I’ve added a new feature to this website! Over the coming months, I’ll be building a library of worked examples on YouTube for the different standardized tests. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the LSAT, so my first video is on the first LSAT game on the June 2007 test. Enjoy!
Finally, I have a moment to discuss the second half of the long NYT article on stress. The first half focuses on genes that make you either a worrier or a warrior (or a bit of both). The second part of the article shifts its focus to how people can transform short-term stress into a positive factor, regardless of their genes.
One thing a performing arts background gives me is an intense appreciation of the link between the physical and the emotional. I don’t think it surprises anyone to say that emotions can cause physical reactions: body posture changes, heart rate changes, facial expressions, muscle tension, etc. But the causal arrow can work in the other direction too! If you consciously engage in a physical movement, the physical change can affect your emotional experience as well.
The second half of the article discusses how stress can either trigger fight or flight readiness. If you are prepared for a fight, your response to short-term stress can be channeled into extraordinarily effective responses. (Sadly, this is not so for long-term chronic stress.) Flight responses are often self-defeating in a test-taking situation. The good news is that you can coax your body and your mind into a fight stance and away from a flight stance, and you do it literally — by focusing on your body posture!
The scientists learn from how professionals (athletes, performers, etc.) manage stress differently than amateurs. Importantly, “professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.”
So, how can you turn all of this icky-feeling stress into something positive, without dedicating your life to becoming a professional test taker? The first is to know that the symptoms of stress you are feeling (heart racing, butterflies, mild nausea, etc.) are not evidence that something is wrong. Instead, it means that you have the capacity at the moment for extraordinary focus.
To help access that capacity, take conscious control of your body and spend even a few seconds in some bold “fight” stances. Before you leave for the test center, consider spending some time in the Warrior poses from yoga, particularly Warrior I, II, and Reverse Warrior. I find Warrior II to be my most powerful stance, getting all of that nervous energy, bundling it, and focusing it on smashing the fucking test.
While you are waiting around, pay attention to your posture, are your shoulders square and open or rounded and hunched? Even if it seems ridiculously vulnerable (and it might during these moments — don’t be surprised or alarmed if you have an unusually strong emotional reaction), any time you notice your shoulders curling in, gently pull them back. If you are standing, make sure your legs are about hip width apart and square with whatever direction your attention it is. If you are sitting, keep your legs apart a bit. (Ladies, do yourself a favor and don’t wear a short skirt to a high-stakes test.) Make sure your upper arms swing freely away from your body — let your armpits air out a bit! In general, take up as much space as you can, physically.
Your eyes can also contribute to your fight or flight mode. Are your eyes wide open? Is your gazing tending to dart around? This is classic fear eye patterns. Try to focus your gaze on a fixed point and lower your eyelids, almost into a squint (but without the tension). You might notice a shift in your breathing, too. All of this is good.
If you can coax yourself into this “challenge state,” you will have big physiological payoffs:
Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.
This is the “flow” that a lot of performance experts talk about. You want flow!
If you get flustered during your test — you spend too much time on a hard question or the guy sitting next to you is being an arrogant jerk (or vomiting or something distracting) — put your pencil down or take your hands off the keyboard. Check in with your shoulders, posture, legs and upper arms, take three deep slow breaths with the lids of your eyelids at half-mast, and then pick up again. Those few seconds of centering will pay for themselves in terms of time, getting you back into fighting mode.
Of course, all of this will be more reliable and less prone to freaky (but normal!) strong emotional responses if you’ve practiced them a lot. So do all of this during practice tests and other stressful situations.
The New York Times has an interesting, long article about a gene associated with how we cope with stress, including how we deal with the stress associated with standardized tests. There is a ton of stuff in the article — too much, really — so I want to unpack it here a bit to help you draw some lessons about how to understand your own reactions to high stakes testing.
The first part of the article details two different genes — and two different enzymes — that can be used to regulate dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains where “we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts.” One enzyme is fast-acting and one is slow-acting. In general, the slow-acting one is better at regulation, and those whose genes produce this enzyme tend to be better students, better planners, etc. On the other hand, the fast-acting one is better at coping with the flood of hormones that happens in stressful situations. People with the fast-acting enzyme are energized by stress and competition and require the enhanced stimulation to remain engaged enough to perform well. Those with all slow-acting enzymes are dubbed “worriers”: folks who study hard, do well, but fall apart on standardized tests (without intervention). Those with the fast-acting enzymes are dubbed “warriors”: students who thrive on competition, and may be mediocre students who outperform expectations in high-stakes settings. Most of the population has both genes (one from each parent) and therefore may have a blended response.
Can you tell which group you fall into?
The key to worriers mastering their debilitating stress response is practice. If you become inured to the stresses of a test day experience, your impressive cognitive skills and steady approach can be brought to bear on the test, smashing it to smithereens. There are three principles to keep in mind as you search for ways to gain experience:
- Don’t identify with your stress response (i.e. “I’m just a bad test taker”): you can change that response to something more experienced and constructive.
- Make sure something is at stake when you set up practice test experiences: try to mimic the context of the test center, but also find a way to put something on the line. Some ideas are to enlist a friend to ensure that you donate money to a cause you hate if your practice test results fall below an appropriate goal — and use the money instead to buy yourself a fun night out or donate to a cause you love if you succeed in your goal. Another avenue is to make your results public in some way (though not in a way that future employers can find in a google search!) Think about starting a blog, or using your favorite social media vehicle to set goals and then report your progress. In particular, some thing bad needs to happen if you fall short, though it should be proportionate to your experience level. If you currently fall apart when you take a test, have the stakes be low (but not zero) to start with and increase them as you get more comfortable.
- Every time you have a high-stakes event — practice or real — spend some time in advance thinking about the good things that come out of the experience regardless of the results (the experience, the social connections, learning, etc.) and some time afterwards ensuring that something good does come out of the experience.
Once you have blunted your worry reaction to high stakes tests, all the benefits of your genes can come back into play.
Warriors are less likely to even be reading this blog, since they thrive in high stakes testing situation. The big drawback for the warrior is that you might not have developed the cognitive skills that will shine — if you have them — when boosted by stress. The challenge for you will be to spend enough focused time studying to build a solid foundation for test-day performance. The strategies you can use to work with your brain, rather than against it (i.e. by boring yourself to tears through shear willpower) are:
- Turn everything into a contest. If you have some like-minded study buddies, you guys can set up friendly competitions (but be sensitive if there is a worrier in your midst). Or you can compete against yourself. Everyone should be tracking their study progress, and you should be using those stats to win something if you meet your goals.
- A subtle difference between worrier competitions and warrior competitions is that warriors are thriving on the high of competition, rather than inuring themselves against the fear of consequences, so you want to try to amp up the high by focusing more on positive rewards, though those positive rewards should be tied to real stretches in your abilities. If you aren’t falling short with some degree of regularity, you are not setting yourself a big enough challenge.
If you can turn your studying into as big a thrill as the test-day, you are going to find yourself with a much stronger set of cognitive skills to play with for the real thing.
The article goes into a bunch of other interesting research into stress in high stakes testing situations, but I’m going to save that for the next post.
This post is just a quick note to draw your attention to still more research in brain science on the incredible plasticity of our brains throughout life. Particularly if you have difficulty with stamina and concentration on your test of choice, there could be huge paybacks to even 5 minutes a day of quiet contemplation. Combine this with a walk outdoors, and you will be getting a complete mind-body boost that will help get you through your studying.
The sooner you start this practice, the more benefits you’ll get from it by test day — and beyond.
What do you do when you study? Have you thought at all about how studying for the LSAT/GMAT/GRE/SAT is different from a biology test or a French exam? Remember that standardized tests test how you think far more than testing what you know. How do you study for something so meta?
The only way to change how you think is to think differently. Sounds like a tautology, right? But if you approach every question the same way, you are going to get basically the same results each time. Remember, test writers have an entire scientific field dedicated to ensuring this is true. So you have to break your brain out of its box, and no, I don’t mean by banging it against a brick wall. Instead, you want to design a study cycle that constantly tries new perspectives and then knits them into the basic test taking experience.
A study cycle involves these steps:
- Take a baseline measure. This might be a timed section, timed test, or just a sequence of 10 questions of the type you are targeting.
- Analyze your results. What questions did you get wrong? Why did you get them wrong? What patterns are there? If you could stop doing one thing wrong, what would it be?
- Brainstorm some exercises that will attack that one thing you want most to fix. I suggested some already, and will continue to do so. You want to look for exercises that take you out of your comfort zone, such as not reading the RC passage. Some are clearly not what you’d actually do on a test, such as the question writing exercise, but they give you a new perspective.
- Practice your exercise enough to give it a real go — don’t stop after one attempt because it is a disaster or it scares the shit out of you — spend real time on it.
- Take a post-exercise measurement. How did your experience change? Did you get more questions correct? Were your mistakes of a different nature? Any progress on that one thing wrong?
In general, you want these cycles to be pretty short, maybe spanning two or three days of work, one or two pomodoro units a day. Some will be bigger efforts, though you might want to mix in study cycles of a totally different sort to keep your brain nimble and your interest piqued.
A lot of what I, and other tutors, can do for you is suggest creative changes to your process — we have a lot of experience that way. But it is also important that you start to own your own study cycle. Be a little playful, and enjoy the creativity involved in coming up with something new.
A great post by one of my favorite writers on the internet, Ta-Nehisi Coates, on learning. In his case, he is learning French, but the lessons translate to all of human endeavors, including smashing the bloody pulp out of a standardized test. The best bit (for this blog, at least):
One of the things I’ve noticed in my studies of French is how much it resembles my studies of athletics. Predictably, I struggle in both athletics and foreign language. But one of the great lessons of my childhood was that no one has the right to be naturally good at anything. More there’s a particular pleasure that comes from becoming good at something which you kind of naturally sucked at. I played the djembe as a kid. I had a pretty good ear for rhythm, but no physical coordination. I could hear what I wanted to play, but my imagination exceeded my abilities. For the first year I did it, I sucked.But after a year of practice in my parents garage I came to suck a lot less, and by the time I gave up the instrument I had risen to the ranks of the “Merely OK.” But I didn’t feel “Merely OK.” I felt like a king, because I knew from whence I came. I knew that great distance (and it is great) between “Utter Suckage” and “Merely OK.” So while I believe in natural talent, I’ve never seen much point in talking about it. Generally if I decide I want to acquire a skill, I don’t see much point in talking about “aptitude.” I have chosen the road. Now it’s time to walk.
It is a bit harder to write your own good quantitative question stems (trust me, I once wrote a big chunk of a test bank for my old university’s quantitative methods subject — it took forever!) but there is still some useful thinking like a test writer to do for your normal multiple-choice problem solving questions on the GMAT, GRE or SAT. In particular, if you are a test writer, you want various percentages of people to pick the wrong answer over the right answer. So how do you get them to do that?
Well, harder problems are harder (generally) because they require more steps. Many non-TestSmashing test takers will forget where they are heading on a question and just kind of stop when they feel they have taken enough steps — or stop when they have a number that matches an answer choice. So how do you gull these poor souls into choosing a wrong answer? Make sure that each step’s answer appears in the answer choices! You, of course, are going to remember what the test really tests, and make sure you actually answer the question being asked, right?
And, while it breaks my heart to say it, waaaay too many people who feel helpless on a question will just randomly combine the numbers in a question. (Are you one of those people? For the love of God and all that is good, resolve to STOP TODAY and never, ever do that again!) Fill in the remaining wrong answer slots with such random combinations.
If you want active practice thinking like a test writer for problem solving questions, pick up an algebra text book (or search the internet) and find some open-ended word problems. Solve them, and note along the way the intermediate steps. Come up with 5 answer choices. Post in comments if you want!