August 30, 2019  |  Purdue Global

A recurring dream many people have, whether or not they’re in school, is a test-taking nightmare. You show up for class, find out it’s test day, and you haven’t studied at all. A common fear, test-taking frequently causes anxiety for college students. This article identifies common sources of stress; how to reduce test anxiety before, during, and after taking a test; and the effects of stress and anxiety.

Common Sources of Stress for College Students

When we understand where stress comes from, it’s easier to avoid those triggers—or to at least recognize what’s happening, so you can use stress-reduction tools and techniques.

Academic Sources of Stress

In an article titled “Examining Perceptions of Academic Stress and Its Sources Among University Students,” in the journal Health Psychology Open, the authors identified four factors that contribute to students’ stress:

  • Pressure to perform
  • Perceptions of workload and examinations (for example, being worried about failing tests)
  • Self-perceptions, including self-confidence, confidence in career success, and making the right academic path and career choice
  • Time restraints, including having enough time to complete assignments, spend in classrooms or virtual learning environments, and balance other responsibilities

Sound familiar? If it’s any comfort, you’re not alone. Next time you are in class, whether it’s on-campus or online, take note of how many people are with you. Your fellow students, instructors, faculty, and staff have all experienced the above four factors that contribute to stress, at different times and to varying degrees.

A bar graph that compares the percent of people who say they frequently experience stress in daily life and the percent who say they don't have enough time to do all they want. It starts in 2001 and ends in 2017. In 2017, almost 45% of respondents said they frequently experience stress.

Source: Gallup

CHALLENGE: Take a moment and list 5 to 10 things that are sources of stress for you right now. Be as specific as possible. For example, “If I fail this class, it will delay graduation,” or “I’m not ready to take this test.”

How many of the sources on your list are realistic fears, and how many are unfounded?

Realistic fears are rational fears. If you haven’t studied for a test, you aren’t ready for it. If you fail a test, you’ll have to work harder to pass a class. Realistic fears can be addressed by changing your behavior or your thinking. If you know you aren’t ready for a test, how can you rearrange your schedule, clear your calendar, and manage your time better so you can get ready?

Unfounded fears are that the stories we create in our mind that intensify our realistic fears. They sound like this, “My instructor doesn’t think I’m very smart,” or “I’m not as smart as I thought I was,” or “I’m never going to get a job.” These fears can be irrational, and they can be tough to quash.

When stress triggers related to test taking show up, you can:

  • Remember past successes.
  • Put the test into perspective: how does it fit into the whole of your academic career?
  • Use visualization exercises to picture yourself calmly taking and passing the test.
  • Get a good night's sleep before the test.
  • Reduce caffeine on the day of the test.

For additional tips on managing stress, read “The College Student's Guide to Stress Management.”

Non-Academic Sources of Stress

A graphic showing the five sources of non-academic stress. The sources and the percentages are listed in bullets below.

Several non-academic stressors may be a factor in test anxiety in college students as well. The American Psychological Association reported in their most recent “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation” that the most common sources of stress are:

  • The future of the country: 63%
  • Money: 62%
  • Work: 61%
  • The political climate: 57%
  • Violence and crime: 51%

A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that the people in the study who gave up Facebook for five days had lower cortisol levels and increased life satisfaction. Cortisol is your stress hormone; when you’re stressed, your cortisol levels are high. While this study was small (138 users) and limited to only Facebook, it has wider implications. It found a connection between information overload and stress.

CHALLENGE: Can you do it? Three to five days leading up to a big exam, silence your social media, news, and other information-overloaded channels and focus only on your studies.

The news is going to happen whether you worry about it or not. Try letting it go and focusing on what you can control: your studies.

How to Reduce Stress Before, During, and After Taking a Test

Before the Test

Prepare for your test by planning, scheduling, studying, and practicing.

  1. Plan: Create a study environment that allows you to focus on your studies undisturbed: remove distractions, use natural light (nature exposure is good for you!), and create a space that you enjoy for studies.
  2. Schedule: Time management can be a challenge for students and working adults. Many things demand our attention, and prioritizing tasks can be difficult. This article offers time management tips for college students, including blocking your day into time devoted to life, work, and classwork.
  3. Relax: One common technique for relaxation involves deep breathing, which is something you can do anywhere, any time. Take in a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale and feel stressors leaving your body. You’ll find other techniques for relaxation in our Health and Wellness Guide for Busy College Students.
  4. Study and practice: Don’t put studying off to the last minute; cramming adds to your levels of stress and anxiety.
  5. Prepare: On the day of the test, eat a good breakfast, dress comfortably, and set aside time for 15 minutes of physical activity, preferably in nature if weather permits. During this time, push away thoughts of test anxiety. Notice the birds, the colors of the trees, the freshness of the air.

During the Test

On test day, accept that you’ve done all you can to prepare, and you have to let go of what you don’t know.

If the test format allows it, answer all the questions you know first; then go back and work on the questions you feel less confident about.

Practice deep breathing, whether you’re in a classroom or taking a test online. Focus on positive statements such as, “This is only one test,” and “I know this material.” Create an imaginary bubble around your workspace, so you’re less apt to get distracted.

If you find yourself tensing up, do a head-to-toe body scan and relax your stress-holding muscles: relax your jaw, roll your shoulders and relax them, let go of tension in your spine, uncurl your toes, and shake out your hands. Smile, even if you have to force it.

After the Test

Congratulations. You’ve completed the test. Pat yourself on the back, but continue the techniques you learned in the previous section that pertain to redirecting and pushing away negative thoughts.

Remember this: One test won’t likely hurt, let alone ruin your academic career, so don’t sweat it. A study reported in the Journal of Education and Practice has an interesting finding that supports this theory. Nursing students with high test anxiety didn’t do as well as those who reported lower levels of test anxiety; however, there was little relationship between test anxiety and overall grade point average.

To manage your day-to-day stress and anxiety levels, you might try an app for stress management, such as:

  • Headspace
  • The Mindfulness App
  • Calm
  • Breathe

The apps are free and offer in-app purchases. Many of the free versions offer enough to get you started on a healthy meditation and relaxation practice. You might also review this list of 17 tech tools that help you boost productivity and manage time better.

Effects of Stress and Anxiety

The long-term effects of stress and anxiety can take a toll on your health, your relationships, and your overall well-being.

To learn how to deal with stress, take a page from your older, wiser, and more experienced relatives, mentors, and friends. AARP surveyed adults across multiple generations and found that the older we get, the better we are at handling life’s stresses.

This is relevant because we can learn from our older friends and relatives. The same AARP survey found that Baby Boomers’ top activities when they’re feeling stressed are:

  • Private prayer: 49%
  • Private meditation: 43%
  • Attend religious services: 19%
  • Walk for exercise: 19%
  • Surf the internet: 17%

The same AARP survey of younger generations found that younger generations were more likely than older generations to use negative coping mechanisms such as:

  • Sleep or nap: 40% of Millennials, 26% of Gen Xers, and only 20% of Boomers
  • Lose your cool: 36% of Millennials, 28% of Gen Xers, and 22% of Boomers
  • Eat comfort food: 39% of Millennials, 30% of Gen Xers, and 27% of Boomers
  • Drink alcohol: 18% of Millennials, 14% of Gen Xers, and 7% of Boomers
  • Abuse drugs: 6% of Millennials, 4% of Gen Xers, and 2% of Boomers
  • Smoke: 10% of Millennials, 6% of Gen Xers, and 5% of Boomers
A visual representation of the data above that shows how the different generations cope with stress.

The effects of stress and anxiety on our bodies and lives have been well-documented. The Mayo Clinic lists common effects of stress:
A table that shows the common effects of stress on the body, mood, and behavior. Effects on the body include: headaches, muscle tension and pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, gastric problems, and sleep problems. Mood effects include: anxiety, restlessness, feeling overwhelmed, irritability and anger, sadness and depression. Behavior effects include: poor nutrition, angry outbursts, smoking and substance abuse, social withdrawal, and decreased physical activity.

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

If your stress level is alarming and you aren’t able to self-regulate or reduce your symptoms, you might want to visit your doctor or the wellness clinic at your school or workplace. Visit to find resources in your community.

If one class in particular is causing anxiety, consider speaking to your instructor. Purdue Global has an entire department dedicated to academic support.

About the Author

Purdue Global

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