Five steps to beating test anxiety
As an MD/PhD candidate, I've taken and prepared for countless standardized tests. I also know that tests are scary for everyone, even the most seasoned test-takers. After all, exams have implications—and big exams have big implications. In that respect, a little anxiety is natural. But too much can be debilitating...Dealing with your anxiety is just as valuable a study skills as mastering test strategy.
The first step to dealing with test anxiety, particularly with anxiety associated with big tests, is as simple as being honest about it. The problem is that most of us aren’t honest with ourselves about negative feelings we might be experiencing, like anxiety. We try to deal with them by ignoring them.
But while it may seem at first that this is an efficient way of dealing with anxiety (because you don’t actually have to deal with it at all) it's actually the worst way of trying to process it.
Why? Because when we ignore our anxiety, it manifests itself in awkward ways. For example, many students complain that they can't focus when they're working through practice sets—instead they find themselves obsessing over the exam itself, paralyzed by the fear that they won't get the score they want. Their thoughts spiral downward until all they can think about are the thoughts to which their anxiety is directing them. And that’s when anxiety is most dangerous, when it matters most. Because they haven't taken the time to process their anxiety consciously, it comes out subconsciously when they least expect or want it—like in the middle of exam prep.
So if hiding from anxiety doesn’t help, what's the right strategy?
That’s where step 2 comes in: To face it head on and spend some time ruminating over that anxiety every day.
Think deeply about what's riding on this exam—about what might happen if it didn’t go so well. Beyond your educational hopes and dreams, what about your life's goals? And what about the hopes and aspirations of those whom you love? It might sound frightening at first, but if you take the time to feel your anxiety out, you might find that it’s not as scary as it may look from afar. And at least you’ll know that you can stand up to it!
Step 3 is to visualize. Athletes, performing artists, and high-level speakers have been using his trick for decades.
And there’s good data to suggest that mental visualization improves performance in top caliber athletes, like Olympians. Think of yourself as one of those Olympians, or as a performer, performing on the exam stage. In that regard, take another 5 minutes every day during your preparation to visualize your exam day: walk yourself through your routine; waking up in the morning, putting on your exam day outfit, going to the exam center, logging on, and then moving effectively and efficiently through the exam, question by question, getting every single one right. The more you visualize, the more naturally you’ll flow through the experience when it really happens.
The fourth step is to practice like you play.
Many students get frustrated when their testing setting isn't perfect. In that respect, while it may seem more natural to study in a quiet nook of the library or in the comfort of your own home, it actually makes more sense to study in somewhat noisy, imperfect places. Why? Because your exam center may not be perfect, and you'll be prepared if and when it’s not.
The fifth and final step is to learn how to use and deploy the concentration breath. How does it work? It’s as simple as taking a deep breath, and breathing it out over 4-5 seconds.
All the while, focus on the task at hand. This simple technique can help you in the midst of creeping anxieties about your success. Use it while you’re studying. Use it while you’re working practice sets. And definitely use it on test day. This can be one of your best weapons against anxiety both while you’re preparing and during your exam.
In the end, any MCAT tutor will tell you that more than 50% of exam prep is about learning how to manage your anxiety. Getting beyond your fears will free you to do your best on the exam. After all, it doesn't matter what you know if your anxiety paralyzes you.
You can do this. Now, take a deep breath…1…2…3…4…5.