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"Ace" Any Test
By Ron Fry
Career PressCopyright © 2012 Ron Fry
All rights reserved.
Overcome Your Fear
"We have nothing to fear but fear itself." —Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR was almost right. The only thing you may have to fear is fear itself. But, frankly, you don't have to. You just have to conquer it or beat it into submission so you can get on with your life—and your biology exam.
Let's spend a few minutes talking about why tests scare people. Then I'll help you learn how to spend your time studying instead of wasting it on anxiety attacks.
The Sound of Two Knees Knocking
I saw a documentary on a famous singer some years ago. The camera followed her as she went to rehearsal, got made up, and talked to her manager.
The scene I remember most was as she waited backstage to be announced—she looked nervous, horrified, petrified, regretful that she'd ever entered show business, and extremely vulnerable.
But when the announcer called her name and the roar of applause began, she walked with a determined gait to the stage, smiled, took the microphone, and looked anything but frightened. Her famous voice filled the auditorium, and the audience went wild. If she was petrified and still passed the test, why shouldn't you?
Why are we so afraid, especially of tests? Because we don't want to fail. We realize that, within the next 30 or 60 minutes, a percentage of our grade will be determined by what we write on a piece of paper or which box we fill in with our No. 2 pencil. And the bigger the test, the greater the anxiety.
So What Are You Afraid Of?
What does it mean when someone proclaims they don't "test well"? For many, it really means they don't study well (or, at the very least, prepare well). For others, it could mean they are easily distracted, unprepared for the type of test they are confronting, or simply unprepared mentally to take any test.
We all recognize the competitive nature of tests. Some of us rise to the occasion when facing such a challenge. Others are thrown off balance by the pressure. Both reactions probably have little to do with one's level of knowledge, relative intelligence, or amount of preparation. The smartest students in your class may be the ones most afraid of tests.
Sometimes, it's not fear of failure, but fear of success. You think to yourself, "If I do well on this exam, my parents will expect me to do well on the next exam, and the teacher will think I'm going to do well every day!"
Please. Look at it this way: You'll have to deal with some sort of pressure every day of your life. So you might as well learn to handle the good kind ("Way to go, genius, keep up the good work!") rather than face the other ("I just don't understand why Tim does so poorly in school. He just doesn't apply himself.").
She's Done Already?
Another reason for failure? Some people can't deal with competition. All they can think about is what Abby is doing. Look at her! She's sitting there, filling in one answer after another—and you know they're all correct!
Who cares about Abby? I sure wouldn't. Only one person in that room should be concerned with Abby and her performance. That's right. Just as only one person should be concerned with your performance. Make it all a game: Compete with yourself. See if you can't beat your previous test scores. That's positive competition!
My then-11-year-old daughter Lindsay clarified this point when she ran the 100-yard dash for her fifth-grade track team. Despite the fact she was the second fastest of nearly 50 girls, she cried at the end of the race because she hadn't finished first. It must be her mother's genes.
You Don't Have to Join Their Club
Some people thrive on their own misery and are jealous if you don't feed on it, too. They want to suck you into their gloom, whether you really know or care what's happening.
These Anxiety Professionals are the people to avoid when you're preparing for an exam. "Oh, I'll never learn all this stuff!" they cry. You might not win points with Miss Manners if you say, "If you'd shut up and study, you might!" But you can have the pleasure of thinking it—on your way to a quiet place to study alone.
Watch out for those "friends" who call you the night before the exam to wail, "I just found out we have to know Chapter 12!" Don't fall into their trap. Instead of dialing 911, calmly remind them that the printed sheet the professor passed out two weeks ago clearly says that the test will cover Chapters 6 through 11. Then hang up, get on with your life, and let them wring their hands all the way to the bottom of the grading sheet. (Of course, if you don't bother to check what's going to be on the test, a call like this will panic you ... and waste your time.)
Think of this fraction: one over one million. Your life is the big number. Your next test is the little number. All the "ones" in your life add up to the one million; they are important, but all by themselves, they can't compare to the Giant Economy Number of Life. Write "1/1,000,000" at the top of your next test to remind yourself of that. It's a sure way to obliterate a bunch of stomach butterflies.
"Extra" Tests Give Extra Help
If you want to practice the many recommendations you're going to get in this book, including what I'm sharing with you in this important first chapter, take a few "extra" tests just to give yourself some practice. This will also help you overcome unacceptable levels of test anxiety.
Get permission from your teachers to retake some old tests to practice test-taking techniques and exorcise the High-Anxiety Demon. Many teachers' tests (as well as lecture notes and sample papers) are available in the school's library. And take a couple of the standardized tests your counseling office probably has, too, since the fill-in-the-box answer sheets and questions in printed form have their own set of rules.
A Little Perspective, Please
The more pressure you put on yourself—the larger you allow a test (and, of course, your hoped-for good scores) to loom in your own mind—the less you are helping yourself. Of course, the bigger the test really is, the harder it is to avoid reminding yourself of its importance.
No matter how important a test really may be to your career—and your scores on some can have a major effect on where you go to college, whether you go on to graduate school, whether you get the job you want—it is just as important to de-emphasize that test's importance in your mind. This should have no effect on your preparation—you should still study as if your life depended on a superior score. It might!
A friend of mine signed up to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), not just once, but twice. The first time, he did "okay, not great." By the time the second date rolled around, he had come to his senses and decided not to become a lawyer. But since he had already paid for the thing, he took the LSAT again anyway. Are you already ahead of me? That's right—a 15 percent improvement with no studying. Does that tell you something about trying to downplay all this self-inflicted pressure?
Keeping the whole experience in perspective might also help: Twenty years from now, nobody will remember, or care, what you scored on any test—no matter how life-threatening or life-determining you feel that test is now.
Don't underestimate positive thinking: Thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you tell yourself often enough, "Be careful, you'll fall over that step," you probably will. If you tell yourself often enough, "I'm going to fail this test," you just might. Likewise, keep convincing yourself that you are as prepared as anyone and are going to "ace" the sucker, and you're already ahead of the game.
How to Lower Your AQ (Anxiety Quotient)
When a test is looming, knowing the answers to as many of these questions as possible will help reduce your anxiety:
1. What material will the exam cover?
2. How many total points are possible?
3. What will this exam count for?
4. How much time will I have to take the exam?
5. Where will the exam be held?
6. What kinds of questions will be on the exam (matching, multiple choice, essay, true/false, and so forth)?
7. How many of each type of question will be on the exam?
8. How many points will be assigned to each question?
9. Will certain sections of the test count more than others?
10. Will it be an open-book exam?
11. What can I take in with me? Calculator? Candy bar? Other material crucial to my success?
12. Will I be penalized for wrong answers?
Take a Hike, Buddy
Finally, to shake off pretest anxiety, take a walk, or a vigorous swim. In the days before an exam, no matter how "big" it is, don't study too hard or too much, or you'll walk into the exam with a fried brain.
Please don't think that advice loses its power at the classroom door. Scheduling breaks during tests has the same effect. During a one-hour test, you may not have time to go out for a stroll. But during a two- or three-hour final, there's no reason you should not schedule one, two, or even more breaks on a periodic basis—whenever you feel you need them most. Such timeouts can consist of a bathroom stop, a quick walk up and down the hall, or just a minute of relaxation in your seat before you continue the test.
No matter what the time limits or pressures, don't feel you cannot afford such a brief respite. You may need it most when you're convinced you can least afford it, just as those who most need time-management techniques "just don't have the time" to learn them.
Relax, Darn It!
If your mind is a jumble of facts and figures, names and dates, you may find it difficult to zero in on the specific details you need to recall, even if you know all the material backwards and forwards. The adrenaline rushing through your system may make "instant retrieval" seem impossible.
The simplest relaxation technique is deep breathing. Just lean back in your chair, relax your muscles, and take three very deep breaths (count to 10 while you hold each one). For many of you, that's the only relaxation technique you'll ever need.
There are a variety of meditation techniques that may also work for you. Each is based upon a similar principle—focusing your mind on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. While you're concentrating on the object of your meditation (even if the object is nothing, a nonsense word, or a spot on the wall,) your mind can't be thinking about anything else, which allows it to slow down a bit.
But don't go into a trance yet—we have a lot more ground to cover.CHAPTER 2
Creating the Time to Study
"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." —Cyril Parkinson, Parkinson's Law
"I recommend that you learn to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves." —Lord Chesterfield
We all have problems with time. We can't slow it down, speed it up, or save it up—all we can do is decide how we're going to spend it. We invariably need more of it ... and don't know where to find it. Then we wonder where the heck it all went.
But time isn't really the problem. We all get the same 24 hours. The problem is that most of us have never been taught how to manage our time ... or why we should even try. Our parents never sat us down to give us a little "facts of time" talk, and time-management skills aren't part of most academic curricula.
Not knowing how to effectively manage our time, we let it continue to dribble through our fingers—taking things as they come and doing what we feel like doing, without schedule or plan. What the heck, it worked when we were kids. It was easy to live from day to day and never really worry about where our time went.
In fact, sometimes there seemed to be too much time—too many hours before school was over ... too many days before summer vacation ... too many weeks before birthdays ... too many years before we could be on our own.
There comes a point—too soon, perhaps—when the take-every-day-as-it-comes approach just doesn't work. For most of us, it hits in high school. (If you're in high school and don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry—you'll find out in college.) Why? Because that's when we begin to establish goals that are important to us, not just to our parents.
To achieve our goals, we must commit ourselves to the many and varied steps it takes to get there. We must plan. We must manage our time.
Whether you're a high school student just starting to feel frazzled, a college student juggling five classes and a part-time job, or a parent working, attending classes, and raising a family, a simple, easy-to-follow time-management system is crucial to your success. Despite your natural tendency to proclaim that you just don't have the time to spend scheduling, listing, and recording, it's actually the best way to give yourself more time.
Between now and next Tuesday, whether you are preparing to play in the state basketball tournament, writing a paper about the Knights Templar, or holding down three jobs (or, heaven help you, all of the above), you have exactly the same amount of time as the rest of us. It's what you do with that time that makes the difference.
How are you going to get from here to there? Are you just going to go crashing along, like an elephant trampling down banana trees, or are you going to reach your goals by following a plan? Good. That's the right answer. You just passed another test.
You're Spending Three Hours a Day Resting?
The first step to overhauling your current routine is to identify that routine, in detail. My suggestion is to chart, in 15-minute increments, how you spend every minute of every day, right now. While keeping track of your activities for a day or two might be sufficient for some of you, I recommend you chart them for an entire week, including the weekend.
You may also use the chart on page 13 to assess how much time you actually have available for studying. If it's clearly not enough, then you'd better reassess how much time you're spending in each of the other areas. You may have to cut your part-time work hours, quit a club, even change your schedule to reduce your commute. Of course, if you're spending two hours a day on "grooming" or six hours eating, the solution may be a little more obvious.
Like many people, you probably have huge pockets of time that seemingly disappear, but are devoted to things like "resting" after you wake up, putting on makeup and shaving, reading the paper, waiting for transportation, or driving to and from school or work. Could you use an extra hour or two a day, either for studying or for fun? Make better use of such "dead" time and you may well find the time you need.
Learn how to do multiple tasks at the same time. Listen to a book on tape while you're working around the house; practice vocabulary or math drills while you're driving; have your kids, parents, or roommates quiz you for an upcoming test while you're doing the dishes, vacuuming, or dusting. And always carry your calendar, notebook(s), pens, and a textbook with you. You'll be surprised how much reading or studying you can do while in line at the bank, in the library, at the supermarket, or riding on a bus or train.
The more willing you are to transform "dead" time into study time, the more ways you'll invent to do so.
Focus = Efficiency
How often have you made a "to-do" list and then either forgotten it, lost it, or ignored it? To-do lists have incredible merits, but they're not much good if you don't use them. You can't effectively deal with today's priorities if you still have to contend with yesterday's ... or last week's!
Let's run through the composition and execution of a to-do list for a shopping expedition as an example. Here's what I do when I am making up a list of errands:
First, after writing down where I have to go, I turn the paper over and make individual lists of items for each stopping place. So after entering "Smith's Drugstore" on my to-do list, I write my shopping list—shaving cream, bubble gum, newspaper, hair spray, and prescription—on the back.
By separating the where from the what, I am able to focus on getting from the post office to the drug store to the hardware store, without trying to separate the stamps from the toothpaste and tool kit.
I do one more thing on my shopping list: If I need to take anything with me (return a video, drop off my dry cleaning, take an article to be photocopied), I place a "T" (meaning "take") with a circle around it beside the place for which I need the "T" item. That way, I don't get to Smith's only to discover that I forgot to bring the prescription form. (If convenient, put all the "T" items, along with the list, beside the door so you won't have to search for them when it's time to leave.)
Excerpted from "Ace" Any Test by Ron Fry. Copyright © 2012 Ron Fry. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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