You have ambitious plans for your future. You have almost achieved them, but one item stands in your way – a test. Whether it is the GRE, the SAT, or a professional certification exam, it is all too easy to become lost in worry about that one test that seems to bar your path to a better life. It is perfectly normal to be at least a little bit worried about an exam, and there are a number of resources that can help you cope with your test-day anxiety. But what about the weeks and months prior to your exam? How can you maintain your focus while mitigating unnecessary obsessing?
“Knowledge is power,” may be a trite statement, but it is also true. Humans have masterful imaginations, and we excel at filling the dark corners of our world with monsters. When we are faced with an unknown exam, for example, we imagine impossible odds. In this case, knowledge is the best cure for uncertainty.
If you suffer from test anxiety, first investigate the specifics of the exam. The more you familiarize yourself with the challenges you will face, the more you can focus on strategies that will help you do your best. Examine all the details of the actual test – where is the exam center? What time does the test start? What materials will you need? Answering these questions in advance can reduce the uncertainty surrounding the exam. More importantly, it can limit your anxiety over common fears like getting lost on the morning of the test.
When I was seven, I joined the baseball team at my elementary school. But even when my father threw the slowest pitch possible, I struck out. Each trip to bat became more and more stressful, but I finally broke this pattern after my mother told me to imagine walking up to the plate, and to imagine the feel of the bat hitting the ball, and to practice that sensation in my mind again and again. While I did not go on to realize my dream of starting for the Seattle Mariners, I did learn a lesson about the power of imagination.
As cliche as it may sound, visualization works because it creates an alternate narrative. When you imagine driving to the exam center, parking your car, and sitting for your exam, you are creating a story that you will live out. Avoid imagining a vague narrative, like “I will do great!” Instead, concentrate on the emotions you want your future self to experience: your determination as you set out for the test, your tension as you first arrive at the center, your satisfaction as you successfully answer one question after another, and your relief when you are done. Practice with low-stakes scenarios this summer (such as an intramural sporting event), and by the time your exam arrives, you will be living a story that you have already written.
Form a plan
Identify the parts of the test that you are most worried about, and develop a plan to address each area before your exam day. “I will study diligently,” does not count as a plan. Divide the material that you must master into sections, and schedule a time to review it piece-by-piece. This can be difficult, if only because you will be forced to confront the task before you. However, the simple act of creating a plan can do wonders. Setting meaningful goals equips you with achievements to check off as you approach your test date. Instead of wondering how you will ever scale that towering mountain, you can point to a trail that, while challenging, is manageable with a bit of patience and persistence.
Psychologists are now recognizing procrastination as a fear-based response, rather than one rooted in laziness. That fear is often not just of failure, but of being exposed as a fraud. After all, if you do not fully engage with a challenge, your failure is not entirely your fault – or so the logic goes. The mind can be an irrational beast, since procrastination is an almost certain way to guarantee the thing you fear most. Psychology is beyond the scope of this article, but I have found that it helps my own struggles with procrastination when I understand my motivations. When I delay a difficult writing project, it is not that I am lazy. Instead, I am afraid that what I will write will be terrible. The key to ensuring a great product, of course, is to start early and to revise, just as the way to earn a great test result is to prepare well in advance.
Above all, remember to maintain perspective. Even if the worst case scenario somehow occurs, you will survive, and you will find a path forward. Make a plan, stick to it, and think positive thoughts. Good luck!
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
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