Almost all of us get exam day nerves. I did, even on the day I got a 340 on the GRE. I am not sure they can be fully eliminated, nor would we really want them to go completely. Why? Because we can re-purpose them.
We can exploit the fight-or-flight response and use that exam anxiety to fight back and fight better.
Panicking is natural but we want to turn that exam stress into productive stimulus for your brain. So, how do we do it?
I have five key strategies and I am pretty sure over 90% of people don’t follow all of them, especially 3-4.
First, Get Your Priorities Straight. A big part of the fear of exams is not of the exam itself but of the consequences to your career, to self-worth or whatever. But let me tell you this. You need to tell yourself that ‘whatever happens you will be a success’.
While I do love exams like the GRE and GMAT, I have seen countless entrepreneurs succeed at crazy young ages without Masters, or with lower scores than they hoped for. This doesn’t mean you don’t prepare – that’s just laziness. But it means you don’t make it more important in your mind than it is.
Second strategy. Expectations Management. If you are worried about an exam, play down expectations for your score – both you own expectations and those you tell others. In fact, try not to tell others you are even sitting them exam, let alone what score you are aiming for.
Even if you are aiming to be in the top 10%, remind yourself that getting into the top 50% would still be really cool. Happiness = Reality – Expectations.
The less wild we can be with our expectations, the more happy and relaxed we will be. This doesn’t mean to avoid ambition but it does mean to keep your expectations in check. I think I only told one other person I was even doing the GRE, for example.
I don’t want you to do virtually any work in the last 48 hours before the test. I want your brain to be similarly relaxed and refreshed.
The only exceptions are to casually re-read your notes and remind yourself of some the stuff you memorised. That means no new questions, no tests, no stress. Nothing that might suggest to your brain that you are not prepared. You wanna go in pumped, full of self-confidence. Getting a load of questions wrong in the final couple of days can be off-putting. So, avoid practice questions in that period.
This advice might seem counter-intuitive, as you want to maximise your revision, but I did it for both the GRE and GMAT and it really worked. You go into the exam hungrier and fresher.
If you revise until the last minute, you might feel more prepared, and might not feel that tired. But when, three hours into the test, you get your third reading comprehension passage, your brain just won’t want to listen. Concentration will wane. Boredom will set in.
Instead, we want to be excited for every new question that comes up.
Time for my exam day strategy. Light Exercise on exam day. I strongly recommend a long walk before the test and short walks during your breaks. I am probably sounding a bit crazy right now, but the evidence really backs it up. Check out this article from lifehacker:
Final strategy, and possibly the most important one, to turn that fight-or-flight response into a purely fighting one! Get Used to Taking Full Tests. That means simulating the full experience. That means no pausing and no checking the guide mid-way through a test.
Pausing just takes away all the nerves and doesn’t give you a lifelike experience. You want the same time pressure as you’ll get in the real exam, to build up immunity.
Taking practice tests properly means sitting down for 2 hours or 4 hours, or whatever is necessary, and getting it done in one go.
The more you do something, the less nervous you get at doing it. That is the clear correlation that holds true.
As a bonus tip, if you can, sit the practice tests at the same hour of the day as your real test will be. This can adjust your body clock (circadian rhythm) to become better prepared for the experience, and minimise that exam dread, exam pressure and exam fluster.
As for how many practice tests, I always recommend a minimum of a dozen but really the sky is the limit. I did 20 practice tests before my GMAT exam and almost as many before my GRE.
As I like to say, nothing prepares you for an exam like an exam.