I am currently studying for a master’s-level exam. You’d think after all these years, I’d know what I’m doing. After all, I’m a college grad, I did well in high school, and I’m about to get an advanced degree; I must be a studying whiz, right?
Not so fast. The truth is I’m finding this really challenging. Maybe it was easier to focus back in the day? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I’m feeling uniquely close to those kids who have trouble studying for tests. I’m living with the agita, frustration, and anxiety and wondering what am I doing wrong?
As my exam approaches, I’m throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks in terms of studying effectively. As many students are preparing for the spring rush of standardized tests as well as the requisite quizzes and tests that come regularly throughout the school year, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been learning through this process:
Breathe: I’m an anxiety survivor. Panic, nervousness, uneasiness, straight-up fear: you name it, I’ve had it. While there is nothing inherently dangerous about a test, our minds often tell our bodies to react as though something really threatening is happening: cue the sweats, dizziness, eye strain, stomach cramps, etc. Believe it or not, this overload of energy can be calmed by simply breathing. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or underwater on your studying, take a breath. This will re-center you and break the amazingly aggressive flow of anxiety. Sounds stupid, right? I used to think so too. Now I’m (not quite) the picture of serenity, but I’m a heck of a lot better at not spiraling into panic and worry over a test.
Go Basic: I’ve found that, sometimes, it’s more effective to keep things simple when you’re preparing for a test. It can be tempting to buy every test prep book out there and download ten different apps. But, as you keep it more basic, you allow yourself to focus better and rely less on multitasking which, contrary to popular belief, is not always a good thing. For me, working through one resource or practice test at a time is far more effective than trying to incorporate everything under the sun simultaneously. The point is to find the type of prep material that works best for you and keep it simple and doable.
Get a Tutor: Having tutored all different types of students over the years, I know that, sometimes, guidance is a gamechanger in building confidence and feeling well-prepared for an exam. Tutors can help you stay focused, offer encouragement, and help you fill in knowledge gaps. Sometimes, you have to bring in a pro, particularly when the going gets tough. After all, that’s what they are there for.
Start Early: When I registered for this test, it was about six months away. I began freaking out about it recently when I realized it was now, suddenly only two weeks away. As it approaches, I wish I’d started earlier. The problem is that it’s easy to procrastinate when something is a half a year from the present. In retrospect, I’d be feeling much more confident and less stressed if I’d starting doing minor things like trying a practice question every day before the date got so close. I’m not suggesting starting SAT prep when you’re in third grade, but rather giving yourself enough time to truly comprehend the material and gain the confidence you need to excel.
Less is More: This was a tough one for me to realize because it seems counterintuitive. But, believe it or not, I have found that doing a little prep every day is more effective than spending an insane amount of time each day studying. For me, carving out 30 minutes every evening to review practice questions has worked better than cramming hours and hours of studying into a 24-hour period. Not only does it make the information more manageable, it also keeps your energy levels high enough to be consistent. There’s no faster way to get burned out than to overwhelm yourself with studying every available moment.
Don’t Think “Do or Die:” It can be so easy to think about testing in black and white terms: either I pass and I’m smart or I fail and I’m not. It is, therefore, good to keep in mind that not exceling on a test does not mean out-and-out failure. Think of all the tests you can take more than once: the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT—even the LSAT and the MCAT. It’s almost as if you’re not always expected to nail it the first time. Keeping things in perspective can help you manage stress and realize that, while yes, it’s important, it’s simply not a “do or die” situation. Even if you don’t do so hot, life will go on. And realizing that can help you stay grounded and do better the next time out
Use an App: Apps can be extremely useful for studying. For pretty much every subject and test, there is an app you can download. Apps are great because of their portability and accessibility. You can study on the bus, in the waiting room, in bed, in the back of a car, wherever. Bored? Open that app and study. What an age we live in.
I don’t know the answer to the question is it harder than ever before to study? But I have an inkling that, in our world of overstimulation, it’s more difficult that it was, say, twenty years ago when I was in high school. But all is not lost. Learning, as I have been, some valuable tactics like breathing, keeping it basic, and hiring a tutor can help you study like a pro!
Written by Phil Lane
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