Test anxiety

Let’s Help Reduce Test Anxiety for Our Teens

Do you remember the feeling when you sat down for a standardized test? Maybe it was the SAT or ACT (likely influenced by where you lived). Perhaps it was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. They were the first to computerize scoring, and those little ovals were born in 1958. (For an interesting timeline of standardized testing in the US, click here.)

Regardless of the brand of exam, your teenage heart probably beat faster, and you were glad when the whole experience was over. And luckily, you probably took the test just once. Remember that?! Well, we all know things are very different today, and there is a whole service industry to help students with test prep and get the highest score possible.

Is test prep a good thing? For most students, having support systems in place to help them achieve the best score they can is valuable. Test prep can come in many different forms ranging from free to very expensive, from in-person engagement to online workbooks, and from self-paced to one-on-one with a professional tutor. Before selecting an option, we urge you to consider the value.

What about reducing the pressure?

We are often contacted by parents who are searching for a solution to help their child with another element of preparing for SAT/ACT: test anxiety. They might have straight A’s in school. But put them in a timed situation, filling in those little ovals or working through a digital version for a few hours straight, and suddenly, their performance isn’t what it typically is with tests taken in school. Here are some potential solutions to consider.

Have an open and honest conversation with your teen.

Assuming there isn’t a diagnosed anxiety disorder, we recommend parents have an open, honest conversation about test anxiety and what might be the student’s underlying concerns. For example, fear of failure, pressure due to the time limit, not performing as well as family and teachers expect, and competition with peers might be at the root of the anxiety. Encourage them to verbalize what they are thinking and feeling. Listen and validate what your student says before jumping in with possible solutions. Also, please remind your child that a test score does not define a student.

Find a tutor who can offer proven strategies to help.

Your student will likely benefit from one-on-one tutoring rather than a class or workshop so the tutor can learn what your student is experiencing and offer solutions that meet their specific needs. Support your student as they learn new skills and practice strategies to help them prepare for tests between tutoring sessions. Today, families have many options for test preparation. Consider them all carefully.

Apply test optional.

What does it mean to apply test optional? More than ever before, colleges accept admissions applications without any test scores. The college’s “holistic review” will certainly focus on the types of courses taken in high school (and the grades earned). In addition, they may consider a student’s activities and leadership roles outside school, any recommendation letters, essays, class rank, and other factors. A student is not considered less qualified solely for not submitting a test score.

Today, more than 2,000 colleges and universities are test optional or test free. Take a moment to share that with your teen. 2,000 colleges! Just having that knowledge may be enough to alleviate some of the pressure they are putting on themselves and the stress they feel.

However, keep in mind this caveat.

Be sure to do your homework. Some colleges are test optional but “prefer” to receive a score if you have one. Scores may be needed for certain majors or for some scholarships. Do a little research about the college. Many will talk about their test optional philosophy on their website or during campus visits.

Plus, the testing landscape can change at any time. Tests scores have been shown to have some correlation to success in college–especially in highly selective schools. They provide admissions professionals with a data point when reviewing applicants.

We have a few more suggestions to help.

First, parents and students should watch our ACT/SAT/PSAT: The Ultimate Family Planning Guide webinar together. Nothing banishes fear quite as well as knowledge. Our 90-minute webinar will introduce you and your student to what you need to know about testing. Also, check out our testing information page for all the upcoming dates and much more.

Start early. You don’t have to wait until junior year to get started. When you do that, the time between testing and filling out college applications is condensed. Since feelings of not being adequately prepared can fuel anxiety, creating a test prep strategy early can be critically helpful.

We recommend taking both the ACT and the SAT one time early in high school to see which the student prefers. Sit for the exam with absolutely no pressure and no expectations. Think of the score for this sitting as a throw-away. When it comes time to apply to college, you can choose which score you provide (if any).

Be sure to follow self-care tips that help in all anxious situations like getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious breakfast, having a positive attitude (as much as possible), and practicing relaxation techniques.

Consult your child’s physician or a mental health professional to develop a plan to manage the anxiety, if necessary.

Test anxiety is common, and students can experience it with any kind of exam. When the stakes are high, such as an Advanced Placement test or SAT/ACT, anxiety often increases and impacts a student’s performance. For college-bound students, they’ll soon experience college tests and finals. Incorporating strategies that can help, knowing the options, and seeking assistance from professionals can serve many students well at this time in their life.

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