Social Work Exam Prep: How to Avoid Test-Taking Anxiety

Kaynor Heineck, MS

Two scenarios:

Scenario #1:  You’re taking your exam and you come to a question that you have no idea how to answer.  You panic. You’re thinking, “I don’t know the answer; I’m going to fail my exam, I’ll never be a real social worker, I’ll end up living under a bridge, etc.....”. Now your adrenaline has really kicked in - you’re in full fight or flight mode, and yet, there is nothing to fight (no Saber-toothed tiger here!) and there is nowhere to run.  You are in no position to think logically now, or for that matter, for the next ten minutes, or at least until the adrenaline clears.  

Scenario #2:  You’re taking your exam and you come to a question that you have no idea how to answer.  You cock your head to the side, and then tell yourself, “This question makes no sense - it must be one of those silly ‘experimental’ questions that don’t even count.”  Or, you tell yourself, “Huh, I just plain don’t know the answer to that one.  I’ll just take a guess, flag it and move on.  Maybe I’ll remember something about this in a few minutes.”  

In Scenario #1, you’ve worked yourself into a state of panic.  In Scenario #2, you avoid scaring yourself, and, even though you might miss this question, you’re in good shape for the next question.  However, since you picked an answer - any answer will do! - you still have a 25% chance of getting it correct!  

Two lessons:

Lesson 1) How you think about the exam, and what you tell yourself while working on questions, matters. 

If you scare yourself, you will either end up feeling panicky or hopeless.  Neither feeling state is very useful.  Controlling your negative thoughts is essential.  Come up with several things you can say to yourself that are reassuring, and keep repeating them as you go through questions.  “This is hard, but I’m doing ok,” or “I’m a good social worker, and the test is just a test,” “Nobody gets them ALL right,” etc.

Lesson 2) NEVER leave a question blank! 

Accept that there will be questions you can’t answer, either because it’s an experimental question and they got it all wonky, or you simply don’t know the fact that they’re looking for, or you just plain can’t remember right now.  This WILL happen.  Therefore, no need to panic - it happens to everyone.  However, if you leave a question blank, and you forget (or run out of time) to fill it in later, you have a zero percent chance of getting the question correct.  If you pick an answer, any answer, you have a 25% chance of getting it right.  Most of the time, in this situation, you are trying to pick between the two best answers, so just guessing will give you a 50% chance of getting it right - which is a whole lot better than 0%.

As you practice exam questions make sure you develop the habit of picking an answer for EVERY question, no matter what.  Flag the questions you guessed on – it’s just as easy to go back to them once they are flagged.  When you’re in study-mode, take as long as you need to work on each question and read every rationale.  When you go through the exams a second time, start holding yourself to no more than four minutes per question. If you don’t have an answer by then, pick an answer, flag it, and move on. Ultimately you want to average about 1-1/2 minutes per question.  You’ll be able to answer some questions in 10 seconds - others might take up to 3 or 4 minutes. Never keep working on an answer in “exam-mode” past 4 minutes!  If you don’t have an answer by then, you probably won’t get one.  Choose an answer, any answer, flag it, and move on.  One of the worst things that can happen is that you don’t have time to finish the exam. 

Remember – what you tell yourself CAN hurt you, so practice positive statements to keep your anxiety in check, and never leave a question blank!