For children and adults, just saying the word “exam” can bring on the jitters. Few of us get to escape sitting in a room and answering questions based on what we’ve learned. But when an exam will determine if we can attend a particular high school or not, the anxiety level can shoot through the roof.
Ingrid Poupart, president of the Stepping Up Resource Centre, which helps families navigate the school admission process, says stress about getting into a school affects the entire family. “As parents, we want what is best for our children and often we think that it means getting into what we consider the best school,” she said. When children pick up on the fact that their parents are concerned, they in turn become stressed.
So one of the first steps in managing this anxiety is to keep things in perspective. “A lot of children are applying for a limited number of spaces,” Poupart says. Some smart, hard-working kids don’t get into their first choice of school — but the good news is that they can go on to have an excellent experience elsewhere. She adds that there is no “perfect” place and your child will probably do well at any number of schools.
When it comes to the exam, Poupart adds that children often need help with the practical aspects of taking a test. For example, students may be asked to write their name on the exam sheet by shading in the letters organized in a series of columns (so it can be read by a computer). “About 70 per cent of kids don’t know how to do this,” Poupart says. Then they become flustered and that can affect their performance during the exam.
Also keep in mind that multiple-choice tests may be completely unfamiliar to today’s students, says Wendy Caplan, a tutor at the non-profit Lansdowne Centre, “Teachers don’t use multiple-choice anymore,” she notes, because the curriculum (even in math), emphasizes hands-on learning and problem solving rather than finding one answer. Entrance exams focus on multiple choice type questions so kids should probably do some mock tests beforehand, she adds.
Caplan says it’s important for parents to find out what material an entrance exam will cover. Knowing what will be on a test is the best way to reduce everyone’s anxiety. Most exams will have sections for math, reading comprehension and vocabulary but might also include French or a general knowledge test.
Parents should find out if students will lose points for wrong answers on the multiple-choice test. If yes, then students should avoid guessing answers to difficult questions. If no, then they should try to answer all the questions, since there is no penalty for being wrong.
Schools may also ask that students undergo an interview as part of the admission process. Both Caplan and Poupart agree that advance preparation (just as an adult would for a job interview) is very important. Families can carry out mock interviews, practicing classic questions, such as why do you want to attend this school? What will you contribute as a student? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
In her workshop on doing well in interviews, Poupart points out to children that being interviewed is like carrying on a conversation — someone asks you a question, you respond in a thoughtful way and this leads to more questions and more discussion. Knowing that they already have experience answering questions often reduces a child’s anxiety, she says. If children are at ease, they are more likely to present themselves in the best light.
As a final reassurance to families, Caplan notes that students are accepted into schools based on several factors, including the entrance exam and report cards. Sometimes children are asked to write an essay or go through an interview. So, while the exam is important, it’s only one part of a larger picture.
How to reduce exam anxiety:
Get ready the night before. Make sure your child has decided what clothes to wear, prepared a snack and put aside any materials she needs.
Eat a high-protein breakfast (eggs, cheese), which will help keep your child’s energy levels even throughout the morning.
Acknowledge the stress — just telling your child “all the kids are nervous” can provide reassurance and a bit of comfort.
Leave plenty of time in the morning. Parents should make sure they know how to get to the school. Ask about parking and exactly where your child will need to be and at what time.
(These tips were provided by Ingrid Poupart, president of the Stepping Up Resource Centre and Wendy Caplan, tutor at the Lansdowne Centre.)