[ “No one really knows.” Kayla said. “I just get so nervous that I can’t think straight.” She said this in response to my timing her on an SAT problem set. A junior at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, CT, Kayla was a strong student. She made nearly all As through freshman year. She did well on memory based tests. But problem solving tests caused her anxiety and she started getting her first Bs largely due to bombing on mid-terms and finals in math and math based science classes like chemistry and physics.
On the PSAT, Kayla also underperformed compared to her grades. She would get stuck on problems. Nerves would set in and if there was a string of a few problems that she couldn’t figure out she would feel panicked.
Through working with several thousand SAT and ACT students in Connecticut over the last 15 years, I have a de facto performance coach in test taking. Anxiety – along with focus – is the biggest area of challenge for many of our students. As might be expected, most young people tell others that they lost focus. “I was so bored” is often the cool thing to say. “I was so anxious” is not and, for many students, keeping this information to themselves causes more anxiety.
In relation to anxiety, I have also become a practitioner in the art of creating calm students. Perhaps the first step is having the willingness to talk to someone about the issue. Most teens do not like to their parents about anxiety. They certainly don’t talk to their peer group about the issue.
During our SAT-ACT Mastery Seminar or during individualized test prep, I get to know my students well enough so that they confide in me about test-taking anxiety. Among the first things I tell them is that I have mild claustrophobia. I think hearing a grown man – particularly one that they have looked to for advice – confessing a fear gives them comfort. I tell them strategies that I have used to deal with crowded subways and other areas of tight spaces where claustrophobics feel trapped. In simple terms, I explain how the our brain’s amygdala can’t differentiate a predator about to pounce from a series of tough test questions. But the rational part of our brain can and that’s the part that needs to go through anxiety decreasing rituals. I then discuss various methods that might work for them.
Through the years, some of the most transformational work has come through these discussions. Students who keep in touch tell me that they were able to do complete their college finals successfully because of our work.
If your student-child has underperformed on the PSATs or other standardized tests, consider anxiety as a potential undetected issue.