GRE Stress Management: On Test Day

June 6, 2012
Craig Harman

GRE BlogIt’s Test Day.  You’ve been studying and preparing for weeks, possibly even months.  You know the formulas, your vocabulary has never been bigger, and you can recite the Quantitative Comparison answer choices in your sleep.  In other words, you’re completely ready to rock the GRE.

So, why are you nervous?

Test anxiety is a common hindrance to Test Day success.  There have been some excellent blog posts here on the GRE forum outlining ways to work on reducing test anxiety before Test Day.  But what about during the test?  How do you control anxiety, regain focus, and keep moving forward on Test Day?  Here are a few tips that will help you manage the stress that pops up during the most unfortunate time – the actual test.

1) Skip the question.  In the old GRE format, skipping questions was impossible.  The computer adaptive nature of the test required you to answer every question before moving on.  When the GRE changed to the Multi-Stage Test format, this requirement went away.  And because it’s now possible to skip a question and return to it at a later time, use that to your benefit.  Remember those shows on TV where the winner gets two minutes to run through a store and get as many toys as possible?  What was always the best strategy?  Go through the aisles and fill up your cart with as many easy-to-reach items as possible.  The same concept applies to the GRE.  If you see a tough problem (like a toy on a very high shelf), skip it and return to it if you have time.  Your task is to simply get to and correctly answer as many questions correct as you possibly can, in as little amount of time as possible.  Don’t let a tough question throw you for a loop – skip it and come back to it later. (Always answer every question, even if you have to guess.)

2) Take deep breaths, put your pencil down, and close your eyes.  When we get stressed, our bodies release stress hormones that increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.  This is great if you’re being attacked by a bear on a mountain hike, but not quite as ideal when you find yourself trying to stay calm and focused while taking the GRE.  If your mind is stressing out your body, try to reverse the process by having your body calm your mind.  Put your pencil down and close your eyes.  Imagine a tranquil scene, like waves lapping against the beach, or the wind rustling tall grass in an open meadow (sounds cheesy, I know, but try it – it really works!).  Take some deep breaths.   Stem the flow of those stress hormones, regain your composure, and get back to the test.  Even if you end up spending 30-45 seconds taking deep breaths as a way to calm yourself down, that is still time well-spent.

3) Remember the method.  One of the reasons you may feel stress or anxiety on the test is because you feel as though you’re unsure what to do on a given problem.  That’s why having a consistent approach and method is so important.  If you’re staring at a Quantitative Comparison question with fractions and exponents and variables, it can be easy to get flustered.  “Wait, what is going on here?” you may say to yourself.  “This looks crazy hard – I’m not sure I can do this.”  But take a step back and think about the first step you should perform on any given Quantitative Comparison question.  “Oh, right.  First things first – I need to simplify the centered information.  Ok, now that I’ve done that, can I get these two columns to look similar?”  Always work to replace negative, distracting thoughts with action.  Instead of saying to yourself, “Wow, this question looks hard, I’m not sure I can do it,” say to yourself, “What should I do on this problem?  What is the next step I need to perform?”  Thinking about and then executing action steps will reduce anxiety as well as help you continue moving through a section.

4) Be confident, and jump in with both feet.  What would you say is the biggest difference between great test-takers and average test-takers?  I bet that many of you would say that the difference is an understanding of the material – that great test-takers are just better at math, or have a better vocabulary, or are “really smart”.  But that’s not true.  The thing that separates great test-takers from the rest is an unyielding confidence that they can, somehow, get to the right answer.  For example, imagine you see this question on Test Day:

“A snack stand at the beach serves two types of food: popsicles and corn dogs.  On Tuesday of last week, the stand sold 54 pieces of food.  If the snack stand charges $1.50 for popsicles and $2 for corn dogs, and they made $93.50 on Tuesday, how many corn dogs did they sell?” 

Okay, what do you do?  Are you test-taker #1 who panics and says, “Wow, that’s going to take a lot of math,” or, “Wait, how do I set up this equation again?”  Or are you test-taker #2 who stays calm and confident and says, “Hmm, I’m not sure exactly how I set up this equation, but I bet if I start writing some stuff down it will become apparent to me what I need to do?”  Notice how neither thought process expresses supreme confidence, but test-taker #2 doesn’t mind that the perfect equation isn’t magically appearing in his or her head.  Because the fact is, even though there is a “real math” way to solve this problem, test-taker #2 knows that other methods, like picking numbers or backsolving, will also work.  While test-taker #1 is still sitting there, re-reading the problem and trying to figure out the “perfect” equation, test-taker #2’s pencil is moving, calculations are being produced, and the right answer is inching ever closer.

Each of these strategies will help reduce anxiety on Test Day.  Some may be more effective than others, depending on your personality, level of confidence, and the amount of preparation you’ve been able to squeeze in before Test Day.  Try them out in practice and see if they work for you.

Craig Harman Craig Harman has been teaching and tutoring GRE and GMAT students in Central Pennsylvania for over three years. A graduate of Denison University in Ohio, Craig spent a couple years working in film production before discovering his inner test-prep geek. In addition to having helped hundreds of students achieve their academic goals, Craig also enjoys concocting elaborate plans for his garden, playing basketball, and working on documentary film projects.

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