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Frustrated student with her head in her hands. She needs some pre-mortem planning!

How to Stop Stressing During Tests

Thousands of years of evolution have taught your body to react quickly to danger. In an instance, your heart rate gets elevated and other parts of your body (like your digestive system) get turned off. This is good news if you need to run from a lion. It’s bad news if you’re stuck on the second section of the ACT.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that, “unfortunately, one of the things that goes out the window during those times of stress is rational, logical thinking (as Danny Kahneman and his colleagues have shown).”

A brain reacting to stress. Pre-mortem strategies can combat the effect of rising cortisol levels.
This is your brain on stress.

As a result, stress is one of the most damaging forces you’ll encounter in the classroom. Stress is the enemy of good decisions.

Stress Test

Many students experience stress while testing, particularly during important exams such as finals and the ACT. If this sounds like you, don’t worry. It’s natural to experience some anxiety in high-stakes situations.

[Lots of students suffer from testing anxiety. Here’s a story about one student who overcame it!]

There are a few things, besides the questions themselves, that can stress you out during an exam. These are some common examples:

  • You cannot recall a common formula
  • A question isn’t clear
  • Written passages are confusing or difficult
  • Time seems to be moving too fast

For most students, we find that time-related stressors are the most common. They force you to make tough decisions very quickly. That increases your cortisol levels, making it harder to come to the correct conclusions.

So, how do you avoid illogical thoughts and bring your A-game?

Look into the Future, Today

Dr. Levitin recommends using prospective hindsight, also called pre-mortem thinking. You’re probably familiar with the term “post-mortem.” Post-mortem analyses occur after bad things happen.

Most students have their own version of this process. If you review assignments after receiving poor grades, then you perform post-mortem reviews, too. Breaking down assignments and exams this way is a good thing. We recommend it for each and every student.

But it doesn’t fix the mistakes you’ve already made.

Where Are My Keys?!

Pre-mortem planning doesn’t fix past mistakes either, but it can help prevent the problems of the future. Dr. Levitin uses the example of house keys.

Lots of people have trouble keeping track of their keys. Every time they leave the house, it’s an all-out key hunt. The frustration that results increases stress. “Remember,” Dr. Levitin reminds us, “when you’re under stress, the brain releases cortisol. Cortisol is toxic, and it causes cloudy thinking.”


In other words, the more desperately you need your keys, the less likely you are to figure out where you left them. Your stress keeps the solution hidden! Pre-mortem planning requires you to recognize and think about losing your keys before it happens. When you do that, the solution comes easy: you need a special place, just for your keys. That’s the benefit of a clear mind.

Creating a strategy when your stress is low increases the chances you’ll think clearly even when your stress is high. That’s super valuable for test day!

How to Use Pre-Mortem Thinking on Your Next Exam

The secret to pre-mortem planning is to do it well in advance of a stressful situation. Starting to plan right as your instructor hands out the test just won’t work. You want to pick a time when you’re totally relaxed.

Reflect on your last exam (post-mortem)

If you have a hard time thinking about the future, look at the past and get your ideas that way. The stressors you discovered in your last test are probably the same ones you’ll deal with on the next one!

Identify a problem you want to avoid

Pick out something that caused you mid-test stress. Maybe you lost track of time or got stuck on a section for too long. A teacher or tutor that knows you well can help you identify the root cause of your stress. Sometimes discussing how you felt at each stage of the exam is enough to discover your stressors.

Implement a system that works

The beauty of pre-mortem planning is that you can take advantage of your brain’s logical thinking and save it for later. As Dr. Levitin, says, “part of the practice of the pre-mortem is to recognize that under stress you’re not going to be at your best, and you should put systems in place” to compensate.

Often, the best systems are the simplest. Here are a few strategies that can help with various problems:

  • Close your eyes and take a deep breath after every few problems
  • Use two fingers, on to trace your position in the passage and the other to grip your pencil (See the 2-Finger Method in action)
  • Take notes when reading to avoid reanalyzing when you get to the questions. (Ex: putting character initials next to lines of dialogue)
  • Copy math expressions as-is before you do any algebra or mental math. Most mistakes happen in that first line.
  • If your reasoning requires more than one leap, write it out as you go. Keeping the steps in your head might be fine in your jammies, but the stress of the actual test will cause you to mix things up.
  • Skip any question that doesn’t pace the way that practice has shown it should–feel it in your gut, don’t see it on the clock!

These are real strategies that we teach all the time. Students and parents love them, and every one can improve your test-taking. When planned ahead of time, they can keep your head on straight. Even in the fog brought on by stress and cortisol, these strategies will help you find the right answers.

Now It’s Your Turn!

This school year, we’re trying to give away lots of great lessons and strategies for free, but we want to make sure you like them!

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