Managing GRE Anxiety Before Test Day

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Managing GRE Anxiety Before Test Day by Cat Powell

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I am an incredibly anxious person. Like all of us, I worry about the big things (work, money, relationships, illness), but I also descend into fear when confronted with absurdly small things (the weird look the Dunkin’ Donuts cashier gives me when I ask for six sugars, the ominous clicking sound my toaster makes—WILL IT BLOW UP AND KILL ME???). Learning to manage my many anxieties is one of my main challenges on a day-to-day basis.

So I relate, strongly, to the students I work with who struggle with GRE anxiety. This anxiety manifests in a few common ways:

  • Official GRE scores that are significantly below practice test scores
  • The feeling of “blanking” or panicking when seeing a familiar type of problem in a test-like situation
  • Difficulty managing timing, either rushing or getting stuck for too long on individual problems
  • Persistent procrastination, a growing sense of fear or dread when sitting down to study

If any of this resonates with you, know that you’re in good company; many of the students I see in classes and tutoring are grappling with these issues. Here are four strategies that students have found helpful in dealing with GRE anxiety (and that I’ve also found help me to confront my toaster):

Breathe.

This is a small thing that makes a huge difference, and you can start implementing it right away. When taking the test, take a deep breath after each problem. This will physically relax you and help you to clear your mind; if a problem goes badly, this also encourages you to let go of that experience before starting a new problem, so that one mistake doesn’t become a string of them. Staying relaxed also reduces fatigue, allowing you stay sharp for the full four-hour test. In order to make this an ingrained test-taking habit, you should start practicing it right away, whenever you work on a new problem or problem set.

Take care of yourself.

Anxiety may originate in the mind, but it often manifests physically. Exercise, sleep, and healthy food help to mitigate the physical symptoms of anxiety. We all know these are things we should do, but, if you’re like me, it’s hard to keep them up. Try adding or changing one small thing about your routine, and, once that new habit is ingrained, then add something else.

Practice mindfulness.

The practice of trying to sustain a neutral mental state, focused entirely on awareness of the present moment, is a great way to exercise the mental muscles that keep anxiety at bay. Personally, I find mindfulness exercises REALLY hard—my brain likes to keep going in familiar loops (the toaster, the toaster, the toaster). I’ve found, though, that the effort I put into this practice really pays off. A number of my students use and like the app Headspace, but there are a number of great free resources online. Like exercise and sleep, this is also a habit with benefits that extend far beyond the test—just generally a good thing to try.

Change the story you’re telling.

When working with anxious children, one strategy is to suggest that the children create “anxiety monsters,” or physical manifestations of their anxieties, and then describe and interrogate these creatures. This encourages them to see their anxiety as something separate from themselves that can be understood and, eventually, modified and disarmed. A similar strategy works for adults taking the GRE. Pay attention to when the test makes you feel anxious; are there any patterns? Certain types of problems? A test-like atmosphere in general? Then, ask yourself why these produce anxiety. Maybe complex algebra problems freak you out because you had a bad experience with algebra in high school; in this case, you have a deeply-ingrained story about algebra that’s preventing you from improving.

Once you’ve identified the causes of GRE anxiety, you can start telling yourself different stories about these fears. On a macro-level, replace negative stories (“I’m bad at algebra”) with optimistic ones (“I’m going to become really good at algebra”). Combine this positive mindset with a rigorous attention to detail (do drills with the algebra concepts that you struggle with until they feel comfortable). The goal is to be working consistently turning weaknesses into strengths without beating yourself up when things go wrong.

In general, on the GRE and when dealing with toasters, many of the things that make us anxious are problems with rational solutions. Anxiety, which is often totally irrational, keeps us from finding these solutions—so we have to step back, take a deep breath, relax, and figure out what we’re really scared of, and how to tackle that. And now that I’ve given myself this nice pep talk, I’m going to go take apart the toaster and see if it really is about to explode. ?


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Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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