As I walked into the PTE academic offices I felt my heart begin to race. My palms became clammy and sweaty, my legs stiff and wooden. It took an incredible amount of effort for me to clear my dry throat and get the words out, and even so they came out of my mouth in a squeak that sounded about 5 octaves higher than my usual voice: “I’m here to write the PTE exam”. The woman behind the desk regarded me calmly, unfazed by my obvious tension. To my left, my E2Language.com colleague Jay calmly went through the motions without any outward signs of distress. It made me wonder: “What’s wrong with me? English is my first language and I’m good at it. I shouldn’t feel as if I’m about to ride a terrifying roller coaster or bungee jump off a cliff. In fact, I’ve been calmer doing those things in the past than I am now! Why is an English test throwing my body and mind into such turmoil?”
If you suffer test anxiety, you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how many times you reassured yourself, or how much time and effort spent working out the intricacies of the test format. It feels like the anxiety always wins out in the end; creeping its way into your confidence and tearing you down no matter what you do.
Studies show that test anxiety affects between 40-60% of students, and yet it still seems like few educational and testing institutions take it seriously. Rather than changing the nature of stressful testing environments or creating alternatives for anxious students, institutions by and large place the responsibility to overcome anxiety on test-takers themselves, which does nothing but add to the pressure and internal frustration of these people. But what can be done? If we are to truly take responsibility for our own success despite our limitations, how can we do it? Well, I’ve had some experience managing my anxiety over the years (I had to get through a bachelor’s degree somehow, after all!) and I’ve found a few techniques that work well for me. These tips are useful for high-stakes English exams like the PTE, IELTS & TOEFL, but can also be helpful in a broader sense for other exams as well.
Change the way you study.
We are so used to preparing for tests by studying in optimal conditions; complete silence, well-lit room, no distractions. We start to feel like this is the only environment in which tests take place, and this is a mistake. Test centres are often noisy and stressful environments filled with the sounds of other people’s voices (primarily in the PTE academic speaking and TOEFL speaking sections) and the furious tapping of keyboards. How can one adapt to such a chaotic environment? Well, I know it sounds a little silly, but I’ve honestly found that one of the best remedies to this problem is finding an equally chaotic study environment and sticking to it. My place of choice during my degree was a bustling café filled with arguing couples, screaming children, and obnoxious people with cellphones glued to their ears yelling about their weekend plans. In this environment, I learned to tune out the noise and focus on the task at hand. Trust me, it wasn’t easy- it took a lot of practice and willpower (the arguments couples have in public are actually very interesting!) but in the end, I became the master of ignoring the external noise. When I enter test rooms now, the keyboard tapping, voices, coughing and other previously stress-inducing noises become a low hum and I remind myself that I’ve studied under worse conditions. Once you have successfully solved a complex logic problem while a screaming infant is chased around your chair by their frazzled mother!
Practice deep breathing before, during and after your exam.
I know this sounds like all the advice you have ever heard before- but it works. But listen- don’t just deep breathe immediately before you take your test and then while you are doing it. Start practising relaxation, deep breathing and mindfulness days and even weeks before the exam. Come up with your own relaxation routine that works for you (check these ones out for inspiration: 6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less) and practice it every time you even pick up PTE book or PTE study material. Breathe every time you are about to study, every time you finish studying, and every time you even think about the upcoming PTE academic exam. Practice makes perfect. The more you train yourself to do this before the real deal, the more your body will fall into the habit when you do it in the test. After the exam, continue to do the breathing techniques and don’t punish yourself if you didn’t think the test went well. This will just add to the anxiety and continue to affect you on your next exam.
Make an ‘anxiety list’ and then destroy it.
I’ll always remember when I was studying to sit the PTE so I could apply for graduate school in Australia. I literally spent every spare moment studying and practicing, and yet I ended failing the PTE speaking section by a lot. I felt confident in the weeks and days leading up to the exam; I did all the PTE mock tests, PTE academic writing samples and basically any PTE test practice I could find- but I completely blanked in the real situation. After I received my PTE score, I angrily ripped a page out of my notebook and started writing a list of all the things that scared me about taking the test again. Here are some of the exact things I wrote (and yes I did write the entire thing in frantic capital letters):
“Things that scare me on the PTE Academic exam“:
- THE EVIL CLOCK COUNTS DOWN THE TIME IN THE CORNER OF THE SCREEN AND IT’S LIKE IT’S LAUGHING IN MY FACE BECAUSE IT KNOWS IT INTIMIDATES ME!!!
- THIS IS A LOT OF PRESSURE AND CONCERNS MY WHOLE ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL FUTURE AND I CANT TAKE IT!
- I FEEL LIKE SOME OF THE QUESTIONS ARE BUILT TO TRY AND TRICK ME AND IT MAKES ME SECOND-GUESS EVERYTHING!!
As you can probably tell, I wasn’t in a great mindset when I wrote that list. However, as soon as I wrote it, I looked at it and realized how small my fears looked on a small sheet of A4 paper. I picked it up and began to rip it into tiny minuscule pieces, then I took all those pieces and I threw them in the recycling and I took a deep breath in and out. And do you know what? I felt better. And do you know what else? Once I admitted to myself what I was afraid of and threw it away, I felt a lot more in control and a lot less anxious. What is the point of this story? Acknowledge your anxiety. Take as long as you need and record every last thing that scares or intimidates you. Understand what they truly are. Then give yourself control. Write a list, look at it, accept it, and then throw it away. This may not work for everyone, but it worked wonders for me psychologically and I hope it helps someone else.
I now turn the question over to you: how do you deal with test anxiety for tests like the PTE academic? What methods help you manage your anxiety and what would you suggest to help others who are affected by it?
Written by Kaia Myers-Stewart