Dealing with test anxiety

by Gabe

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and you should not consider any of this to be medical advice.

I feel like I have to start by making something clear: I don’t have a perfect solution for test anxiety. But I want to at least offer some practical suggestions for making it better.

Now, I’ve never personally had terrible test anxiety, but I’ve seen it in enough my students to know it’s a legitimate problem and something that you should take seriously.

This was especially driven home to me by one of my CARS students who I’ll call Adam (that’s not his real name). Adam was smart and did well on his passages in practice, but then would do way worse on any of his practice tests. Eventually we narrowed it down and figured out that the main thing holding him back was his anxiety.

When he would take a test he said it felt like he just couldn’t think straight anymore. Then he’d start getting nervous, lose focus, panic, get even more nervous, and so on.

He went to see his doctor about his anxiety and his doctor wrote him a prescription for beta blockers. On his next practice test after taking the medication his score went up dramatically. Without his anxiety he was actually able to focus and do well.

My point in telling you this is not that you should start taking beta blockers (again I’m not a doctor and none of this is medical advice). My point is that if you have bad anxiety you should really work to see if there’s anything you can do to reduce it.

Here’s a couple of my suggestions:

1. Reduce other stressors

Try to keep your baseline stress levels relatively low in the weeks and months leading up to your test. If possible take a day off from studying each week. Get regular exercise. Eat a reasonable diet. Get plenty of sleep.

This is the really simple stuff which you already know you should be doing. But do your best to get this stuff in order and it will help.

2. Try mindfulness

If you’re picturing somebody sitting in full lotus meditating and trying to reach enlightenment – then that’s not quite what I’m talking about.

What I mean by mindfulness is just the practice of settling your attention on something like your breathing to help calm and focus yourself. I’m not referring to anything religious or occult.

There’s plenty of scientific research showing that mindfulness can be very effective in reducing stress levels.

I recommend starting with some simple guided practices. Two good free options to start with are the guided audio meditations from UCLA and the app Headspace.

3. Talk to your doctor

If your anxiety is really bad and none of this other stuff is helping with it, then it’s worth at least talking to your doctor. Explain your situation and see if they have any advice.

They may prescribe a medication or they may not. But see what they have to say! Odds are they’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re going through (even if it’s been a while since they personally took the MCAT).

There’s a tendency to not treat test anxiety like a real problem because it’s “all in your head”. But in some cases you can add as many points to your score by reducing your anxiety as you could with hours and hours of studying. So take it seriously, and do what you can to reduce it.

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