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Test anxiety can make a person miserable. Photo Credit: nenetus via

Test anxiety can make a person miserable.
Photo Credit: nenetus via

We’re starting to get into the season of AP and IB tests, so I thought you might appreciate a quick and easy tool for test taking.


I have several clients who do very well in school, but feel like they blank out on tests.  This affects their confidence and even their relationships at school.


A really simple tool is called “priming.”  This is a phenomenon psychologists use to influence how someone does on something in the immediate future.  Let’s have you try it out in order to understand how it’s done.


Step 1: Get out a pen and paper.

Step 2: Set a timer for 60 seconds.

Step 3: For the next 60 seconds write down as many words as you can think of to describe a Harvard professor.  Don’t overthink this.  Just write down ANYTHING that comes to mind.  If you immediately think of glasses and tweed coats, then write those down.  If you think of the word, ‘smart,’ then write that down.  Just let your mind free-flow.

Step 4: Attempt an intellectually difficult task such as a math problem.


The point of priming is that when we think of words and images related to what we’re about to do, we do better or worse based on how we think.  If I had you imagined a high school drop-out instead of a Harvard professor, you would have performed worse on the task instead of better.  This phenomenon has been repeated in psychological experiments many times.  It has worked well for my clients with test anxiety too.  Here’s how:  Instead of immediately beginning their exam in school, they take the first 60 seconds and prime with the Harvard professor example.  They have told me they performed about 10% higher on their test than expected.


Also, if you’re nervous before a sporting event, you can do a priming exercise imagining a top notch athlete.  If you swim and you imagine Michael Phelps and write down descriptors of his abilities before your race, you will probably go a bit faster.


Anxiety is a hard thing.  When you have test anxiety it can make school miserable.  It can bleed over into your friendships and even how you get along with your parents.  It’s awful.  Hopefully this little tool will help you relax and perform at your best.


Helping teens grow and families improve connection,

Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT