Are you a worrier or a warrior?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Next up

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.

Care for your brain

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.


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.
For those of you who don’t know Coates’ writings, he is a college dropout — and not of the “I’m too busy making money at my internet start-up” variety.  He is also a guest professor at MIT and a published author.  Success comes in all forms, and is there for the taking (or, better put, the exploring) to any and all who seek it out.
And while I am on the topic of success, you should take the time to watch J.K. Rowlings’ Harvard commencement speech on the fringe benefits of failure:

My current project

I’ve been neglecting the website lately, as I have been spending most of my TestSmasher time working on my new book, Leaving Low Scores Behind: LSAT Edition.  It is a three week self-study guide to walk you through how to get past a low score, re-establish a much better relationship with the test, and develop study skills and a strategy to launch you into a successful period of study and test taking where you actually get the score you need to go to the law school of your dreams.  The book is based on insights from neuroscience, social psychology, and my years of teaching struggling students.  I’ve now finished a draft and am starting to think about the best way to publish, market, and distribute the book.

If this sounds intriguing to you, please consider signing up to be my beta tester!  I would love to work with a few more students who are looking to improve their scores significantly so that I can understand how well it speaks to different people and figure out ways to help you and it kick ass even harder.  I’m still offering my “Low Score Recovery” package, which is a steeply discounted opportunity to work with me as you go through Leaving Low Scores Behind.   If you are interested in the book but not the tutoring, please shoot me an email, and we can work something out.

Finally, if you want to walk proudly away from an old low score and on to a much higher score on the GMAT or the GRE, please also contact me!  My plan is to adapt this to each of the graduate-level tests, and I’d love to help you too.

Don’t just take my word for it

I wrote a while ago about how intelligence is not really the issue when taking these tests.  Guess what?  I was right!  The entire concept of intelligence as this immutable, etched-in-stone thing is totally, completely bullshit.  It turns out that studying for the LSAT makes you smarter.  You, dear test smasher, have within your power the option to exercise your brain more, and literally change its structure.  Woohoo!

My favorite quote from the article:

“A lot of people still believe that you are either smart or you are not, and sure, you can practice for a test, but you are not fundamentally changing your brain,” said senior author Silvia Bunge, associate professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “Our research provides a more positive message. How you perform on one of these tests is not necessarily predictive of your future success, it merely reflects your prior history of cognitive engagement, and potentially how prepared you are at this time to enter a graduate program or a law school, as opposed to how prepared you could ever be.

(My bolding.)  This is really great news for you.  This means that the test you are taking is not a measurement of your sum as a human being for ever and for all.  Instead, it is merely a snapshot of where you are on a particular set of skills at the moment.  This is really great news.

Except.  Now you have to act on it.  If you are performing poorly on your favorite test — or just performing more poorly than you like — you can’t just shake your fist at the sky and go about your life like you always have.  Instead, you have a choice.  You can change how you spend your time, and how you approach problems, and then see your score go up and your view of the world change.  Or, you can stay the same.  Your choice.  Change is really hard, and there is no harm, no foul, if you choose to not change. Life can be rich, wild, and wonderful for people with all levels of cognitive engagement.

But you gotta change your approach if you want to change your score.

I’m a low scorer. Can I TestSmash too?


Indeed, you are going to have to do some TestSmashing.  If you are already in the upper percentiles of whichever test, TestSmashing is just a little nudge, activating a perspective on the tests you are probably halfway to figuring out yourself already.  If you are a low scorer, TestSmashing is going to be hard.  Really, really hard, but not in the way you might expect.  Instead, it’s hard because you have to change how you think about yourself, the test, and how to solve problems.

I’m starting to develop a program for low scorers to turn themselves around and dramatically improve their scores.  If anyone wants to be a beta tester for this program, contact me and I will give you a pretty steep discount for a 4-session package to lay the foundation for a more successful experience with the test that is between you and your dreams.  This isn’t test prep, its prep-for-test-prep stuff that will, I think, save you tons of time, money and agony in the long run if you take some risks and about three weeks up front.

In the meantime, some rules of the road for a low scorer:

  1. Be realistic and set your goals carefully.  Dramatically increasing your score (say by at least 150 or 15 points, depending on the test, particularly if you are starting below the 50th percentile) is going to take time.  It isn’t going to happen in a few weeks.  If you’ve already signed up to take the test in less than 2 months, I would cancel.  Even if it means delaying your applications by a year.  Painful, I know, but you need to
  2. …be patient.  This kind of change won’t happen overnight.
  3. You MUST find a way to transition from the self-concept “I am bad at tests” or, god forbid, “I am not smart enough to do well” to “I happen to have performed badly on some tests in the past, but I am working hard and will master the mistakes I used to make.”
  4. You MUST be prepared to acknowledge that you don’t know what you are doing, and that the approach you have taken so far isn’t working.
  5. Find a way to protect your ego through this process.  Do something joyful, creative and fun on a regular basis during this Test Smashing period of your life.
  6. Be sure this is what you want.  If it isn’t, it is an awfully time-intensive, ego-bruising activity to embark on if you don’t actually want to go to graduate school (or college).

You must be so smart

When people say that to me, I have bite back the temptation to say, “And you must be so boring.”  Really, guys, intelligence is such a BORING topic.  If you want to compliment me on my courage or my integrity, I will go all gooey.  Compliment me on my intelligence, and I’ll either want to fall asleep or punch you in the face, depending on my grumpiness that day.


Intelligence is a trait that anyone reading this blog has in abundance.  If there are differences between people, the variation occurs at a not-interesting level.  It’s sort of like having a bank balance of $3,274,971.03 versus $2,974,817.71.  In both cases, you are fucking rich.  Drawing any kind of meaningful inferences about the wealth of either balance owner is ridiculous and BORING.

I have a niece who is not quite two yet, and she has mastered walking (and running!) and is in the process of learning to communicate effectively in English and Spanish.  While I think she is the awesomest little tyke on the planet (at least until I have kids), she is nothing special.  Any girl or boy her age is mastering the profoundly complex skills of walking and language.*  These require way more cognitive processing power than anything on the SAT, GMAT, LSAT or GRE.  I promise.  Even scoring an 800/180.  And each and every one of you has accomplished that!*  So why the hell can’t you do this?

Well, in addition to learning to walk and talk, kids learn artificial boundaries on their abilities.  This is a tragedy.  Teachers tell kids (who, remember, have just mastered the amazing skills of walking and talking) that somehow, they are “bad at math” or are “a little slow.”  Parents respond not by punching said teacher in the face (okay, that would be wrong, because solving problems with actual violence is wrong) but by getting anxious, yelling at their kid, setting lower expectations, medicating them, or whatever solution they see to this problem that isn’t really a problem.

The problem we should be trying to solve is the lack of patience, perseverance, creativity and joy in learning in the teacher and parents, not some sudden loss of the ability to claim new skills by the kid.  After little Johnny has sat down hard on his butt for the hundredth time after trying to figure out that walking thing, adults don’t turn to each other and say wisely “oh, well, I guess Johnny just isn’t good at walking.  I guess we’ll encourage him to major in screaming his head off — a skill he has shown great promise in from birth.”  Instead, we laugh and coo and cheer.  Johnny laughs (or cries a bit) and pulls himself up again (’cause goddamnit everyone around me seems to be going places.  I want to too.) and tries to move a foot forward, but doesn’t have his balance right and ends up on his butt.  Again.  Until one day, he takes his first step.

For the few insightful teachers who approach teaching math this way, the “slow” kids start doing college level math after a year of teaching that allows the kids an opportunity to find the inherent joy of math.  Read this: The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child to learn more.  (And yes, full disclosure, I make money from Amazon if you click that link and end up buying the book.)

So what does this have to do with test prep???

Standardized tests purport to take their takers, line them up, and order them on the basis of … something.  Now, the psychometricians at ETS would agree with me that these tests are not “intelligence” tests, but the schools sure do treat them that way.  So do your peers, teachers, and probably parents.  The very hardest thing I run up against when teaching students these tests are their fixed beliefs about their own intelligence and how much they can accomplish given their limitations.  Time and time again, I have found that they are perfectly capable of doing absolutely everything the test asks of them, but their belief that they are “just not good at math” or “just not good at taking tests” and that those traits are immutable makes them bomb the test anyway.

So, the very first thing you need to do to do well on your test?  Believe that you can and insist on smashing every single fucking question type into smithereens.  Don’t give up until you have.

* Of course, there are people who are born with limits and cannot learn to walk and/or talk.  This rant does not apply to them.  They are also probably not taking these tests.  If you were born with some physical limitation and never learned to walk for that reason, you are still fucking smart so go smash the test!