What to do about Test Anxiety

Jane Cassie —  February 18, 2014

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!

Jane Cassie

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