Articles published in February 2014

What to do about Test Anxiety


test-anxietyI want to preface this article by saying that I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or expert in test anxiety. I’m simply a tutor who has helped students prepare for standardized tests for the past 15 years.

Studying math is important. Studying verbal is important. Studying the test itself is important. But what about when you’ve done all that, and you can’t overcome the anxiety that holds you back from achieving your dream score? What about that panic that makes your brain fuzzy? What about the flustered feeling that stops you from showing what you know?

Everyone feels some pressure during the test, but test anxiety may be having a negative impact on your score if any of the following are consistently true for you:

  • Your real exam scores are significantly lower than your practice test scores.
  • When the timer is set, you feel unable to answer a question that is easy for you once the timer is off.
  • You find yourself unable to move forward through a real or practice test and resort to panicked guessing.
  • Many of your practice tests remain uncompleted because you are overwhelmed by pressure during the test and find that you need a break.

Everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. But the good news is that there are many strategies you can use to mitigate test anxiety and improve both your comfort level and your store. Here are a few strategies you can try.

1.     Work small to big. Many times students do their homework one question at a time, and then take a practice test. That’s like going from finding your golf grip to competing in a tournament. No wonder it makes you anxious!

Instead, think about increasing the amount of timed questions in small intervals. Start by timing one question at a time, then two, then four, and slowly increase the amount until the test doesn’t feel so daunting.

2.     Focus on calmness, not scores. We know that the GRE score is important, but math and verbal aren’t the only areas you need to study. So is staying calm, keeping your mental focus, and honing the ability to work quickly and effectively in mental “crisis” mode instead of hurried and frazzled in “panic” mode.

How can you practice such a thing? Try practicing a full test (or a smaller problem set) with your only goals as staying calm and staying on time. Those are both things that need active practicing, and it can help to experience the exam while calm, when the focus is off the score. You might even find that your score holds its own… or goes up!

3.     Mix topics slowly. If all your studying has been one topic at a time, it can be overwhelming to take a real exam. Not only are many topics mixed, but also it can be the first time you’ve had to actively identify what is being tested in the question.

You can help remove anxiety caused in this way, and also increase your score significantly, by mixing topics slowly. When you study one topic, force yourself to identity how you can tell what topic is being tested just by looking at the question. Once you’ve done that with two topics, try mixing them together. Then add one more topic at a time.

4.     Make a plan, take a break. This seems simple and straightforward, but it really can help. I know that every second is precious on the GRE, and many of us feel time pressure during the exam. Sometimes, that time pressure can put us in panic mode, where we feel like any second we aren’t “doing something” is a second wasted, so we rush into working without a plan.

Generally, making a plan is worthwhile. Taking a moment to figure out why type of question you’re doing and how to attack it will generally be faster than jumping right into solving, which may send you down the wrong path and not allow you to pick up key signals.

In addition, you may find that a short break, just 10 or 20 seconds where you close your eyes and take a deep breath, helps you to refocus and ends up saving you time.

5.     Study for question recognition. This suggestion applies whether you have test anxiety or not, because it’s the clearest and most direct way to improve your score (after learning the underlying basics). When you get a question wrong, you don’t just want to learn what the right answer is. At least as importantly, and I would argue more importantly, you want to answer the question, “What did I need to recognize or know to get this question right?”

Asking this question forces you to learn from each question in a way that can be applied to future questions. It pushes you to recognize patterns and to learn how to notice what’s being tested in a question, which can help you make a plan, use what you’ve studied, and avoid common traps.

6.     Meet with a test anxiety specialist. Yes, there is such a thing as a test anxiety specialist. And while most students won’t need one, if you find that your mastery of the material can’t shine because you are paralyzed in the face of the real exam, working with a specialist may help you get through the roadblock that’s holding you back.

Studying for and taking a big exam such as the GRE is an inherently stressful process. But when that stress gets in the way of your success, try taking active steps make it more manageable. After all, you want to show off all the stuff you’ve learned as best you can!

Potent Quotables: Ten Famous Quotes Full of GRE Vocab


gre-word-quotesI’m always on the search for fun and new ways to learn vocab. Well, “fun” might not be the right word, but learning vocabulary is easier when it is tied to things you already know and integrated into your daily life. If you can tie vocabulary to movie clips, song lyrics, other words you already know, or anything else that’s already stored in your memory, you can often remember the definition forever in a quick and easy way.

Here are ten famous quotes, either that you may already know or that you may find easy to remember, that can help you remember GRE vocabulary words.

  1. Alacrity. Ambrose Bierce famously said, “He who thinks with difficulty believes with alacrity.” It’s an astute observation, concisely put, and makes quite a beautiful and poetic insult. It also helps you understand that alacrity means “brisk and cheerful readiness.” Try recalling this quote to describe someone it fits, whether to yourself or to someone else. It might just stick.
  2. Prosaic. You probably know the phrase “poetry and prose”; where something poetic is beautiful and flowery, something prosaic is practical and direct. When Stendhal said, “It is better to have a prosaic husband and to take a romantic lover,” he was setting up a great vocabulary learning sentence that not only shows that “prosaic” and “romantic” are opposites, but helps us understand the nuanced meaning of each word.
  3. Loquacious. “Loquacious” is in the GRE’s rather large toolkit of words that mean “talkative. Here’s a quote for reflection: Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” Another great vocabulary learning sentence, as it clearly sets “loquacious” as the opposite of “dumb”.
  4. Veracity. Veracity means truth. “Truth in spirit, not truth to the letter, is the true veracity,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a great quote to have on hand when you get in trouble for not-quite-following the rules. It’s also a good one for remembering the definition of “veracity”.
  5. Paucity. Because paucity isn’t a word we often use, it’s often hard to envision it in a sentence. Consider Norman Miller’s quote, “The horror of the twentieth century was the size of each new event and the paucity of its reverberation.” It’s a thoughtful point, and it helps us remember the structure “paucity of     (usually some good quality in noun form)  ”.
  6. Maintain. Sure, we encounter the word “maintain” pretty much every day. But as the GRE is wont to do, it often tests the second definition of maintain, which is to assert. Think of Dostoyevsky’s words, “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” That statement was his assertion, and whether you maintain that it’s true, it might help you remember the definition of “maintain”.
  7. Contrition. Here’s a word that’s mostly used today in religious contexts, for it means a feeling of remorsefulness and penitence. Its adjectival form is “contrite”, which is tricky because it sounds like it might mean “not trite”. I find it easier to remember the noun form of contrition. Here’s a helpful quote: “To err is human; but contrition felt for the crime distinguishes the virtuous from the wicked”, said Vittorio Alfieri. This quote helps convey the seriousness and meaning of contrition.
  8. Extant. “Extant” is a GRE favorite that I think I can confidently say I’ve never heard a person actually use when speaking, except in GRE class. Extant means existent, which is the word most of us would use in its place. Thoreau famously said, “There is always a present and extant life, be it better or worse, which all combine to uphold.” I find that the phrase “present and extant” sticks with me to help me recall this definition without much work.
  9. Egregious. I’m going to let Kurt Vonnegut explain this one, as he did in Deadeye Dick. “Egregious. Most people think that word means terrible or unheard of or unforgivable. It has a much more interesting story than that to tell. It means ‘outside the herd.’ Imagine that – thousands of people, outside the herd.” He’s right on both fronts. While the word “egregious” technically means “outside the herd”, it has taken on a bad connotation – standing out for doing something wrong.
  10. Capricious. The definition of this word has been with me since my mother explained that Capricorns are born in January, named for the god of Janus, who has two faces. (Maybe we just figured out why I’m a GRE teacher.) Capricious means fickle or two-faced, of two minds at once. If your mom wasn’t quite so vocabulary inclined, consider this quote from Benjamin Disraeli: “A consistent man believes in destiny; a capricious man in chance.”

Unlike Disraeli, I don’t believe that a consistent man believes in destiny, necessarily; at least not when it comes to the GRE. The consistent among us, men and women alike, know that careful study can always improve your GRE score! For these, and other GRE words, download our free GRE flashcards.