Preparing for grad school requires you to jump through several hoops, and each one comes with its own stresses. From choosing the right school to nailing the application process to entry examinations and testing, there are a lot of different elements to balance, and it can become overwhelming.
Research dating back as far as 1986 shows students consistently report moderate to high levels of stress when it comes to standardized testing, in this case, the GRE. It can be daunting to even consider your next steps in education but if grad school is part of your life plan, getting to grips with any anxieties will stand you in good stead for success.
Looking after your Body and Mind
Before even considering the stress and anxiety of grad school applications and testing, you need to consider how you are treating your body in general. Preparing for tests is about more than simply reading up and practicing, you also need to ensure you’re in the best shape mentally and physically. Embarking on Master’s level education is a huge commitment and something that can transform your career prospects, but you need to position yourself for success much earlier if you want to achieve it. Similarly, you need to think about factors you can control and to make the most of them such as the following:
Your Body and Mind
A healthy body and mind can be a great defense against stress. Research from the University of Michigan found group nature walks can minimize depression and lessen perceived stress, which spells great preparation for a high-pressure exam season or big test. Similarly, a good sleep, exercise and diet program ensures you are giving your body what it needs to succeed and combat any stressors.
Your Social Life
Neglecting everything but school will not work well for your mental health. The risk of burnout is much higher, and you need a support network around you when times get tough. No downtime is not good for your studies, and you’re likely to see it impacts your focus and performance, too.
Your Long-Term Goals
A lot of student stress is closely linked to obsessing over long-term aspirations. A long-term goal is great, and it is something to work towards. Your long-term goals can keep you grounded if you take the time to check you’re still on track. Revaluating your position regularly helps to reduce stress, as you know exactly where you stand as you edge towards the end goal.
Your Approach to the Small Wins
Every milestone and small success is a step closer to your goal and should be celebrated. You don’t need to throw a massive party every time you ace a test, but you can find ways to celebrate and congratulate yourself for the small wins along the way. Acknowledging your own hard work and rewarding yourself will help keep you motivated and your goal on track.
Building your general health and wellbeing minimises your predisposition to stress. This means you have a better standpoint for dealing with the pressure that comes with grad school applications and testing.
Actionable Ways to Prepare For Testing and Manage Stress in Advance
Approaching a new task, one which could be instrumental in the next stage of your life, is not something you should take lightly. Equally, you must try not to let it overwhelm you and become impossible to tackle. Nationally, college students are reporting higher levels of stress and some of this relates directly to their next move in terms of education and employment. When it comes to grad school examinations and testing, preparedness really makes all the difference. Let’s look more closely at actionable ways to prepare and keep stresses at bay when you’ve still got time to consider.
1) Learn the Intricacies of your Test
There is plenty of information out there about the majority of school entrance exams. You do not have to go into any test blind, so take the time to learn exactly how it will appear and what kinds of questions you can expect. Learn and understand the format of your exam and make sure you have a good understanding of timings so you can be organized and disciplined in your practice. Standardized tests including the GMAT and GRE have comprehensive scoring guides available which are vital in preparing for your test. The more you understand about how the tests are scored, the closer you can tailor your practice. You cannot build a study plan without a full understanding of the test you’ll face.
2) Practice, Practice, Practice
Scoring well in practice tests will help to build your confidence and give you a clearer understanding of how the test works. It isn’t the same as the real thing, but the more you practice, the more acclimatized to the test format and questions you will become. There are practice tests available for almost all school entrance exams and your practice can take place in several ways, from timing yourself to ensure you get it done, to simply practising the questions you find hardest. The better acquainted you are with the test process, the less stressful it will be.
3) Mix Up Your Training
If you always study in one particular way, try mixing it up. Approaching the test from a different perspective or drilling yourself with questions in a new way may help the information stick a little bit longer. Take time to look at questions in different ways and test yourself in areas you know you feel weakest. There are thousands of resources out there, so you could even create your own test papers and give yourself even more practice.
4) Analyze your Errors
When checking over practice tests, highlight your mistakes and take time to understand where you’ve been going wrong. If you find any patterns and see you make similar mistakes across several papers, you know this is an area you need to focus on. You should also keep track of the time you’re taking over tests and analyze your performance closely so you can avoid any unnecessary errors or falters when you sit down for your real test.
5) Avoid Comparison
If your friends or family have been through what you’re going through it’s great to share stories, but don’t fall into the comparison trap. Never compare scores with others, especially those who are taking the test with you. It will just add even more anxiety and peer pressure can significantly influence your performance both in preparation and on the test day itself.
6) Prepare your Body and Mind
Once you know the time and date of your test, consider doing a few dry runs mimicking test conditions as closely as possible. Train your biological clock to match your test times and carry out your practice runs in this set time window. If your test timings are in the afternoon, then be sure to practice at a similar time so you can get your body used to the timing and avoid the risk of fatigue setting in, as well as any stress.
7) Consider Mindfulness Training
Research from the University of Cambridge shows that mindfulness training can reduce stress at examination time. Mindfulness can be learned through a range of different methods, from classes to textbooks to handy apps that you can download and just follow along. The chance to separate your worries from your mind and improve mental clarity helps to keep anxieties at bay.
Combatting D-Day Demons: Stress Management for Test Day
Even the most prepared people can find the stress of test day overwhelming. Your confidence may waver, however organized and prepared you are. This can be disconcerting, but there are techniques to help calm test day jitters and ensure you get the results you deserve and are ready for your first taste of grad school life.
Gear up for the Challenge
Our mindset regarding testing is usually a little skewed and wrong. Rather than seeing it as a stressful, intimidating experience, face it head-on as a challenge. A challenge you have the knowledge and preparedness to overcome. Challenges can be fun and there is a valuable reward at the end.
A perfectionist’s approach to tests is rarely a good one, you will find yourself worrying over small details and may even run the risk of not finishing on time. If a question is too difficult and you’re wasting time trying to perfect it, skip and if you have time, go back. Completing the questions that you can with confidence is much better than agonizing over a single question and trying to get it 100% right.
One Question, One Answer
Focus all of your energy on the question you have in front of you. Take the time you need to complete it and if it doesn’t seem possible, that’s when you move on. Worrying about what’s next or whether your previous answer was correct will not help you work to the best of your ability, and it is very easy to be overcome by stress. You can always go back over your questions and fix any mistakes once you reach the end. Concentrate all your efforts on the present question and give it your all.
Use your Scratch Paper
In most tests you’ll get scratch paper for your rough work, so use it. It can help focus your mind to jot down all your workings and ideas as they come to you and your test paper can be kept for your final answers. Using the scratch paper gives you time to think, plan and interpret the question fully, allowing you to relax into the test.
Remember to Breathe
Consider those mindfulness techniques you picked up in your preparation. Rapid and shallow breathing will quickly develop into anxiety and in the worst-case scenario, may even lead to a panic attack. Check your breathing and take time to practice a few deep breaths if you feel you are becoming overwhelmed or too anxious.
Proof and Check
Once you reach the final question, the natural response is to get up and get out as quickly as possible. The sense of relief is palpable but before you do, stop, check, and proof. Even questions you are sure you got right should be double-checked and any written content should be proofed for errors and comprehension. Then, you can think about leaving.
Never Ever Rush
There is no prize for finishing first. Your grad school exams are not a race to the finish line and you should make the most of the time you have to finish the paper as fully as you possibly can. Make sure you have confidence in your answers and if you feel like you have finished early, see if there is any scope to improve anything you’ve written. While it may sound contradictory, if you feel you’re completely done, then don’t over-analyze your results or keep tinkering. Have the confidence in your ability and know when you’ve completed the test as well as you possibly can.
Get Up and Go
Once the test is over, make a beeline for your home. It can be tempting to stand around and discuss the test with others, but once you start hearing their answers you may begin to question your own and this can trigger even more stress and anxiety. Waiting on results is hard enough without worrying about what other people have achieved. Go home and reward yourself for your efforts. It is important to give yourself time to relax and congratulate yourself for your efforts, rather than over analyzing and worrying once the work is done.
Beginning your Grad School Journey
Entering grad school does take hard work because you’ll have more hard work ahead of you. The test is a sign of the rigor of your future studies, and it helps you see the standards you need to meet to thrive in your chosen school.
Stress is a natural part of life, but once it becomes overwhelming, it can be a serious health issue. It’s certainly not something you want to dominate your life. While your next test could seem like the most important thing you’ll ever do, you will move forward, whatever the results. With the right preparation and support you can ace the grad school application process. It is an overwhelming time, but working with qualified admissions consultants, taking time to understand the scoring process and ensuring you put the practice in will all positively influence your score. Remember, there are plenty of things you can control and preparation is essential for pushing yourself to do your best.