5 Tips to Successful Preparation for a Big Exam
By Janet Christensen
For many of us, taking quizzes and tests and final exams is all just part of the routine of education. We go to class, we study, we prepare for assessments, and when it’s over, our score is a fairly accurate reflection of our knowledge of the material.
But that isn’t true for everyone. For some, the experience of taking an exam is a completely negative one, raising all kinds of anxieties and self-doubt. The bigger and more important the exam is, the more we tend to suffer from anxiety, and the less likely we are to do our best.
If this scenario sounds all too familiar to you, then use the following tips to help lower your anxiety and prepare yourself to do your best:
1. Before you begin the test, take a minute to breathe.
When we feel stress, fear, or anxiety, our body can go into an adrenaline-fueled panic mode. This chemical and physical reaction is how our ancestors survived numerous threats. But in this state, our minds don’t function properly. In fact, it’s possible your mind will go completely blank.
When we take slow, deep breaths, we help our bodies go from the survival response to a relaxed response. This helps the blood flow back into our brain and helps us focus on the task at hand.
It might be difficult to believe it’s better to take that minute out to prepare than to get started on the test as quickly as possible, but that minute of mental preparation will pay off exponentially.
2. Develop a Positive Outlook
Tests can be anxiety-producing when we believe they were designed specifically to trick us, or when we tell ourselves we’re not going to do well. The truth is, if you’ve studied and are prepared, then the test is actually an opportunity for you to show off how much you know. The other truth is, the more you believe in yourself, the better you’ll perform.
In a recent study, students who were told they were smart before taking a test performed significantly better than the students who didn’t receive this message ahead of time.
You can do this for yourself! Remind yourself how capable you are. Your brain will believe you!
The final truth is that your teachers WANT you to do well. When you do well, they look good. So go in feeling confident, reminding yourself that you’re prepared and that your teachers want you to do well.
3. Start Strong, Stay Strong
As you go through the test, answer the questions you feel confident about and if you come upon a question that makes you feel unsure, skip it for the moment and move on. This will help you maintain your sense of confidence and keep your mind in a free-flowing, positive state. If you begin to hear that inner voice saying you should have studied more, etc. etc., say hello to the voice, and then a quick goodbye. Shut it down and refocus on the positive, reminding yourself you’re doing just fine.
When you’ve made it through all of the questions you can answer confidently, go back to those you were less sure about and do your best to complete them.
4. Sleep well, eat well.
The reasons for eating and sleeping well go far beyond the support they’ll offer you in taking a test, but especially when you’re preparing for important exams, a good night’s rest will give your brain the opportunity to cement the knowledge you’ve been feeding it, making strong and lasting connections between previous knowledge and new information.
On the morning of the test, eat a balanced meal with plenty of protein and some brain food such as blueberries and nuts. This will keep your blood sugar in a fairly consistent state and avoid the highs and lows that refined sugars and carbohydrates can produce.
Some of the antioxidants in blueberries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells, and several nutrients in nuts, such as healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E, may explain their brain-health benefits. Eating them regularly is best, but be sure to treat yourself with these healthy foods when you're preparing for an important exam.
If possible, you should be exercising consistently, but if not, then at least get out and get your blood flowing before your exam. Exercise not only releases built-up tension in your body, it will also release “feel-good” endorphins that will put you in a better frame of mind. Even if you just take a walk, or ride your bike to school or to the testing location on the day of the exam, your brain and body will be energized and better prepared for the task at hand.
Janet brings a love of cultures, language, and words to her teaching and tutoring. Formerly a high school English teacher, she has taught ESL and English Composition at several Bay Area universities, including UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, ECIW at Mills College, and CSU East Bay, as well as in Japan and Kazakhstan. Janet has been tutoring high school, college, and postgraduate students for over 20 years, specializing in developing critical thinking, writing skills, college and graduate school application essay writing, and language skills for non-native speakers.