Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test

The Panic SpiralPanic!

The scenario is common. You sit down with your test, flip it open, start reading the first question, and then…panic. You have no idea how to answer it. Minutes pass. A cold sweat glistens. Eventually, you move on to the next question. But your brain, now buzzing with the electricity of nervous dread, cannot focus. The answer eludes you here as well. Suddenly a thought slips in from the periphery: “what if you left the whole test blank?” At first, it’s soft. Almost comical. But the insistence grows. As does your panic.

How to Side-Step Panic

We can’t ignore this common academic occurrence. Its impact is too great. After hours of careful, efficient study, a panic spiral can, in essence, erase all of this effort. Your score is no different than if you had blown off your studying altogether. Clearly, this is something to avoid.

Below are some simple tips to help you side-step test-taking panic before it scuttles your performance:

  1. Re-Order the Questions. Quickly review all of the questions. Determine which ones are easy (you know everything necessary to get full credit), which are doable (with some thinking, you should be able to put down something good), and which are worrisome (you’re not sure how to start). Tackle the easy questions first. Then move on to the doable. Leave the worrisome until the end. This ensures that you get down great (confidence-boosting) answers for the easy, solid answers for the doable, and approach the worrisome without concerns about wasting time that could be spent answering questions you know.
  2. Create a Time Budget. Before tackling the easy and doable questions, figure out a simple time budget. Assign more time for the doable questions than the easy, because the former will take a little more concentration. Leave time at the end to take some stabs at the worrisome bastards lurking in the background. A common mistake is to spend too much time on the easy questions, eliminating your ability to wring out the maximum number of points from the doable and worrisome prompts that follow.
  3. Change your Goal from Letter Grade to Point Grab. Don’t approach your test with the high school mentality that 90% to 100% of the points earns an “A,” 80% to 89% earns a “B,” and so on. In most college classes, your grade is relative to the performance of your classmates. If you studied, and are having a hard time, than it’s likely that are people are struggling as well. You don’t have to beat the test. You just have to beat them. Your goal, therefore, on the worrisome questions is not to get a perfect answer, but, instead, to wring out every possible partial credit point. While your classmates panic, and leave full questions blank, you can calmly record every useful insight or step that comes to mind. These little points add up.
  4. Ask Targeted Questions. Once you’ve finished the easy and doable questions, and you’ve recorded as much as you know about the worrisome, you might consider using a targeted question to shake loose some additional insight. Determine if there is any ambiguity in your understanding of the hard questions. Often, a confusion over what is being asked, or the type of answer expected, can be what’s blocking your progress. Ask the professor (or TA) a targeted question meant to disambiguate this block. Often, their answer will help you move forward.
  5. When Stumped, Go Back and Clean. If you’re completely stumped on a worrisome question, and can’t make any additional progress, go back to your doable questions and polish your answers to an intense shine. Double-check your work. Add extra arguments. Make them the best damn answers the grader will see. Squeezing out every last bit of credit from what you do understand will help offset what you left blank. Remember, many of your classmates are having the same trouble. Your goal is to grab points that their panicking pushed out of reach.


Having a plan — any plan — goes a long way toward diffusing a slide into panic. The advice above, which focuses on getting down what you know and not losing control of your time, further helps avoid this slide by disarming the pitfalls that help fuel a test-day meltdown.

8 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test”

  1. One of the most important things before a difficult test is to calm down. Realize you know what you do, don’t freak out. A couple minutes before the test stop studying/reviewing, and focus on being ready and calm to take the test. Also, if you see a difficult problem, don’t freak out. Skip it, and then do Cal Newport’s method.

  2. I can relate to the panicking before a test because I never feel ready for tests even when I study for days but when i look at these five steps I think it would help me calm down and realize I have a plan to go through and answer all the ones I know and then go back and try the rest. This method will also help me be a lot more time efficient. I am going to try this method on my next test which is tomorrow morning and I bet I will be more calm and able to focus on the questions.

  3. Hey Cal, I´m from Brazil, i really enjoy your books and i´m trying to adapt all your concepts of a straight a student to my reality.
    Well, i would like to ask you a question, i´m going to take a double degree of civil engineering in Italy, i´ve already checked and they have a different kind of system there, for each subject they have one final big test at the end of the semester. So, i would like to know how can adapt your system in this case.

    Thank you!


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