Five Mantras to Fight Test Day Doubts

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.

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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.


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11 Responses to Five Mantras to Fight Test Day Doubts

  1. Allison S. Zhao December 25, 2019 at 10:45 am #

    Hi Chris!

    My name is Allison S. Zhao. I have a huge problem with test anxiety ever since I was little. And now it’s back to haunt me. Every time I don’t do well on practice sessions nor individual verbal and math practice tests in practice books, I just know that I won’t do well. I can’t even calm down, I feel that I turn blue and I won’t be able to concentrate on the test from bad practice scores. I have had a gazillion problems with test anxiety especially when I was in college. I get overly emotional, and I don’t know what to do when I come across a difficult question.

    I am working on Math and Verbal, primarily in verbal, but I am also having difficulty pacing myself during math questions. Each time I get a question wrong, I panic.

    My condition is difficult and uncontrollable–even a little anxiety leads to a huge problem for me. Please help.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 24, 2020 at 11:18 am #

      Hi Allison. So sorry to hear that you deal with that type of anxiety! Many students feel the same way, and you can learn to deal with that struggle successfully.
      Be patient with yourself while you are learning, practicing, and strengthening your test-taking skills. It’s best to learn how to approach problems accurately at first and then slowly increase your speed over time. We recommend lots and lots of practice questions, but it’s important not to criticize yourself when you get the wrong answer. Almost nobody in the whole world will sit down to do a batch of problems and make zero mistakes! That just doesn’t happen. Instead of getting upset when you get a wrong answer, try to reduce the percentage of answers you get wrong by analyzing your mistakes and learning how to avoid those same mistakes next time.
      Why don’t you check out this article from one of our students about some steps he took to help him cope with stress while studying for the exam?
      Don’t give up, Allison! We’re cheering for you! 🙂

  2. Shitanshu Desai July 10, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    I perfectly agree with you. Although, I am not that afraid of the test. On the contrary I am quite confident. But matters in my personal life keep on disturbing me and I kinda lose focus. When I lose focus I score less. But as soon as I can concentrate again I score good.

  3. Saikrishna August 14, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Hey Chris!

    Thank you for posting this! I’m giving my GRE in about 3 weeks, and this post has been very helpful. I’ve been following the Magoosh study schedule, and after giving 3 practice tests in Magoosh, and 2 paper-based practice tests from the Official Guide, I found myself getting frustrated and losing hope when faced with some difficult questions. Needless to say, I ended up scoring less. In fact, upon reviewing the difficult questions later, I realised that I could have most certainly answered them had I been more calm during the test. I knew the concepts!

    Just goes to show how important it is to maintain a positive attitude because no matter how much you prepare, all it takes is a couple of difficult questions – and that negative voice in your head that follows it – to undo your months of hard work.

    Again, thank you for writing this article! I’m glad I came across this today, especially with my GRE in a few weeks time. Better late than never, eh?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

      Hi Saikrishna,

      Yes, positive attitude counts for a lot. Not freaking out, and controlling your breathing is important, too.

      Good luck 🙂

  4. Anamica March 6, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I just want to say thank you for writing this. I have taken the GRE twice and have gotten the same crummy math score. This frustrates me because I know all basic math concepts but I let myself fall into a spiral of self pity. It’s nice to see someone say that my problems are common and that attitude, not aptitude, will help me get the score I want.
    Thanks again,

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

      Hi Anamica,

      Great! I’m happy that students are getting something out of this sadly under read post. Many students just want practice questions and tips; but often the biggest tip is how to overcome the psychological barriers :).

      Good luck!

  5. Nerwen Aldarion August 8, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    I’ve been struggling with incredible test anxiety, something I’m not used to. After recieving rejections from Grad Schools for my low Quantum I think I’ve hinged my entire future on this test.

    I just retook it yesterday and reached the bare minimum but I feel that it is not enough. In Princeton Practice tests online I scored a 160 but I only scored a 150 in the actual test, I feel like a lot of that had to do with confidence, I was so worked up I haven’t really been eating well for the past few months and I did start to panic when my time ran out.

    I’m thinking of retaking the test again following Magoosh since it is highly recommended. Do you have any study guide for people who are NOT starting from scratch?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      Hi Nerwen,

      A good game plan for you would be to go through Magoosh questions, focusing on the question types in which you struggle. A good way to determine this would be to take a mock test and see if there are recurrent question types you miss. We have this cool dashboard feature that allows you to select for certain problem types, e.g. Counting Problems, Coordinate Geometry, etc.). Go through those problems till you become more comfortable.

      Since the Magoosh questions are as difficult, if not more difficult, then those on the actual test, you hopefully won’t experience the same issue you did studying with PR. I think that could also account for some of your stress–as soon as you notice that the questions are more difficult than the study material, you can become flustered.

      What’s also great about Magoosh is that the setup is stressful. There is a timer constantly reminding you how long you’ve spent on a problem. My point is I think putting yourself in test conditions that mimic those test day can help minimize a lot of stress. Of course, stress is inevitable. I recommend deep breathing (3 seconds inhale, 3 seconds exhale) and positive thinking: “I will break 160.”

      Practice both these techniques while taking mock tests. If you need more mock tests, you can always pick up a copy of a Manhattan GRE guide, which gives you access to six free tests.

      Good luck!

  6. Marcela May 11, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    I am having an internal battle with myself and that little negative voice… How can I control it? and how does the brain works? it seems I watched all the videos and done practice and still I dont improve.. I really want to succeed and I am motivated, I study every day but I feel I am possessed by negativity inside me and I often question myself if I am intelligent or not.. (friends and family always flatter me saying that I am so smart, but after this stupid GRE I question myself)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Hi Marcela,

      Thanks for your honesty :). You of course aren’t alone, as many people–and very intelligent ones at that–struggle with standardized tests for the same reason: they are constantly undermined by that inner voice.

      I haven’t really read the research on the inner voice and what is going on in the brain (if there is even such research out there) but my advice is to accept that the voice is there and do your best to ignore it. So let’s say your trying to review a math question that you believe you should have gotten right, accept that the voice is going to begin its usual narrative. Think of it as an annoying friend nagging at you in the background as you are trying to focus. But do your best to get through questions.

      Another way of looking at it is what do you mean by “don’t improve.” Oftentimes, progress is hard to measure and isn’t only based on whether you score goes up by x points. The fact that you’ve learned more vocabulary and that your reading speeding is increasing are signs–albeit subtle ones–that you are improving. So one way to counter the negative voice is to replace “I’m not improving”, “I’ll never improve”, etc. with “I am getting a little better each day.” Sure that may sound a little cheesy, but what you are doing is replacing one narrative (the negative one) with one that is positive (and, in all likelihood, closer to the truth).

      Good luck, and I know you will improve :)!

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