4 Great Techniques for Handling Test-Day Stress

4 Great Techniques for Handling Test-Day Stress

The obvious part: The SAT/ACT is likely more important than any other test you’ve taken so far. The stakes—and the anxiety—can feel pretty high.

The not-as-obvious part: The score you will get can seem like a numerical representation of your self-worth—a number that labels you as intelligent and good enough, or not.


Higher stakes, and, understandably, higher anxiety. With so much pressure, it’s natural to start ruminating about the what-ifs.

What if I can’t concentrate?

What if I don’t remember what I studied??

What if my score is awful???

Wait a second. STOP. If we’re going to come up with hypotheticals about an imaginary future, we can certainly do better than that.

What if you concentrate better than usual?

What if you know all the answers??

What if your score is...really high???

The point is, anxiety exists only in your mind, which you have control over. Try some of these techniques to use that control to your advantage:

Technique #1

Along with the “what-ifs,” you have access to an infinite number of uplifting, empowering thoughts. For example, “I so got this,” “I prepared, and I know what I’m doing,” or  “I’m always more capable than I think.” Try a few out, notice how you feel, and pick your favorite. Then say it as often as you like.

Technique #2

Sometimes when the stress is high, it’s not enough to just say a mantra. Take the edge off by taking a few slow, deep breaths: breathe in to a count of four, hold for two, and breathe out to a count of six.

Technique #3

Then, acknowledge your anxiety. The more you fight it, the more it fights back by growing deeper and more intense. So instead of resisting, or trying to force calmness, just reinterpret how you’re feeling as excitement. Anxiety and excitement are both sympathetic nervous system reactions that don’t feel all that different from each other, so the shift is minor. Besides, aren’t you excited you get to go demonstrate your knowledge, and then be done!?

Technique #4

Visualization, or creating mental images of what you desire, is another powerful stress-relieving technique. Imagine walking out of that test room Saturday early afternoon, and feel the excitement—the relieving, proud, freeing feeling. Imagine seeing your test score for the first time and being shocked at how well you did. Yes!

Really, you can imagine anything at all that makes you feel good. Imagine being somewhere peaceful (the beach, the forest, outer space!) and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations.

Your imagination is limitless; try to bring it into your whole body. Think of a person, real or fictional, who inspires you, and embody their energy. Be this person as you navigate the day of your test.

Basically, be Elle Woods from Legally Blonde:

You got into Harvard Law? What, like it's hard?

Be an all-knowing teacher who’s answering all the questions effortlessly:

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Or just be you, exceeding your score goal. Sometimes, you just need to be (or pretend to be) confident, and the rest will follow.

The truth is, you do know a lot, you are prepared, and there are only four choices per question: A, B, C, and D. So go pick the right answer. What, like it’s hard?

A few other considerations to keep stress away.

  • Forgive yourself along the way.
    We tend to be so hard on ourselves for every little thing we think we could have done better. Maybe you couldn’t sleep as much as you wanted, maybe you spaced out momentarily during the test, or maybe you didn't manage stress the way you hoped. It’s OK.

  • Get to the test center early.
    Leave earlier than you think you have in order to leave time for traffic, getting lost, and taking deep breaths. Remember, getting there two hours early is better than getting there two minutes late.

  • Put the test into perspective.
    Worst case scenario, you don’t get the score you were hoping for. If there’s time, you can retake the test. In any case, wherever you go to college, you will get a good education, have a blast, and find out (if you haven’t already) that this one score does not represent your level of intelligence—or your self-worth.


Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.