Three thousand vocabulary flashcards, hundreds of hours of practice, a Testmasters GRE prep-course, private tutoring, and a trip to the psychiatrist- this is what it took for me to get the competitive GRE score I needed. English is not my second language, I do not have a learning disability, and I did not take the test drunk. My friends, I suffered from a serious case of TEST ANXIETY! My hope is that readers may benefit from my story and potentially avoid the self-induced suffering I experienced.
I could handle requesting letters of recommendation, writing personal statements, contacting professors, going through the interview process with faculty members, and waiting for the acceptance phone calls…but taking a computerized test for a few hours, this I couldn’t handle! I think of the GRE as a flaming hoop I had to jump through to get to where I am today. I took the test on three occasions within an eighteen-month time span. The first two times I got scorched; but on the third try (taken only a week after the second), my score increased by 170 Points! Eventually this helped make me a more competitive applicant for several Ph.D programs in Clinical Psychology. I attribute this rather significant score increase to a complete change in perspective. With the support of several people, I was eventually able to approach the exam in a state of peace and to let go of my severe anxiety.
I am by no means a licensed psychologist (yet), so I do not have any brilliant therapeutic anxiety-reducing techniques to share. However, I am able to share some Do’s and Don’ts based upon my experience with GRE test anxiety.
What did NOT work:
- Do not enter a downward spiral of negative self-talk. For example: I’m not a good tester; I can’t get a good score; I’ll never get the score I need to get into graduate school; maybe I’m not made out for graduate school; maybe being homeless won’t be that bad.
- Do not obsess over the school’s published scores. Remember that the scores presented are usually means. Within every cohort, there is always a degree of variation in the scores.
- Do not compare yourself to others; everyone tests differently. Keep in mind that the GRE is not a test of intelligence.
- Do not visualize the admissions departments throwing away your application based upon an inadequate score. Each school weighs the various components of an application differently. Only the faculty know what goes on in the selection process, so don’t waste mental energy wondering.
- Do not listen to recorded GRE vocabulary words while trying to fall asleep if you have testing nightmares — it is a bad idea!
What did work:
- Complete emotional surrender. No matter what happens on test day you will be all right.
- Develop a meditation practice. 10-20 minutes of mindfulness meditation can do wonders for your mental health. (Leave a comment if you would like some resources)
- Realize that you are not your score. It’s easy to let your identity get wrapped up into something as silly as a series of responses to arbitrary words like perspicacious and rococo.
- Change testing locations if you had a bad experience on a previous day. Why return to a place where you had a traumatic experience? It was Albert Einstein that defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Change things up!
- Do a practice-run driving to the testing location. Knowing where you are going and how long it takes to get there can be very comforting.
- See a physician if needed. Beta-blockers can work great but don’t overdose and start drooling on the keyboard halfway through the exam. (the ETS employees don’t like it when people do this)
Stay tuned for next time when I share about life in grad school AND what faculty members have to say about the GRE. I’m on the inside now and would love to share about what really goes on during the admissions process.