Preparing for a standardized tests, like the MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, or GRE can be an all-encompassing experience. Students believe that to do well, they have to put the rest of their lives on hold—by dealing with their exam in the most neurotic way possible, they believe that they can exert control over it. As an MCAT tutor, I have seen that the problem, though, is that putting the rest of your life on hold can, itself, paradoxically increase your anxiety as the detritus starts to pile up and ruin any of your well-groomed study skills.
Here are five must-do’s that can help make sure that you are your best on exam day:
1) Work out—Some students think they can’t spare the hour or so it would take them to work out several times a week. A regular workout can be your best anxiety-buster. Why? The body produces natural endorphins—body-drugs that produce the natural “high” that one experiences after a good hard workout. These body-drugs have a natural calming and focusing effect that, you guessed it, can make your studying more efficient and effective. Not only that, but focusing on something else for a short time every day gives the subconscious some space to think things through, processing all of the challenges that come with studying.
2) Take a day off every week—Most of us are people, not machines. People need other people, they need recreation, and they need rest. Many students think that they can’t afford the time away; that somehow, it will sink them. Quite the contrary—a day away can help consolidate information, regroup focus, and refresh the tanks for another week of a studying. And like a good workout, some time focusing on friends, family, and play gives the subconscious room to work.
3) Eat good food—Often students think that they can’t afford the time to feed themselves adequately, so they eat an imbalanced diet, replete with junk food. The food you eat is literally the fuel you use throughout your day. If you’re running on substandard fuel, expect substandard results. Use your day off to go grocery shopping and to cook yourself some hearty, healthy meals you can prepare quickly throughout the week.
4) Take an hour for “maintenance” activities every day—All of us have daily or periodic “maintenance” activities that we need to accomplish. Showering and other grooming, doing laundry, checking email, processing bills and other snail-mail, etc. Unfortunately, these responsibilities don’t stop just because you’re studying for your exam. And feeling “on top of things” is really important when it comes to performing your best—so stay on top of things! Take at least an hour every day to process your life. First, feeling crisp and clean will help your day-to-day confidence. What’s more, students who get anxious often use these responsibilities as procrastination tools—they take unnecessary time away because having let these responsibilities get out of hand and needing to take care of them gives them a fair excuse to do so. By staying on top of things a little every day, you can help nip procrastination at its bud.
5) Sleep—Along with food and exercise, sleep is a core biological necessity. Students think that the added 1-2 hours of studying they trade for 1-2 hours of sleep is worth it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Students studying for big exams—exams that require them the utmost of what their brains can give, need at least 7-8 hours of sleep nightly. Remember, most of these exams are more interested in your capacity to think through material with agility and nimbleness rather than the sheer amount of knowledge you have about a particular topic. A rested brain is an agile brain. And a rested brain is your best asset both while studying and on test day.