Recently, I wrote an article about the powerful link between meditation and concentration. The article revealed how several weeks worth of meditation can lead to an increase in one’s test scores. The takeaway: learn to focus and your test score will go up.
It got me thinking how often our focus can be derailed—especially when we need it most. In my area, success on the GRE—for all our handwringing about vocabulary and dense reading passages—is largely determined by how well we feel the day of the test, and, by extension, how easy it is for us to focus. While my forte is the GRE, I’d say this applies across the board for test taking. I’ll frame my advice through the lens of standardized tests, the GRE in particular.
The meditation article had me preaching the powers of breathing in general, so I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I’m going to focus on that little voice in our head that, no matter how well we sleep, how many months we’ve prepped, will be there test day. That voice will tell us that we are not ready, that the GRE is hard, that we should have studied more, that these questions are <insert expletive here>.
This voice will even come up when we are struggling between specific answer choices.
Basically, our ability to focus is every bit as compromised by this inner voice as it is by the general attack of nerves we are likely to have test day.
The power of positive thinking
I know—we’ve read and heard this so often that it has become a cliché wrapped inside a platitude. Nonetheless, learning to replace the inner voice of negativity and doubt with one that is confident and poised can do wonders. You may scoff, thinking that self-consciously altering what you say is contrived and not likely to work. But that’s the rub: that’s the negative voice talking.
At the same time, I don’t want to come across as totally vacuous by spewing feel-good bromides, think positively, dude!, without giving you some more specific pointers on how to incorporate positive thinking during your prep and, most importantly, during test day.
Below are five mantras—or positive thinking slogans—you can say to turn off the voice of negativity.
1. “Each mistake is an opportunity to learn”
During your worst moments, while prepping for any test, and especially the GRE, you will feel inclined to hurl the book or laptop against the wall. Remember that even if you miss a really easy question (and yes, even Mike the math genius working at the desk to my left, makes careless errors in math), doing so is an opportunity to learn. That is try to better understand what led you to miss an easy—or even difficult—problem, so that you can avoid the same mistake in the future.
2. “The standardized test is a learnable thing”
The GRE in particular does not test some unvarying quality known as intelligence. You can become much better at the GRE in a very short time. Just remember to repeat mantra #2, when that little voice in your head wants to say things like “I’m no good at this.”
3. “Everyone else is also struggling on this really dense reading passage”
The little voice loves to use the really tough questions as affirmation of your supposed ineptitude. The thing is almost everyone finds the tough questions tough. Often those who were able to arrive at the correct answer were the ones who were able to turn off the negative voice in their heads.
4. Change “I’ve never been good at math” to “I’ve become so much better at math”
Many students persistently tell themselves that they are no good in math. In fact, it only takes a slight difficulty in a question to have a student throw up his or her hands and utter this phrase. But that’s the thing with math.
Almost all of us struggle to unwrap what the question is saying. Those who remain positive will be able to get through this initial confusion and see the mathematical light at the end of the tunnel.
The truth is that no matter who you are you’ve probably improved quite a bit at math since starting to prep for your test. So instead of the first sentence say, “I’ve become much better at math”, as soon as you hit a tough quantitative patch.
5. “If I get this question wrong, it is only one question out of many”
Even if you are going for a perfect score you can miss a question. The thing is many of us believe that we have to answer each question correctly, and that if we don’t it is a clear sign that the test is beyond our ability. The reality is that these tests are filled with difficult questions; not letting these questions bully you and take you out of your rhythm, and instead using the ‘skip function’, will allow you to maintain your poise on the much easier questions.