Whether you’re applying to college, graduate school, law school, medical school, or even some jobs, standardized tests are often part of the process. They can be intimidating, long, arduous, and confusing, but with some practice, you’ll learn how to overcome any test-taking anxiety and stay focused. Here are a few tips and tricks for going into a test feeling calm and prepared.
1. Study well
This probably seems obvious, but the first step for going into a test without anxiety is feeling prepared. This post won’t cover study skills, but whenever you schedule yourself for a standardized test, make sure you also make yourself a study schedule — and stick to it. There’s nothing worse than going into a test knowing that you don’t know all the material. Familiarize yourself with the types of questions, any detailed vocabulary or skills, and methods for completing test tasks. Knowing what’s coming around each flip of the page will greatly reduce any anxiety you have about that test.
2. Know the format
It’s important to know the content of the test but nearly as important is knowing how the test is sectioned and timed. Internalizing the rhythm of the test and knowing ahead of time how many minutes, even seconds, to budget for each type of question will greatly relieve your test-taking stress, and lead to a calmer experience. It will also allow you to prioritize questions. Knowing how long you should be taking on something will allow you to pass a question if it’s taking you too much time with a clear and calm mind. It happens! And being familiar with the test will make making those “triage” decisions easier and less fraught. The key to knowing the format is practicing the test. Run through several sample tests as if in a test-taking situation. Don’t look at answers or notes — make your practice as close to the real situation as possible. This will give you a feel for the timing of the sections and your comfort with the material. Having a few runs under your belt before the real test will greatly reduce your test-taking anxiety.
3. Keep track of your time
Since you’ve practiced the test, you know how much time you should be spending on each section and question. So, during the test, ask if you can keep a watch on your desk. That way, you can stay focused, keep your eyes down, but also keep track of your progress and pacing. Some students become panicked when they think they are running out of time or when they lose track of how much time has passed. This way, you’ll know exactly where you are and where you should be.
4. Adopt a mantra
A mantra is a short phrase that you repeat over and over to calm and focus your mind. It’s a practice imported from meditation, but widely applicable. It may sound hokey, but it can be incredibly helpful during stressful situations. It’s helpful if your mantra has a nice rhythm and soothing message — something like, “calm, cool, collected,” or “move quickly, move well,” or “focus the mind, quiet the body” — or come up with your own. Repeating this mantra at the outset of your test and in moments of stress and uncertainty will help bring you back to a baseline, where you can think more clearly. A little stress can be good to keep you focused, but too much scrambles your ability to recall information and make good decisions. Your mantra will help keep you in that sweet spot.
5. Be physically prepared
It may not seem like it, but a test is a physical undertaking. Mental exertion is not unlike physical exertion. To be mentally fit, you need to be in good physical health on “game day,” aka, test day. Studying the night before may seem like a good idea, but not if it cuts into a good night of sleep. Keep up a good sleep and eating routine the week of the test so that you’re rested and healthy, body and mind. It will also cut down on the risk of getting ill during the days leading up to the test. Being in good health will remove another stressor from the situation and allow you to keep the test material at the forefront of your mind.
6. Practice visualization
Visualization is something practiced by many athletes. It’s a method of anticipation and mental practice. In a moment of calm, you close your eyes and see yourself sitting down and taking out your pencils. You see yourself opening the test booklet and beginning the test. You see yourself finishing the test and leaving the testing room. Visualization helps calm your mind and put yourself in a stressful situation before it happens so that when it happens, you are ready for it. Try it!
7. Focus your eyes to focus your mind
Keeping a focused mind is sometimes as easy as keeping your eyes literally focused on the task at hand. Being in a room full of test-takers naturally invites comparison. Is she more prepared than I am? Why is he going so fast? Is everyone else ahead of me? This kind of self-doubt is a natural symptom of anxiety, but don’t invite it into your mind. Keep your eyes on your own desk and your own test. Don’t let your mind wander or dwell. Don’t procrastinate or daydream. Just do what you came to do!
All of these tips are great for test-takers, but they can be applied to any stressful situation. The key is to learn what works for you, and how to best quiet and focus your mind, no matter the noise going on around it. Good luck!