Written by Kerry Auge, for GradSchools.com, March 2014
You are not alone if you have anxiety when it comes to taking standardized tests. Many of us have been bombarded and judged by these since a very young age and frankly they can be a poor reflection of both knowledge and intelligence for many people. Having said that, if you are looking to get into a well-regarded graduate program, chances are you will be faced with it once again. The good news is there are things you can do to ease your anxiety and help you show your true colors on exam day.
Practice, Practice, Practice
For many people it is the timed nature of the tests that creates the feeling of anxiety. Thoughts about how much time we have for each problem, how much time we have left, and the consequences of not completing on time prevents us from being able to focus on answering the questions correctly. Your mind can really only work well in one direction so if you are thinking about the timing of the test on exam day and your anxiety over it, you will not be able to think clearly and efficiently on answering the questions.
The best way to prevent this anxious distraction is to practice the exam in as realistic a setting with specific time constraints. If you usually sit in your family room in your PJ’s to study, switch it up on mock test day. Get dressed and sit at the kitchen table with some really bright lights. Set a timer for each section and see how you do. Make sure you are comfortable with how long it takes you to work through the questions and your acceptable pace. Create a mock testing experience that you can refer back to on test day so if you feel anxiety you can think back to your successful completion of questions in a timely manner during your practice exams. Use the positive feelings that come up to help calm your nerves.
Learn Techniques to Help You Calm Down
There are endless sources of information written about relaxation techniques. Deep breathing and mediation are great ways to help calm your anxiety and focus your mind. If you haven’t mastered these techniques or want to try something more, practice a few different guided relaxation visualizations until you find one that works for you. This is similar to a meditation but it is the practice of visualizing yourself in a safe, calm and happy place. The more you practice it before the exam, the more you will be able to successfully recall how to do this on test day. You can find all sorts of these scripts with an online search for guided relaxation visualization. Try out a bunch of them until you find one that works for you.
Remember the Power of the Mind
You cannot control your emotions, such as the feeling of anxiety in your body, but you can control your thoughts. The level of anxiety you will feel on test day will be directly correlated to your state of mind. If you are well prepared, well rested, armed with your relaxation techniques and enter the exam with a positive and self-confident attitude, anxiety will not get the best of you. Remember daily affirmations from Saturday Night Live? There is some truth to this practice. Tell yourself every day that you are intelligent, calm and going to nail your GMAT with hard work and preparation and chances are you will take the necessary steps to make that happen. On the other hand, if every day you thinking how nervous you are and how much this will make or break your entrance to grad school or how you always flop on standardized tests, then you will probably bring that about in your life.
Give Yourself Credit
The simple fact that you are looking at going to grad school means you have managed your way through several difficult standardized tests in the past. Maybe you didn’t score as well as you would have liked to and we know the experience is less than pleasant but you did get through it. Think back on your previous experiences with standardized tests and try to identify your strengths and weaknesses with regard to each of those days. Maybe the gum chewer in the room easily distracted you, or you got physically hot from your anxiety. Use whatever useful information you can pull from those experiences to help you on test day to remain calm, keep your focus and power through it.
About the Author: Kerry Auge is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in business.