Impostor Syndrome and Test Anxiety

Palms sweating, heart racing, hands shaking.  My thoughts are colliding against one another.  I feel like the energizer bunny without his happy spunk. I haven’t taken a good breath in a long while, but I won’t notice this for several hours.  I must look as if I’m going crazy. I feel like I’m going crazy. I take a sip of my coffee. I’m not thirsty. I’m definitely tired. It’s mostly to keep myself — my hands occupied.  I probably shouldn’t have more more caffeine. Maybe I should. I didn’t sleep much. I need the energy. I need the focus. I need to be my best self, but how can I possibly do my best — be my best — after four neverending exhausting days? Without sleeping?  While I’m suffering from not one but two illnesses? These thoughts only make it worse. 


I know its just anxiety.  Just anxiety. That’s a bit of an oxymoron.  There’s no such thing as Just Anxiety.  I know it’s anxiety.  I can recognize that. That doesn’t make it better –  doesn’t make it easier — doesn’t make it go away. I know what I should do – what I need to do — but it doesn’t matter much right now.  I need to push forward. I need to do this. 

It’s just a test.  No, it’s not a test. As I’ve said so many times before, it’s an assessment — an evaluation.  It can’t be passed. It can’t be failed. But, for me, it can. It is. It’s about passing or failing.  I need to join Mensa — to run for the position of gifted child coordinator, a position that I desperately want.  But, that’s not all. 
I’ve suddenly come head to head with Impostor Syndrome, something I didn’t even realize I had until now.  What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t qualify for my own programs?

The closer that I get to test time, the more it sinks in.  My anxiety isn’t about passing or failing. It’s not really Impostor Syndrome.  It’s an identity crisis. Until now, I hadn’t realized how much of my identity rests in giftedness, a diagnosis I’ve never had nor wanted.  It’s not about the label. I really don’t even like the label — the idea that intelligence or ability is some sort of a “gift.” A gift given by whom? It’s about more than that — the affirmation that I’m not crazy — the confirmation that my failure to fit in as ‘normal’ is OK because there’s a community for me — a community that I’ve suddenly realized I need just as much as my students need me.  My first few Mensa events taught me that.

My thoughts continue to spiral until my name is called.  I collect my things, fumbling with my multiple beverages, my snack, bag, gloves, coat, and planner.  I don’t know why I brought all of these things. It’s safe to say I’m overprepared. It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.  I tell parents to pack these things for their children. Get a good night’s sleep, eat a balanced breakfast, bring a snack, and don’t forget a water-bottle.  That’s what I tell parents when they ask me how to prepare their child for an IQ test. I figured that I should take my own advice — to do the same for myself.  Of course, I couldn’t do everything for me. I couldn’t tell myself, “You’re going to play with someone. You’ll do some cool puzzles and activities. They’ll ask you some questions. Have fun.”  I could tell myself this, but it wouldn’t do much good. I know too much. I have too much at stake. I could tell myself it’s not graded or scored, but I know that’s not true. I can feel my thoughts slowing me down, but the psychologist patiently waits for me to make my way across the room to her.

I introduce myself to her.  She introduces herself to me. Or was it the other way around?  I shake her hand. I’m trembling. Why am I trembling? Surely, she must have noticed.  You’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I try to reassure myself — to calm myself down. Stop shaking, I tell myself.  Breathe. I knew that I was going to be anxious going into this test, but I didn’t quite anticipate just how anxious that I would be when I actually arrived.  I figured it would at subside once I began. It didn’t. My anxiety stayed with me, a reliable partner in crime for the entire 2 hours.

The psychologist picked up on my anxiety, of course.  She’s trained for this. She asked me if my anxiety was test related or generalized.  I chuckled nervously. Is it that obvious? Of course it is. Would I do better on a different day?  I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. Maybe. Let’s proceed. And so it began…

The WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) isn’t much different than the WISC, and it was pretty much everything that I thought it would be.  I’ve read a tremendous number of WISC reports for kids. I’ve done my own research. I’ve taken the classes and completed the coursework. Somehow, though, some part of me still wanted to believe that there was more — something to justify the number of years of study required to administer the test at the very least.  But, there wasn’t more.

The psychologist cannot change the order in which the sections are administered, so it’s pretty formulaic. She opened up an administration booklet.  She read from this throughout the duration of the test. She read directions aloud, checking at each step to ensure I understood the task at hand, not unlike the proctoring for any other standardized test.  She listed to my questions and answered what she could. She could answer some questions but not others. Overall, the time actually flew by. If I hadn’t been so anxious, it would have actually been fun. When I finished, I could feel my body relax, but I knew I’d still have to wait for the report, typically 2-3 weeks.  The report came a few days later, far earlier than the usual 2 – 3 weeks, but I didn’t need a written report — just numbers. I got what I needed plus some ‘padding’ as she called it, and my anxiety subsided. 

I don’t feel “labeled” as I thought I would.  I don’t  feel like an impostor.  I’m still me, nothing much has changed, but I found my tribe, and I’m here to stay.  I’ve only been to a couple of Mensa events so far, but it’s the first time I’ve felt a sense of belonging — of comfort — of community — of people that don’t think I’m weird;  I’m normal here.  
Here’s what I learned from the experience:    

1. Your FSIQ Doesn’t Tell You Much

I didn’t request a written report; I didn’t need detailed information to provide to any school or program, so I couldn’t really justify the additional cost.  I didn’t need a psychologist to confirm, in writing, that my anxiety may have had some effect on my results.  I knew that.  However, with just a score report, all I gained from this assessment was entry into Mensa and confirmation that my arithmetic skills suffer while experiencing high levels of anxiety.  
When parents ask me whether or not a written report is necessary if they get their child’s IQ tested, I always tell them yes.  An FSIQ is just a number. If there is a major discrepancy between different sections, these sub-scores might provide you with some information, but the psychologist’s observations will provide you with the most information.  If your child is twice-exceptional, it might help to point towards your child’s struggles; however, a comprehensive neuro-psychological evaluation that includes assessments for suspected learning disabilities in addition to an IQ test will yield the most productive information.  

If your child has a slow processing speed, an IQ test might be able to assess this; however, a low processing speed on an IQ test does not guarantee that your child actually has a slow processing speed.  I performed wonderfully on one of these sections and not so well on the other. There were several factors that contributed to this, none of which had to do with my actual ability to process the content on the page in front of me.  Moreover, a child with poor motor skills will also do poorly on these sections as the speed at which your child writes is just as important as their processing speed for these sections. I administered a similar assessment to many of my students and found a direct correlation between their handwriting skills and their performance on type of assessment.  

In any case, you won’t get nearly as much information out of the raw scores and FSIQ as you will from the psychologist’s written report.  
2. The experience and personality of the test administrator matters
I hate to admit it, but anyone could administer an IQ test and yield somewhat accurate results so long as the administration manual is followed.  Read the directions aloud, check for understand, read each question or task, and record the response.  The administration manual includes detailed “if…then….” scenarios, dictating the proper scoring methodology, correct/incorrect answers, and procedures.  There are, of course, restrictions on who can purchase and administer an IQ test. These restrictions exist to maintain the integrity of the test and to ensure reliability of the test.  Moreover, the psychologists observations and written report typically offer more insight into your child than the raw scores themselves; this requires expertise and experience.
The psychologist that administered the WAIS to me was not very familiar with the test; she admitted as much.  She administers the WISC-V far more often. Since I knew a lot about the test, I knew what questions to ask to ensure I knew the “goal.”  Despite this, she was an appropriate choice for me. She was patient with my anxiety and handled my hundreds of questions well. She would not have  been a good choice for someone less familiar with the WAIS, and the results could have certainly differed. I knew that the time I took to answer questions mattered.  I confirmed this with her. If I didn’t know to ask, I would have happily taken much longer to answer the questions simply to ensure correctness. 

If you suspect your child is gifted, find a psychologist with experience assessing gifted children.  Pick a psychologist that makes you feel comfortable and that you believe your child will get along with.  Just as your child may not get along with all the children on the playground, he/she may feel more or less comfortable with a different psychologist.  
How to ensure your child has a better experience than I did:
1.  Make sure they’re healthy and well-rested
If your child is sick and didn’t get a good night’s sleep, they’re simply not going to “do their best.”  They can’t. Research shows that sleep deprivation has a direct effect on information processing speed. Another study shows that higher cognitive functions such as creativity and abstract thinking are impaired after only a single night of restricted sleep (Randazzo, Muehlbach, & Schweitzer, 1998).  A poor night’s sleep can also impact your child’s mood, leading to irritability and behavioral disturbances.
2. Feed your child a healthy balanced breakfast
Research consistently shows that students who eat a balanced breakfast perform better on exams.  A balanced breakfast won’t increase your child’s overall IQ, but it will ensure that the results are a more accurate representation of your child’s true ability.  Slow-release carbohydrates and protein are vital aspects to your child’s breakfast. Sugary cereals and snacks will give your child short-term energy, but their sugar high will end before the exam is over.  Mild dehydration can also reduce alertness and concentration. High blood sugar levels are linked to high cortisone levels, increasing symptoms of stress and anxiety. Excessive sugar intake can also :”
  • Block membranes and thereby slow down neural communication
  • Increase free radical inflammatory stress on your brain. Free radicals can rupture cells.
  • Interfere with synaptic communication
  • Cause neurons to misfire and send erroneous messages that take time and energy to sort out
  • Increase delta, alpha, and theta brain waves, which make it harder to think clearly (Aubele, 2011).  


Your child can’t study for an IQ test, and attempting to do will only indicate to your child that this is a test that they must do well on. Today, children take many tests in school, and children feel as if they need to get everything right. This is especially true for a high achieving gifted child that is used to getting everything right without trying. An IQ test is not a test. It’s an assessment. It’s one way to measure your child’s cognitive abilities as related to other children their age. Remember this as your prepare your child for their session.

When properly prepared, many students find IQ tests to be fun – almost like a game or a puzzle. Because the testing stops for each section after multiple incorrect answers, your child should feel successful regardless of their performance so long as they have a good test administrator. The psychologist who administered the WAIS to me didn’t have much of a poker face, so I instantly knew if my answers were right or wrong. This certainly didn’t help ease my anxiety.


Your child should be motivated to do his/her best. Help your child find intrinsic motivation to do well. Don’t bribe your child with treats or toys. This only tells your child that it is important to YOU that he/she does well, putting pressure on your child and potentially leading to stress and anxiety. Do this by telling your child ahead of time. Please, do not wait until the day of — or worse, the car ride over. I’ve had students arrive for Academic Evaluations, completing unaware of what they were walking into. It puts your child and the test administrator in a tough spot. In the week or so leading up to your child’s IQ test, talk to him/her about it. Don’t tell them it’s a test as this indicates that he/she can pass or fail. Tell your child that he/she will be going to spend some time with Dr. ______, who will have some activities and puzzles for them to work on. The activities are meant to help you and their teachers better understand how he/she thinks. Avoid telling your child that an IQ test will be used to determine admission into certain programs or groups; this can also induce stress in your child.


4. If possible, meet the psychologist before hand

A psychologist with experience assessing young children should spend some time getting to know your child before the test, either on the test day or during the test, but you will want to check with the psychologist to confirm. If your child is shy around new people, it is especially important that he/she has time to become comfortable with the psychologist before beginning the assessment.

While I might have experienced high levels of anxiety during my test, most children will not. Unless you tell your child that it is a high stakes test (which it is not), she/he will likely have a lot of fun. Even with my high levels of anxiety, I had some fun. It really does feel like a game, and the psychologist testing me was certainly not attempting to make it feel like a game due to my age. I’ve administered tasks similar to those found on the WISC to my students as part of our Academic Evaluation, and almost every child thinks the activities are fun. Most ask for more of the same activities!



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