Standardized Test Prep: How to Keep Test Day Stress at Bay

Posted by Sam Ashworth on 10/7/13 8:51 AM

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Just like home, only the exact opposite in every way.

 At Cambridge Coaching, we are acutely aware that for many students, whether they're taking the SAT, the GMAT, or the MCAT, it can be much, much harder to perform on Test Day than in practice tests. Today, we'd like to provide a list of tips designed to help you make sure that you work just as well in the chilly testing room as you do in the comfort of your own home.

Consider the Testing Chamber. A harshly-lit classroom in an otherwise empty building, always either overairconditioned or overheated, silent except for the relentless and uncharitably loud ticking of the clock on the wall. Full of students bent over their booklets like beggars over a tin of beans, all gripping their regulation No. 2 non-mechanical Ticonderoga pencils, which despite this being 2013 we are still compelled to use, until their hands cramp and become clawlike. A poorly-paid proctor props his shoes on the teacher's desk and pages idly through a magazine. And it is in this chamber, this brain-blunting temple of sterility, that we are expected to sit for a four-hour examination. Is it any wonder that students, even the best-prepared ones, routinely blank on Test Day? That they constantly crumble under pressure, fall apart, get fixated on the one guy next to them that seems not to have showered in a month, and before they know it they've been staring at the same problem for ten minutes and suddenly despair barges in like the Kool-Aid Guy?

What is to be done? 

First things first, we must all adopt the immortal mantra of Syrio Forel, Dancing Master:


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1. Never think about your score.

You do the question in front of you, and you do it right.  Don't think about the last problem, or the problems that will come.  Don't decide, "God, I've gotten so many wrong already, can't I just give up?"  No.  Dancing Master Sirio would not approve.  Just solve this one problem, and move on. 

2. Always know how to start.

The best way to keep from feeling bewildered and lost is to have a process for every type of question.  When you come to a sentence completion, and you don't even know where to start, take a deep breath, and remember the methods you've studied.  This is where having a standardized test prep tutor can really come in handy, because then you aren't just remembering methods, you're remembering the voice of your tutor, repeating in your ear, "First, what type of sentence is this? Second, what's the relationship between the blanks?"  Even if you haven't had tutoring, the goal of your studying should always be to ensure that you never face a problem you don't know how to begin to answer.  90% of standardized test-taking is knowing where to start.  "It's a reading comp question?  Okay, what type of question is it?  It's inference?  Cool, I know what to do  It's a math question? Well, is this the type of question where I can backsolve from the answer choices?  I can?  Score."


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The right outfit can be magic.

3. Dress for success!

We've covered this on this blog before, but the advice bears repeating here:

I started showing up to finals in that green bathrobe, and discovered something remarkable: however pessimistic I had felt about my chances on an exam, however certain I was that I knew nothing, had no business taking the class, or even being in college, and should have just fled the campus and the city and gone to live a life of quiet but dignified failure somewhere in the foothills of Jersey—wearing the robe made me feel infinitely sunnier toward the whole situation. I'd look around the room at everyone else wrapped in scarves and peacoats and mittens and boots, and there I'd be, tromping in, taking off my boots, putting on my slippers, and waltzing around in my dirty old green bathrobe, feeling very imperial indeed.

Also, layer!  The hotter it is outdoors, the colder that room will be; the colder it is, the more likely that some overzealous person has cranked the heat up to "infernal."

The point here is that standardized tests like the LSAT or GRE or SAT or any of the endless intimidating acronyms we bow before are just as much about mental toughness and psychological preparation as they are about studying.  I know a lot of people who entered important tests as prepared as humanly possible, and then suddenly went completely blanked.  One person I know blew her LSATs because the guy next to her kept crushing and crinkling a Red Bull can in his fist, and his stress was apparently contagious.  So before Test Day, spend a little time thinking about how you plan to stay relaxed, stay flexible, and above all, stay confident--it may make all the difference in the world.


Have thoughts?  Methods or tips you'd like to share?  Or questions for our veteran tutors?  Tweet them at us at @cooldorks or share them with us on Facebook, and we'll holler back!

Tags: test anxiety