Test Anxiety is Real, Crippling and Treatable--An Interview

Published: Jan 06, 2011


Tests, if you think about how much time is actually spent taking them, have a disproportionately large role in the course of a life. How you perform during a few short hours hunched over a small desk in some strange building can have major consequences.  A good or bad score on an entrance exam can determine which school you go to. Which school you go to has a lot to do with which job you'll get, and so on. Law and business school applicants in particular. The GMAT, GRE or LSAT looms large as a decider of fates, and is maybe the least most-important thing for a certain group of aspiring professionals. There is plenty to be anxious about.  

Bara Sapir, a 19-year veteran of the test prep industry and former instructor for the Princeton Review, is the founder and executive director of Test Prep New York. She integrates what she calls holistic human potential techniques with traditional test prep methods, to help students who suffer from test anxiety increase their standardized test scores. She was kind enough to answer some questions on what test anxiety is, its causes, and the different ways to treat it.


What are the most common anxieties about standardized tests?

The way anxiety presents itself varies—it can be emotional, physical or psychological. Symptoms of anxiety range from slight jitters to full-blown blank-out, deer-in-headlights syndrome while taking a test. Other symptoms may indicate you might be suffering from test anxiety include:

  • • Difficulty getting started with studying
  • • Becoming easily distracted even after you have started
  • • Concerns that you will not do well regardless of your best efforts
  • • Symptoms such as lack of focus, sweaty palms, upset stomach, headaches and tension
  • • Difficulty concentrating, following instructions, or understanding test questions, remembering material and/or strategies after the test is over, but forgetting while taking the test


What are the main causes of test anxiety?

Test anxiety is real and measurable. There are many ways to understand the main causes.

From a behavioral perspective, anxiety can be learned from a prior negative experience. For example, if you have done poorly on tests in the past, you may be anxious and hesitant about taking a test in the future. You might even avoid or resist tests at all costs, and when you're forced to take them, you feel your behavior shift and change to create opportunities to avoid going through the experience again—usually physical manifestations of anxiety such as feeling sick before an exam.

The idea of repetitive behavioral responses to stimuli was exemplified in B.F. Skinner’s famous 'pigeon and superstition' experiments. Skinner placed hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as the food was delivered -- for example, lifting a wing or a leg. He was able to deduce that the pigeons mistook their associated movements for a technique to ensure that they received food. Likewise, if a student feels anxiety going into an exam, but yet he or she still performs well, the student will assume (on some level) that anxiety contributed to the good performance. This motivates the student to become more anxious before the next test, and so on.

From a psychoanalytic view, anxiety may result from the conflict between your unconscious desires and the expectations others place on you—for example, anxiety would be felt by someone who doesn't fully want to go to law school, but feels the pressure and expectation to do so, anyway.  They might rebel against studying or manifest any of the aforementioned symptoms of test anxiety.

Is test anxiety a kind of performance anxiety, a fear of the big day, the big test which will cast you in one fateful direction or another?   

Test anxiety is a worry and dread about test performance, which can be triggered by "the big day." The importance one places on the test (which may or may not be a high-stakes test) can create proportionate test anxiety, but the trigger to anxiety is usually performance and/or judgment on the test itself.

How detrimental to your potential test score are anxiety, lack of concentration, etc?

At Test Prep New York, we’ve seen clients with test anxiety whose scores improved 30 percent when they addressed their anxiety issues. The hard-science research indicates a student’s score can be compromised anywhere from 12 to 35 percent as a result of test anxiety. This means the difference between a disappointing score and a solid, high score.

Couldn't test anxiety be a good thing, before the test, for instance, because it tells you that you aren't prepared? How do you keep a specific test-related anxiety from developing into a generalized anxiety?

Anxiety could indicate that you know you aren't ready for the test—but that is not all it indicates. It can be larger than that. Anxiety indicates that something about the test is making you have fear. Is it fear of being judged? Is it fear of not performing to one's potential? Or is it just an old fear of test-taking recycled into this new experience?

The "easy" answer for how to prevent specific test-related anxiety from getting worse and/or developing into a more serious expression of anxiety that can be triggered by a specific event, or into a generalized anxiety, is to confront it. We usually advise behavior modification therapy. This includes, but is not limited to, hypnosis, guided visualization, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), Sound Therapy, Reiki, and a host of other methods. Some of the methods that TPNY offers are short-term, but we also offer lifestyle-based methods (meditation, prayer and yoga), depending on the client’s needs. Other anxiety relief methods are very long term, such as psychotherapeutic work.

Why can't I just take anti-anxiety meds for a brief period before the test and stop after I take it? Isn't a short-sighted, short-term solution better than failing the test?

Medication does not prevent a student from failing. Test Prep New York provides holistic solutions that give our clients the ability to achieve a true sense of confidence. Medication creates a false sense of confidence and may also lead to harmful side effects—you are, in fact, artificially changing your brain chemistry. Medication can also slow down the recall process which is a critical detriment to test taking, while our methods enhance recall ability. TPNY’s solutions are long lasting and empowering. We provide the best alternative to anti-anxiety medication; tools and techniques to modify behavior and calm the mind naturally. Lasting life style changes and continued relief from anxiety are the results that TPNY’s programs offer. Popping a pill before the test could never do that.  We discourage the use of medication to solve a problem that can be easily solved holistically and naturally. This is important because when you don't address the stimulus or behavior associated with the anxiety, it will likely return unless there are real behavioral changes.

Ultimately, the anxious test taker has experienced their anxiety before; and our programs help identify what works best for them.

Say I've never finished a timed essay-writing section in my entire life and I'm certain I won't on test day. I'm worried that I'll be consumed by anxiety about this before, during and after the actual section. How would you advise me?

First, we all attract and create our own reality. The more you're worried about being 'consumed' by anxiety, the more likely you'll create that as a part of your reality. Once we find out what 'form' your anxiety takes—is it something you obsess about, or is it something you're merely worried about, etc.—we find ways to create an alternative and believable scenario. The inquiry might involve unpacking and understanding why you didn't finish these timed sections in the past (was it how you did the writing, was it not being prepared, etc.) and then identifying a better behavior to achieve your end result – through practicing writing essays and becoming accustomed to the timing you're dealing with to shifting your mindset. The goal is to defuse the situation by imagining that things can be different, and to create a new reality that is believable and achievable.   In the lingo of integrated coaching, we might do time-line therapy, hypnosis, reframing, guided visualization, etc.

Many coaches, experts and doctors promote visualization techniques: visualize yourself achieving your goal along with the desired feelings and emotions that come from accomplishing those goals. Do you suggest these kinds of techniques for test takers, too? Visualizing success on a test is not as easy as seeing yourself sink a free throw or cross a finish line.

This is an absolutely effective way of helping to achieve your goal; even Olympian Sean White does it!  It is as easy as seeing yourself performing a physical feat. The mind cannot always tell the difference between things imagined and things that are real. So, imagining taking the test, performing your best, and receiving the score is a great start to manifest peak performance. But that is not all, and there are many effective ways to create an optimal mindset. TPNY creates solutions for each student depending on his/her unique needs.

Can you give a brief example of a technique you use in coaching test-takers?

A moment ago we talked about visualization. A technique used in conjunction with this is called anchoring. An anchor is a triggering experience that reminds us of something. For example, a tune might remind us of a place, person or event; a touch or smell can bring back a memory or a past state of being. Anchors work automatically and you might not even be aware of what the triggers are.

With a client, TPNY creates an anchor by producing a stimulus that calls forth a desired state of mind, both through thoughts and emotions. For example, we can condition the touching of the middle finger to the thumb to elicit a feeling of calm control.  We first access the desired state (resource state) then pair it to the anchor. Once this anchor is established, we would activate the anchor so that the resourceful state occurs—in this case, generating a feeling of calm control.

Test Prep New York sees many clients who don't suffer from anxiety, but who find nevertheless that a method such as anchoring helps give them an edge in taking a test. Our expert tutors are trained to promote positive reinforcement and identify unhelpful and debilitating symptoms in students who need to work on their mindset beyond mastery of content and strategy.

 Most people have some anxiety when it comes to tests.  How can someone tell if they have an abnormal amount of anxiety? What is an abnormal amount of anxiety?

Anxiety and excitement feel very similar. These emotions produce, in small amounts, a feeling of increased energy, confidence, focus and commitment. A moderate amount of this feeling is normal prior to a test and can actually enhance performance. However, to consistently reach that very beneficial anxiety level is very difficult— because too little and you won't feel it, and too much will limit one's ability to function normally on the test. Rather than label a client's anxiety as "abnormal," we provide techniques to identify any emotion that is not beneficial or helpful. We coach them to transform any level of dread, regret, low self-esteem, worry, nervousness or feeling of diminished performance due to the negative feelings or anxiety, into the best emotive mindsets, such as feeling of being optimistic, focused, and ready to tackle the test.      


About TPNY:

The only test prep company to fuse academic and test preparation training with mental enhancement techniques to optimize test-taking potential. TPNY features an impressive track record of students exceeding their target scores and a reputation for helping clients reach scores they were unable to attain after training with big name test prep companies.