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Author: Penny Vernon, NASBA Candidate Care Manager
Posted: July 9, 2013

girl_computer1Almost everyone experiences jitters before a big test. You wake up with butterflies in your stomach, maybe some apprehension (“Did I study enough?”), clammy hands, edginess or a sense of being psyched out.

A certain level of nervousness associated with taking a high-stakes examination is normal, and actually can be beneficial to you. The sensation of being on “high alert” often helps to sharpen the mind and focus one’s attention.

During my past 10 years as manager of NASBA’s Candidate Care Department, I have read thousands of emails from CPA candidates who have experienced difficulties before, during and after taking the Uniform CPA Examination. It has become apparent to me that when something unexpected happens, the normal level of exam nerves often rapidly escalates into full blown test anxiety.

Once this occurs, the candidate can become overwhelmed with additional physical and cognitive symptoms which greatly interfere in his or her ability to perform. Candidates who experience this heightened level of arousal often report difficulty concentrating or following instructions, as well as feeling rushed and/or “blanking out.”

This is the first of a three-part series of blogs to help you manage text anxiety. I want to share with you my knowledge and experience in this area to help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with taking the CPA Exam. Before coming to NASBA, I earned a master’s in Clinical Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University, and my research on anxiety was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. I was also instrumental in opening and running NASBA’s testing center in Guam, so I have first-hand experience with the workings of a testing center.

Part I in the Managing Test Anxiety series will teach you methods that have proven to be successful in reducing anxiety. In Part II, I’ll provide tips to avoid getting off to a shaky start on the CPA Exam. Finally, Part III will be a step-by-step guide about what to expect when faced with the unexpected during the Exam.

Method 1: Deep Breathing

This is a tool that you can take with you to the Exam and use in any situation without drawing attention to yourself. Deep breathing is handy because it’s a relaxation technique that you can teach yourself that quickly calms your nerves. There are many websites, videos and stress-reducing CDs available. One easy-to-follow instruction can be found on this stress relief exercises website.

Method 2: Visualization

Never forget that you are the one in control of your thoughts. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, which only increases anxiety, learn to create a positive image – visualizing yourself succeeding in your goal of passing the Exam. Creative Visualization techniques have been used successfully with athletes to enhance performance, and they can work for you, too. When you first arrive at the testing center after signing in, pause to combine deep breathing with positive imagery.


Method 3: Stretching

Stretching is an instinct. Pets and infants do it automatically when waking. Life gets hectic as we reach adulthood, and for many reasons, we get out of the habit and the instinct becomes dormant. Anxiety causes muscles to tighten, so take the time to pause and stretch in order to release this built up tension. If you arrive early at the testing center, stop and do a few stretches in the waiting room before sitting down at the computer.

Some simple examples:

> The Human Instinct to Stretch

Method 4: Aerobic Exercise

The release of endorphins during exercise has a calming effect on the body. Don’t neglect your physical routine while preparing for the CPA Exam. Take short exercise breaks from studying to clear your mind and release tension in your body. If time permits on the day of the Exam, try to work in 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise.

Method 5: Body Temperature Alterations

Anxiety may cause changes in body temperature, such as an exaggerated sensitivity to heat or cold. As a precaution, take a sweater to the testing center in the event that the room temperature feels chilly to you. Be aware that if you decide to wear a sweater or light jacket into the testing room, you are not permitted to take it off while testing. You will need to wait until a break between testlets to remove it and place it in your locker. In the event that you are feeling too warm, wear light layers of clothing that you can remove during a break.

Method 6: Sensitivity to Sound

Anxiety and stress have an effect on external surroundings. For example, sounds that normally would be experienced as mere background noise become exaggerated and interfere in one’s ability to concentrate. While Prometric does provide head phones to block out external stimuli, many candidates report that they are cumbersome. Remember, you are permitted to bring your own earplugs (without strings or wires) for use at the testing center. They will be examined by the staff during the check-in process.

I hope these tips will prove useful to you as you prepare to take the CPA Exam. Stay tuned to for Part II in the Managing Test Anxiety series.

Penny Vernon has worked at NASBA for over 15 years, serving as manager of Candidate Care for the past 10. She earned a master’s in Clinical Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University, and her research on anxiety was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Vernon was also instrumental in opening and running NASBA’s testing center in Guam, giving her first-hand experience with the workings of a testing center.

> Read Part II: Avoiding Pre-Exam Stress
> Read Part III: Facing the Unexpected

“Deep Breathing Exercises”
“Creative Visualization and Visualization Techniques” 2/22/2013
“Visualization Exercises for Beginners” Julie Knapp
“8 Yoga Poses for Simple Stress Relief” Felicia Marie Tomasko
“The Human Instinct to Stretch – Release Your Inner Cat” Will Nelson

Other Suggested Reading

Breaking Down the CPA Exam Application Process

"Preparing for the CPA Exam" Series