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Do you get the test-day jitters? Even when you’re taking a practice GRE? So do I, even though I’ve been taking the GRE for eight years. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about how to stay calm during the GRE and get a great score.
1. It’s just a feeling, not a bad omen.
Nervousness is a normal, biological reaction. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t ready for the test, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to do well. The feeling of nervousness—the butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the racing heart—is a signal that your body is releasing adrenaline. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life. When you notice that you’re feeling a bit on edge, don’t read too much into it. Calmly remind yourself that it’s a normal feeling, and even people who score a perfect 340 feel nervous beforehand.
2. Framing matters!
The physical sensation of nervousness is very similar to excitement. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two! You can take advantage of that using a trick called anxious reappraisal. When you’re feeling anxious before your test, say the following simple phrase out loud: “I am excited.” Do it a dozen times if you need to! Studies have shown that doing so can reduce your heart rate and make you feel less anxious.
3. Change your self-talk.
As humans, we constantly engage in mental “self-talk,” whether we realize it or not. The content and form of your self-talk has a powerful effect on your performance. Before the GRE, cheer yourself on with a mental pep talk. During the test, think of a simple mantra you can recite to remind yourself of all the work you’ve put in—mine is “You’ve got this.” When a problem goes well, congratulate yourself! And when a problem goes poorly, don’t call yourself names. Try these phrases instead: “Okay, on to the next problem.” “No big deal.” “Let’s do better next time.” The great thing about this trick is that it works even if you don’t really believe what you’re saying! Just try it out.
4. Hack your body language.
You can often tell that someone’s feeling anxious without even talking to them. They might sit or stand with a “closed” posture, with their arms and legs drawn inwards. They might appear to be tense or rigid. Their facial expression may appear worried. Anxiety causes predictable changes in your body. However, it also goes the other way: changing how you sit or stand can change how anxious or confident you feel. Check out this article for some tips on powerful, confident body language. On test day, try the “Wonder Woman” pose for a minute or two during your break! Then, as you work through the GRE, don’t let yourself slump or curl up in your chair. Instead, keep an open, confident, relaxed posture.
Your brain needs oxygen. Your brain also loves simple rituals that remind you to stay calm and focused. Combine both of these factors into one behavior, and try taking a deep breath at the start of every single GRE problem. This is a huge part of my own test-day ritual; taking a few seconds to breathe reminds me to let go of the previous problem and focus on the task at hand.
6. Consider your caffeine intake.
I don’t normally drink coffee. (I might be the only person on earth who actually quit caffeine during graduate school.) That said, I’ve tried drinking coffee right before a practice test or an important meeting, and it’s usually turned out to be a mistake. It’s true that caffeine is a performance enhancer, but it also increases your heart rate and can cause anxiety. If you don’t know exactly what effect it has on you, don’t risk it. On the other hand, if you’re a total coffee addict, make sure you have time for your morning latte on the day of the GRE, and consider bringing a caffeinated beverage in a thermos to drink during your 10-minute break. The larger lesson here is that changing your routine on the day of the test will probably amplify your nervousness, while sticking to your usual routine will make you feel calmer.
Here’s the short takeaway. Nervousness, before and during the GRE, is completely normal. It doesn’t have to affect your score at all, and you can even take advantage of it by reframing it as excitement. There are also simple steps you can take to avoid the worst of it, and to set yourself up for success. Don’t think of test-day anxiety as your enemy! If you go into the test knowing that you’ve worked hard and prepared well, you’re ready, whether you feel nervous or not. 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.