How to Ace your Test… without all the Stress!

Feb 17, 2021

It’s Test Day. You have a troop of pre-sharpened #2 pencils. You’ve eaten a good breakfast. You’re prepared. You’ve got this.


You’ve also got the jitters. The jumps. The nerves you just can’t quiet. 

You’re a stressed out mess! Your mouth is dry, your hands are sweaty, and you’re hardly registering the words on the page. Your pulse pounds. The clock ticks. Before you know it, time’s up.

Testing is a lot like performing. You prep, you practice, you run through dress rehearsals, but nothing quite compares to walking out on stage on opening night — or in this case, taking a seat at your desk on Test Day. 

The Truth about Test Stress

If you’ve ever flipped open a test booklet and felt any combination of sweaty palms, a racing pulse, nausea, dizziness, or a mind that totally “blanks,” you’re not alone: in fact, as many as 50% of all students experiences some level of test stress under exam conditions. A little bit of stress can be a good thing; it keeps you alert and on your toes. But too much stress can quickly become debilitating.

Let’s face it: more often than not, standardized tests are stressful. In addition to the tough content, often tricky wording, time crunch, and eerie seriousness of the exam room, we also contend with what these tests represent–they’re a critical piece of the college admissions puzzle. The stakes feel incredibly high because in many ways they are incredibly high. Your performance on standardized tests will impact the strength of your college applications. 

Okay, so testing can be stressful. Admissions-related testing can be especially stressful. So what can we do to navigate that stress and prevent our scores from suffering?

At Onsen, we take a multi-pronged approach to recognizing, managing, and minimizing stress.  

  1. Take a Diagnostic Exam

Every tutoring program at Onsen begins with a diagnostic test (sometimes two, if you’re deciding between the SAT and ACT exams). 


Because a diagnostic gives us great data about your baseline content knowledge and test-taking abilities. Indeed, a diagnostic test tells us more than how adept you are at grammar rules and geometry; it reveals to us – and you – how you cope with the stress of standardized testing. 

Once we have a sense of where your strengths and struggles lie, we can start to build an individualized tutoring program to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be. 

  1. Build a Team That Has Your Back

Onsen’s tutors are seasoned standardized testing pros who can guide you through the best content knowledge and test-specific strategies around–but they’re also great people. They recognize that the stakes are high for college applicants, and they are committed to coaching each student to reach his or her fullest potential. They recognize, too, that excelling at standardized testing entails more than just preparing for the material on the test; students need to be able to tap into great focus, concentration, recall, and attention on Test Day. In order to do so, students need to know how to manage testing-related stress. 

Working with a dedicated tutor who can set expectations and build a study plan helps students feel empowered to achieve their test-taking goals. Furthermore, students who work with educators who model low levels of stress are shown to have lower levels of stress themselves. Finding a good fit is key to making sure a student can open up about their stress and the emotional experience of taking a stressful exam, which is why Onsen carefully matches students with tutors. 

  1. Set Concrete Goals and Systematically Track Progress

Setting clear objectives, such as hitting a certain score, gives concrete purpose to test prep and enables us to measure progress. Onsen’s tutors work with students to create a comprehensive study plan that includes scored homework, strategically timed practice tests, and ongoing feedback. Onsen’s tutoring programs give students as many opportunities as possible to simulate the experience of Test Day. 

That’s why we offer proctored diagnostic and practice tests. 

That’s why we most often assign homework drawn from official exams. 

When students become familiar with exam expectations and scoring systems in a practice environment, they are in turn less anxious during official test administration. 

If you’re an actor, athlete, or performer of any kind, then you understand the importance of dress rehearsals and scrimmages. The same principle applies to test-taking: the more accustomed students become to taking proctored standardized tests, the more comfortable they will feel on Test Day.    

  1. Incorporate Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice of bringing your attention to the present moment. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness (for instance, through simple breathwork or meditation) can lead to gains in working memory, reduced stress, and improved resilience during exams. Mindfulness is one of the most accessible tools to mitigate testing-related stress; the practice helps get the stress out of the way so you can show what you know! Head over here to read more about Onsen’s approach to mindfulness in test prep. 

Help, I’m stressed about standardized testing! What’s my next step?

Let’s start with a full proctored diagnostic exam. Once we score your diagnostic, we can identify gaps in your content knowledge and performance. We can also assess non-content-related struggles you might encounter, such as running out of time or getting bogged down by nerves. 

You’ll work with a dedicated tutor with experience in stress-reduction techniques who is also an expert in exam content. You can open up to your tutor about nerves, and together you’ll formulate a plan to proactively tackle testing-related stress before exam day. You’ll fill the gaps in your knowledge and “dress rehearse” your official exam. You’ll monitor your progress and receive frequent, individualized feedback from your tutoring team. You’ll be supported by tutors who are able and excited to tailor lessons to your individual needs. 

We can’t promise that testing-related stress will vanish altogether, but we can assure you that through an Onsen tutoring program, you will learn the content, strategies, techniques, and habits of mind needed to reach your personal best–and to feel great in the process. 

The best part? Tackling exam-related stress has benefits for well beyond the standardized testing bubble sheet. Practicing these techniques can help you feel confident and at home in future academic assessments.

Written by

Margret Ann Thors
Author Image A professional writer and three-time graduate of Columbia University, Margrét Ann has tutored the SAT, ACT, GRE, SSAT, as well as creative and academic writing for the past eight years. In addition to her one-on-one tutoring work, Margrét Ann has taught undergraduate writing and education courses at Columbia University and University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as pre-college summer workshops at such colleges and universities as Yale, Fairfield, Haverford, and Vassar.

About Onsen

Onsen offers private, personlized test preparation with master tutors for the U.S admissions tests. Our SAT tutoring methods alleviate stress so students can achieve their highest scores.

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