Beating Test Anxiety

For those in the clean-water business, exams don’t end with high school or college. Do you still get nervous when sitting down with that licensing test?

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I have this dream often — I am told it’s common. I wake up in my college dorm room. It’s final exam week. I have to take a couple of exams, but I remember that I haven’t attended the classes or cracked the textbooks for several weeks. What am I going to do?

Now, I have no reason to worry about tests — I don’t have to take them anymore. Anyway, in real life, I wasn’t all that anxious about them. But in the clean-water profession, exams are part of life. At least they are if you want to move up to higher levels of licensing or get certified in new areas.

And some people simply struggle with tests. To them, the thought of sitting for an exam is as frightening, and as paralyzing, as some people’s fear of speaking in public. There are people in this world (and in the clean-water business) who are highly intelligent yet can be derailed by poor performance on exams, just because they’re nervous.

Excellent remedy

One of the best antidotes to test anxiety is confidence, and you develop that by, to put it simply, knowing your stuff. I remember when I took my Graduate Record Exam (GRE) after college. The results of that test would say a great deal about whether I could get into the graduate school of my choice, so there was quite a bit of pressure.

So, I picked up a book designed to help prepare for the GRE. It was full of questions — math and verbal — much like those I would encounter on the actual test. I went through dozens and dozens of them. So when test day came, my brain was wired for the kinds of riddles, curveballs and tricks the test writers would send my way. And I did well.

With that in mind, TPO this month offers our first Exam Tutor column. The aim each time is to take an exam topic that trainers say bedevils clean-water operators, explain it in detail and then include a few sample questions of the kind found on licensing exams.

A few tips

Of course, a few magazine columns alone won’t cure test anxiety. So here are five tips for beating the nerves, drawn from experience and various sources on the Internet.

1. Don’t cram. Once, a few days before a long bicycle ride, my riding buddy told me, “Don’t bother trying to get in shape now. The condition you’re in today is what you’ll have to work with.” It’s more or less the same with testing. You can’t pack your head with information the night before and expect to ace the test. By far your best preparation is good study habits. Learn the material step by step, learn it well and you’ll be ready.

2. Take care of yourself. Don’t party the night before. Get a full night’s sleep. Have a good breakfast. Be well hydrated. Nothing will shatter your concentration like hunger, sleepiness, a caffeine buzz or a self-inflicted headache.

3. Turn anxiety to your advantage. Properly channeled, stress can be a form of positive energy. A college counselor once told me before a job interview to welcome nervousness because, “If you’re not nervous, you’re not up.” The energy that comes from well-directed nervousness is a reason some top athletes perform best under pressure.

4. Breathe. Once in the exam room, take some slow, deep breaths. Rapid breathing will kick up your heart rate and set your brain racing off. Slowing your breathing will slow down your pulse and help you keep your brain focused.

5. Think good thoughts. Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can’t or think you can — you’re right.” And then these poetic words attributed to author Napoleon Hill:

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the one who thinks he can.

What topics trouble you?

Now that you know a bit more about how to prepare for testing, have a look at our Exam Tutor column. What do you think of it? Might more such columns help you? What are some topics where you could use a little extra help?

Share your ideas by sending an email to I promise to respond, and we’ll use your comments in creating future articles for Exam Tutor. For now, best of luck with your next exam.


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