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How Nursing Students Can Deal with Test Anxiety

How Nursing Students Can Deal with Test Anxiety

For nursing students, taking tests is a typical path to becoming an RN. For many students, though, studying and taking rigorous tests (like the NCLEX) can be an overly intense experience, causing nurses to feel test anxiety and fear over their grades.

So what is this feeling nurses get when they’re overwhelmed before a test? According to a 2023 study , test anxiety refers to the emotions we feel whenever we think about the possible downfalls of failing an exam. However, test anxiety is common for many nurses and even highlights how much we place importance on our futures.

If you struggle with test anxiety, you’re not alone. Read on to learn what test anxiety looks like for you and what strategies can help you handle this.

What Can Test Anxiety Look Like?

Test anxiety, or exam stress, is different and can range in intensity for everyone— so not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Besides feeling anxiety, this can look like becoming distracted and unable to recall information while taking a test and engaging in negative self-talk. Some physical symptoms include sweating, nausea, heart palpitations, and headaches. Procrastination is usually common, so we might wait until the last minute because of how severe exam stress feels.

Why Nurses Struggle with Test Anxiety

Test anxiety usually comes from nurses feeling a high pressure to ace their exams and stay on top of the intense workload that comes with their program, according to psychiatric mental health nurse Aneesah Coates, BSN, RN. 

“The material they are learning is critical for patient care and can be overwhelming to absorb and retain,” she says. “The competitive nature of nursing programs also adds to the stress and creates a fear of failure.”

Exam stress can also be from other common causes, such as thinking of grades as a measure of validation, feeling helpless over how you’ll perform, or giving into the guilt that not preparing the “right” way for a test means you’ll fail.

Taking exams in a nursing program isn’t easy, so recognizing that you’ve taken steps to stop and realize your anxiety over an exam is one step to feeling more at ease.

How to Prepare Before and After an Exam 

Here are a few ways you can manage your test anxiety better. Try one or more methods to see if they work; if they do, tweak them to suit your needs.

Plan a study schedule. Decide how you want to prioritize and plan what you want to study. When do you want to start studying before an exam, and for how long? Asking yourself questions like these will help you look for moments to start writing down notes and getting into a study mindset.

Find studying habits that fit you. Coates suggests combining studying methods to see what works for you. For her, using different colored pens while taking notes worked by how she could visually see and retain what she was learning.

Other studying tips you can try include:

  • Writing down “memory bullets” with trigger words and acronyms to help you identify key points during test-taking
  • Recording yourself reading notes and listening to them while doing other tasks
  • Utilizing a quiet study space where you can concentrate
  • Finding study guides or other exam prep material relevant to your field

Take care of your body. This one might sound obvious, but ensure you get enough sleep and feel rested the day of your test. For example, the NCLEX takes five hours to complete, so bring snacks and water with you so you have enough energy and don’t get dehydrated.

Understand the material; don’t just memorize. As a future nurse, you want to be ready for any unexpected situation, so it’s essential to understand what you’re learning long-term. This is also helpful for taking the NCLEX since the exam tests how you would apply the knowledge you learned in real-life situations. Try testing your knowledge of the material with practice quizzes to determine what areas you need to improve.

Discover what motivates you. Coming back to why you enrolled in a nursing program might be the push you need to overcome exam stress.

“Preparing for the NCLEX or any other test can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you have already come so far and have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed,” says Coates.

Your classmates can also support you when you need a study partner. It’s also helpful to know that other students struggle with exam stress, so focusing on your progress and trusting in your abilities is a great way to let your test anxiety go.