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Dear Mitch,

My daughter just got her ACT scores back, and she did much worse on the test than she did on any of the practice tests she'd taken from a review book I bought her. She also did much worse than she did with the tutor she prepared with for a month prior to the rest. When I saw how much worse she did both overall and in each of the four subjects on the test, I figure that the practice tests were too easy.  My daughter said no, it wasn't that. She said she knew the day she took the real test that she just got so anxious that she couldn't think straight.  She did the same thing on the SAT. She's a very bright girl and makes good grades in everything. How do you get a child like her to relax and not worry so much so she can apply herself?

Melissa B. 


Dear Melissa B.,

This is an interesting issue. As someone who spends a good part of his time helping students prepare for standardized tests, I find myself having to address this topic time and time again. In one form or another, the propensity to experience anxiety seems to be built into most of us. In fact, it has a survival advantage, and so has been factored into our evolutionary creation.  Experts on the subject often describe anxiety as part of the 'fight-or-flight' way that our minds and bodies work, which is to say that when we are faced with danger (such as the approach of a hungry tiger in the wild, or the attack of a criminal focused on our wallet) we instantly decide to fight back or run away. In the process, we experience anxiety from a rush of the hormone adrenaline, as it shoots through our system. Without such a surge of immediate energy we would be in trouble, for can you imagine neither running nor defending at such a time?  For the same reason, as I've tutored various students over the years, I've found that I grow more concerned for the ones who feel too little anxiety when approaching important tests than I do for the ones who appear too anxious.  Typically, it tends to be a little easier to calm a stressed student than it is to get an inappropriately carefree one to take seriously important opportunities (such as sitting for a three-hour test that can influence the range of options the student will have a short time later when applying to colleges).  Fortunately, with enough experience, most of us who work with students have learned how to shift either extreme to a more productive place.  The way I always think of the secondary emotions such as anxiety and embarrassment is this:  They're like warning lights on a car's dashboard. You need those lights to work in order to know when your oil needs changing or when your gas tank needs filling, and, though small, the lights shouldn't be so dim that they're hard to notice. BUT, they also shouldn't be so bright that they distract the driver from focusing on whatever's happening on the other side of the windshield, or the journey could get dangerous. 

Regarding your daughter, it is possible that the ACT practice tests she took were too easy to give a sense of what she'd be in for, but since you mention it happened on the SAT as well, my guess is that she does indeed suffer from test-taking anxiety. This often goes away with practice -- real practice taking real tests under real test conditions, not practice tests taken in the comfort of one's own home. You didn't mention if she's ever taken any of these tests more than once. She should, and the second time around she may not react as strongly to the situation. Until then, if you can help her replicate the test-taking scene as authentically as possible -- with a desk in a room with no other people or distractions, and taken under timed conditions with no added breaks, and make it happen at the same time in the morning that the real test takes place, that is usually a step in the right direction.  (It also eliminates some of the other variables, for example by taking away the false advantage that a 'night person' might benefit from when taking a practice test in the evening compared to the morning of the real test.

With my own students, I usually like them to worry a little for a few weeks, because I find that a little anxiety can be very motivating (they really study!), and then the day before the exam I try to calm them down and remind them that, No matter what happens, the day after the test the sun always rises again. If all else fails, there are therapists who seem to be very effective in helping adolescents and teenagers through such anxiety and, considering that in the years ahead they are likely to have other potentially stressful situations (job interviews, college exams, meetings...) a few sessions with a specialist might be a worthwhile investment!

I hope this helps.

Good luck,