Office of Academic Support & Counseling

Overcoming Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is very common among medical students. It is also normal to feel some level of anxiety or stress regarding an exam. Anxiety can be a motivator. However, at very high levels, anxiety can interfere with your learning and test performance .

What causes test anxiety?

  • Prior negative test-taking experiences
  • Prior to beginning medical school, many students have never failed an exam. Failing an exam in medical school can be humbling experience and can also cause anxiety
  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of preparation can raise anxiety levels
  • Poor time management
  • Worrying about how anxiety will effect you can be debilitating builds as testing situation approaches and interferes with preparation
  • Poor study habits
  • Lack of organization
  • Cramming versus following a structured plan
  • Inability to anticipate what the exam will cover
  • Lack of confidence
  • Negative thought processes
  • Pressure to perform well
  • Perfectionism and feelings of unworthiness leading to unreasonable goals
  • Self-esteem v. Performance
  • Focusing on negative consequences of failure rather than preparing to succeed

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?


  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme body temperature changes
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness/fainting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dry mouth


  • Excessive fear
  • Disappointment
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Uncontrollable crying or laughing
  • Feelings of helplessness


  • Racing thoughts
  • Going blank
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative self-talk
  • Feelings of dread
  • Comparing yourself ot others
  • Difficulty organizing your thoughts
  • Behavioral
  • Fidgeting
  • Pacing
  • Substance abuse
  • Avoidance

Tips for reducing test anxiety

  • Preparation
  • Develop good study habits
  • Spread studying over several days
  • Ask for help when needed
  • Eat good foods
  • Get adequate rest
  • Exercise to build energy
  • Attend class regularly
  • Complete all assignments in a timely manner
  • Make and take practice tests

Control the fear

  • The underlying source of test or performance anxiety is the fear of failure
  • Pay attention to what you are thinking and saying to yourself in anxious situations
  • Self-talk will likely reflect an expectation including fear of failure
  • Change your self-talk
  • Change: I can’t do it to  I can do it!
  • Change: I ’m stupid to I’m smart.
  • Change: I  don’t know to I do know.

Keep a positive attitude

  • Develop reasonable expectations
  • Do not allow your grades to become dependent on one exam
  • Avoid negative and irrational thoughts about catastrophic results
  • Reward yourself for dedicated studying and good performance
  • Encourage yourself

On task self-talk

  • Counter distractions and help yourself focus on the task at hand by telling yourself what to do
  • Talk yourself through the task
  • Tell yourself you are succeeding
  • Keep your mind focused on the present
  • One thing at a time
  • Say to yourself: “I am becoming a medical doctor.”

Be prepared

  • Practice, practice, practice!!!!!
  • Study, study, study
  • Improve your study and test taking skills
  • Be on time
  • Have all the tools
  • Learn and practice anxiety management techniques

Learn and practice relaxation techniques

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Imagery and visualization
  • Deep muscle relaxation techniques
  • Don’t arrive too early
  • Don’t get distracted by others
  • Check to make sure you have everything you need

Be healthy

  • When you are physically and emotionally exhausted your body and mind are less able to tolerate stress and anxiety
  • Get adequate rest
  • Eat appropriately
  • Don’t have time? Get help with time management