one is correct, but you know three of them are wrong. Eliminating those three means that even if you have to guess between the remaining two, your odds are 50/50–much better than one in five.
  • For essay questions: Start with an outline so you have a guide for what you want to cover. This can be a very simple outline, but map out an introduction, points to cover, and your conclusion. This helps you get started without being overwhelmed.
  • For true/false questions: Look for language meant to confuse you. Double-negatives, technical terms, and other tricky language techniques can be used to throw you off. This is where confidence and patience are key. Be sure to read each question carefully before answering to avoid falling into a trap.

Before You Turn in Your Exam

  • Keep an eye on your time: Watch the clock to make sure you’re working at a good pace. If you’re in danger of falling behind because you’ve spent too much time on a single question, consider moving on for now. That way, you can finish as much of the test as possible and increase your overall score before going back to the question you were struggling with.
  • Do a final review: Use any remaining time to review your test before you submit it. Mistakes happen—but until you’ve submitted the test, you have an opportunity to fix them. Look for both incorrect answers and simple errors in spelling, grammar, etc., before you submit the test.

After the Test: Learn from Your Mistakes…and Move Forward

Once you’ve taken the test and received your grade, you might be feeling a mix of emotions–happiness, disappointment, relief, even confusion. However, don’t just file away your score and call it a day. Every test you take is an opportunity to learn, not only about the material but also about yourself. Here are some ways to learn from your test experience to help you moving forward:

Reflect on How You Did

What went well, what didn’t, and what will you do differently next time?

Are you happy with your score? Sad? Feeling mixed emotions? Take some time to examine your feelings, then review the test to see what you did well and where you need improvement. Remember, looking back at the positives is just as important as looking at the negatives. If one of your test-prep strategies was successful, it’s important to take note of that so you can continue to use it moving forward toward the next test.

Review Questions you Missed

When you receive your test back, review what you missed and take note of the correct answers.

Go over any missed answers, and ask yourself a few questions: Why did you miss these particular questions? Did you misunderstand a concept, forget a specific data point, or make a careless error? Depending on the answer to this question, your strategy moving forward will be different and could involve taking more time on the next test, using different review techniques, or following a more precise study plan.

Attend Test Review Sessions

Some professors offer extra credit or a grade bump for attending these sessions.

If your professors offer extra credit or higher grades for attending a post-exam review, going to a session is a no-brainer. But even if that’s not the case, attending a review session can still be worthwhile. Not only will you get an expert overview of the questions you missed, but you’ll also have a chance to ask questions, receive clarification on any concepts you struggled with, and learn strategies for the next test.

Ask Questions

Connecting with your professor and getting clarification on anything you missed can be helpful in better understanding the content moving forward or for the next exam.

If you struggled to understand a particular course concept or found the instructions on the test itself to be confusing or misleading, reach out to your professor. They’re there to make sure you’re learning and can help address anything you might be struggling with. Even more, most have years of experience with all different types of students and can help you develop strategies to move forward for the next exam.

Create a Plan for Improvement

How will you avoid a poor performance on the next test?

Even if you didn’t do as well as you wanted on this test, it’s not the end of the world. One thing that can help is a plan for next time. Depending on what areas of the test you struggled with and why, you can craft a plan to address your specific study needs and have that plan in place well before the next test comes around. Remember, anyone can improve and you’re more than your mistakes on test day.

20 Test Anxiety & Test-Taking Resources for Grad Students

Looking to manage your study plan and combat any test anxiety you might be feeling? Luckily, you’re not alone. From study planning to anxiety relief to wellness, the internet is full of advice to help you manage test anxiety and study effectively. Here are some resources to get you started:

  • BetterHelp: Get online, text-based therapy with licensed therapists if you’re struggling with test anxiety or general anxiety.
  • Calendly: This popular scheduling app is great for setting your study schedule and avoiding last-minute panic leading up to test day.
  • Cram: For those who study best with flashcards, cram.com gives you the tools to create, share, search for, and study from online flashcards across a wide range of subjects.
  • GetRevising: A project from the UK-based Student Room, GetRevising provides resources to help you create study guides, review practice papers, set study schedules, and more.
  • The GradCafe Forums: For students looking to commiserate and share strategies with fellow grad students, the GradCafe Forums offer a chance to reach out to fellow grad students, wherever you may be.
  • GradPrep: This site offers test-prep services, practice tests, and more, including grad-school-specific resources. Free trials are available.
  • iStudiez Pro: A dedicated planner app just for students, iStudiez Pro allows you to enter your class schedule, contact information, and more to stay organized throughout the academic year.
  • Kahoot!: Creating and sharing practice quizzes and presentations with Kahoot! is a great way to collaborate with your study group, even if you can’t physically meet together.
  • Kaplan Grad Prep: Popular test-prep provider Kaplan offers grad-specific test prep, including for grad school admissions exams like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT.
  • Marinaratimer: Ever heard of the Pomodoro method of time management? It’s a technique that helps you take regular breaks to improve focus. Marinaratimer can help you follow the Pomodoro technique or create your own customizable timer for studying.
  • Mindomo: Mindomo is an affordable online service that allows you to create mind maps to learn new concepts and study new ideas more effectively.
  • Mindshift CBT: This free-to-use antianxiety app from the Anxiety Canada Association uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you manage anxiety when it strikes.
  • MyStudyLife: This collaborative app connects students, lecturers, and tutors to track and manage all aspects of your studies and reduce stress come exam time.
  • Quizlet: With this flashcard resource you can make, share, and study from flashcards. Since it’s an app you can use it on your phone wherever you go.
  • ReachOut Breathe: Another anti-anxiety app, ReachOut Breathe uses guided meditation and breathing exercises to calm you down and center you after anxiety strikes.
  • Self-Help App for the Mind (SAM): Not only does SAM provide users with a variety of in-the-moment and long-term techniques and advice for anxiety management, it also includes features to track and monitor your stressors and any changes you experience.
  • SparkNotes: An oldie but goodie, SparkNotes provides easy-to-understand summaries and study guides across a wide variety of academic subjects at many different levels to help get you through the basics.
  • Straight A Nursing: Geared toward nursing students, this site, blog, and podcast offer a variety of resources for all students, including scientifically backed advice for test anxiety.
  • This Is Grad School: A podcast by and for grad students, This Is Grad School covers all aspects of grad student life, from grades to relationships, to help you feel less alone.
  • Todoist: A project-planning app used by students and professionals alike, Todoist helps you create and follow an itemized to-do list leading up to test day.

Interview with a Test-Taking Expert

AnnaMelissaRomualdez

A lecturer in psychology at University College London, Anna Melissa Romualdez, PhD, is a leading expert in autism and has a background as a social worker. She currently supervises master’s students in psychology and is aware of how test anxiety affects students of many different backgrounds across all educational levels. We asked her a few questions about how to manage test anxiety in grad school.

Q. What are some effective strategies for managing test-taking anxiety in graduate school?

A: I think preparation is key, but I don’t just mean studying the material. Mental preparation is also important. If you know when the test is going to be and more or less what’s going to be covered, you can plan ahead so that you know when you should start studying, what that’s going to look like, and how much time you need to get ready for the exam. Reducing anxiety is often tied to reducing unpredictability—so pay attention to any information from your professor about what’s going to be on the test and what kind of questions will be asked. Of course there’s no way to eliminate that element of unpredictability completely, but I’ve often found that anxiety is greatly reduced when I feel more prepared.

Q. How can graduate students effectively prepare for exams without feeling overwhelmed or stressed out?

A: Time management is obviously one of the big strategies here. Cramming for an exam is never a good idea—even if you think your brain takes in more information that way and it’s a technique that works for you. On some level, it will always affect your energy and your stress levels. Planning ahead, which is related to time management, can be helpful. When I was a student, I also made sure I was caught up with all the reading and coursework every week. That meant that when it came time to prepare for exams, I was already familiar with the material and just had to review it rather than learning it for the first time.

Q. What are some common mistakes that graduate students make when taking exams, and how can they avoid them?

A: I’ve mentioned cramming—waiting until the last minute to prepare for an exam and then frantically trying to take it all in the night before, for example. This rarely leads to you performing your best. Keep up with your reading and coursework throughout the semester and you won’t need to do this. I think some students also try to memorize absolutely everything word for word in the textbook or reading materials, which may work for some, but not all. A better way to study is to outline the most important parts (for each unit, section, chapter, whatever) and know a bit about each so that when it comes to the exam you’re at least familiar with the key concepts.

Q. What types of study materials or resources are most helpful for graduate students preparing for exams?

A: It depends on the student. Some respond really well to the more traditional textbook reading, but others are more visual and auditory learners. Resources that go beyond words on a page can be so engaging and memorable. There is a lot of great content online that explains certain concepts in an accessible, appealing way. YouTube videos and podcasts can be so educational. And if that’s the way your brain takes in information best, then go for it!

Q. What are some tips for improving memory retention and recall when preparing for exams?

A: Related to the above, find out how your brain works best and use that. When I was a student, for example, I found that writing all of the information that I wanted to remember on pages and pages of a yellow notepad helped me to access it in my memory better. I was a student who pictured exactly how my notes looked on the page in order to remember information during an exam. Clearly, I was and still am a visual thinker. But not everyone is! If you learn best by hearing the information, you might want to try recording voice notes and playing them back to help you study. Another big tip is repetition. Remembering something is like using your muscle memory. If you’ve heard or read or seen it multiple times, it’s more likely you’ll remember it.

Q. How can graduate students effectively balance the demands of studying for exams with other responsibilities and obligations?

A: This can look different for everybody. One student may have much more on their plate than another. A personal calendar or schedule, especially one that’s broken down by week, can be really helpful. On Sunday night, for example, you can sit down and plan out your week, down to what you will do in the morning, afternoon, and evening of each day. Know what you need to accomplish each day and each week, and then stick to it! As an academic, I use this breaking-down technique all the time. It has really reduced my anxiety about having way too much to do and not enough time to do it all.

Q. What are some specific techniques or tools that graduate students can use to boost their confidence and overcome test-taking anxiety?

A: Confidence comes from believing that you know the material well and that you have done everything you can to prepare. This can’t be accomplished in a day or in a week leading up to the exam. Putting in the time to study throughout the semester and familiarizing yourself with the material—by reading, doing the work, listening in class, and taking good notes—is the only way to make yourself truly confident in your knowledge. The anxiety about test-taking will naturally lessen when you do this.

Q. What are some best practices for test-taking itself, such as time management, question prioritization, and guesswork?

A: All of the practices mentioned above I would consider “best practices.” But I also think addressing your mental state is important to help you stay calm and make sure your brain is at its best during an exam. Practicing mindfulness is something students may not have thought of, but it really helps when you feel yourself getting anxious or panicky during an exam. A few minutes of mindfulness meditation every morning can really help with this!