It’s safe to say, taking a standardized test can feel like a gigantic mountain on your path to furthering your education. Even thinking about the test might clutter your mind, make your heart rate increase, and your palms sweat. You might be wondering: Where do I start? How do I stay motivated? And what are the best study resources?
No matter where you are on your climb to success, feeling well-equipped to get past the mountain of standardized testing is an important battle in itself. Approaching test day with confidence is the goal, but how do we get there?
Now that our standardized testing journeys are coming to an end, after many collective months of prepping for the MCAT and GRE, respectively, we want to share a few tips that we learned along the way to help you hike right up the mountain of test day and onto your bright future in higher education.
1. Be realistic.
Start by setting realistic and achievable goals before you sign up for a test date to ensure you give yourself enough time to prepare and feel confident. Ask yourself:
How long do I need to study for this exam? (It may be different than others)
Do I have a lot of content catch up to do?
Do I have a demanding full-time job? Extracurricular commitments?
How much time can I realistically devote to studying each week?
Am I factoring in time for self-care?
Create a schedule that works for you and stick with it. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, but don’t set yourself up for failure. If you’re working a full-time job and only have time to study on the weekends, consider giving yourself longer time to prep. And make sure to leave enough time for self-care to help your mind relax. Our favorite self-care “go-to’s” have been exercising (we love spin classes), listening to music, meditating, and cooking healthy food.
2. Do your research.
Talk to people who have taken the test before, look at online forums, and get suggestions before starting your prep. Ask people what worked, what didn’t work, and why. THEN evaluate what is going to work best for you. Gathering all of the possible resources and weighing the pros and cons of each can help you minimize costs and maximize benefits of picking the best resources for your study style. For example, we learned how valuable practice tests can be in your prep. We also gained a better sense of exactly what to expect on test day from how much scrap paper you get, to how to best spend your break times, to food/drink rules. Even though they may seem like small things, knowing what to expect on test day can reduce your anxiety and help you approach the test with confidence.
3. Get back to the basics.
What you are tested on will most likely build from basic knowledge acquired during high school or those early college years. For the MCAT, testing without a calculator meant reinforcing basic math skills so I could quickly and confidently approach math questions. For the GRE, it meant reviewing basic algebra and geometry foundations. If you find yourself constantly getting the same content questions wrong, try to start from the beginning. You may discover a topic you glossed over during content review, but need to jump back to.
4. Practice makes perfect.
Simulate your testing conditions as much as possible. For us, that meant doing practice tests on the weekends and spending time reviewing what we got wrong AND what we got right. Reviewing your wrong answers can help you identify your weak spots, where reviewing what you got right can solidify your knowledge and build confidence. Make sure to simulate breaks if your test has any, and stick to the time as best as possible, as this can help you mimic the real thing.
5. Make your least favorite topics your new favorites.
If you sit down to study and absolutely dread studying a certain section, take note of that feeling! It could actually be uneasiness about your confidence when approaching the section. Making your least favorite section your new favorite by devoting a little extra time to it can help increase your score in a section you may not do as well in. And, you might find it is actually not as bad as you thought.
6. Find a study buddy to keep you on track.
Find other people taking the test around the same time as you and study together, or check-in throughout the process to keep each other on track. Having a buddy helped us learn more and also stay motivated. But if you’re a lone soldier, that’s totally okay. If you need that extra push, have a friend or family member hold you accountable to your study schedule and progress.
7. Take advantage of all the amazing free resources.
Test prep can be expensive, not to mention the added costs of actually taking the test, then applying, and interviewing. If you’re having a hard time with certain topics and your test prep program just isn’t cutting it - try out some of the free resources out there that explain things a different way. Here are some of our favorites:
8. Sleep, sleep, sleep!
Sleep is essential. In fact, the latest research studies suggest that sleep is an important determinant of learning and memory consolidation. Try your best to get a sufficient amount of sleep each night to keep you healthy, energized, and focused. In the days leading up to test day, sleep is extra important and can help you approach the real thing with a clear mind. Two nights before your test date is the most important night of sleep. If you’re taking a test on a Sunday, make sure you get a great night sleep on Friday (and Saturday)!
9. Fight the burn out.
Burnout can mean different things for different people. It can manifest as frustration, exhaustion, or even self-doubt. Imposter syndrome, or doubting your accomplishments, is something we talk about in the lab often, as its very common in academia. This feeling of doubt is something that can come up throughout your test prep. Feeling like you are not smart enough, not prepared enough, or not good enough to be where you are can lead to more burnout. It is important to remind yourself that you’ve done ALL the work leading up to this point. Let yourself feel proud for how far you’ve come AND...
10. Keep the bigger picture in mind.
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day study schedule, try to keep your eyes on the larger picture. You are most likely taking this test so you can advance your learning in some way. Shifting your view from, “I have to take this test so I can get into grad school” to, “I want to take this test because I want to make a difference in people’s lives and this test will help me do that” can seriously help alter your mindset and make the process more bearable.
With these tips, we hope you are feeling ready to start the climb. Remember, no test score can define your years of hard work and experience. Your score is just one chapter in the book of you, the rest is still unwritten and waiting on the other side of the mountain! Good luck on your study endeavors and make sure to keep these tips in mind to tackle the test with confidence.