How to Beat GRE Test Day Anxiety and Still Get a Great Score!

Person holding head in hands showing GRE test day anxiety - image by Magoosh

If you’re not exactly the perfect embodiment of calmness during GRE prep, you’re definitely not alone. It’s no secret that standardized tests can be stressful. At Magoosh, we’ve seen lots of students struggle with varying nerves and levels of anxiety before test day. And we’re here to tell you that yes, GRE test day anxiety is a real thing—but there are also real ways to beat it!

With that in mind, we’ve gathered together our top tips from our test-prep experts and real GRE test takers. Here’s what you need to boost peace of mind and banish nervousness from your testing experience!

10 Strategies to Deal With GRE Test Day Anxiety

1. Learn Stress Management Techniques

It’s a vicious cycle: you notice that you’re feeling stressed, you tell yourself to cut it out—and you only end up feeling more tense. Mastering stress management techniques takes some practice, but they’re well worth the time!

In this video, GRE expert Chris Lele explains why our brains do this to us. More importantly, he provides a number of techniques, from breathing exercises (yes, a deep breath really can help) to test prep strategies, that you can use to take the test in the best possible state of mind!

 

2. Be Prepared

For a lot of people, the scariest thing they’ll ever encounter is…the unknown. But there’s good news for GRE test-takers: you can definitely learn and master this content! The more familiar you become with GRE topics and what question types are on the GRE, the calmer you’re feel.

Knowing that you have a plan can also help lower stress. Yes, even if there’s only one week until test day (or six months, for that matter!). Check out Magoosh’s GRE study schedules to find the plan that best fits your needs.

Finally, taking GRE practice tests in test-like conditions—as unpleasant as that may sound right now—is not only one of the best ways to reduce your anxiety (you’ll know almost what to expect on test day), but it’s also one of the best ways to boost your GRE score (because you’ll know almost what to expect on test day…funny how that works!). Bonus? By reading the instructions now, you’ll be able to skim over them on the actual test, saving you time!

 

3. Build Confidence

One of the most anxiety-producing parts of taking the GRE can be the fear of failure. It’s key to remember that you are improving from week to week, so set yourself up to prepare for this!

As you start your GRE prep course or plan, it’s a great idea to keep a notebook to track your progress (if you’re a Magoosh student, you can also do this on the dashboard!). You can mark your practice test scores in here, but it’s also a good idea to write down less tangible “wins”: relaxation techniques you’ve found that work for you, time management improvements, answering X number of questions at Y pace.

Seeing your wins from week to week—maybe you’re getting faster, doing better on a particular question type, or are putting new concepts into practice—will help build your confidence and beat GRE score plateau. You’re putting in the work; if it’s the right kind of work, you will see results!

 

4. Celebrate Your Successes

Another great reason to track your successes? So you can celebrate them! Treat yourself to your favorite ice cream, give yourself the night off to rewatch your favorite episode of your favorite show, do a five-minute dance party in your living room…whatever makes you feel good!

If you’re a planner, you can set up particular goals in advance that you’ll celebrate and plan your rewards accordingly. If you’re spontaneous, just go with the flow—but don’t forget to pat yourself on the back in a tangible way when you make progress!

 

5. Create a Personal Mantra

We’ve all got that little voice in our head. You know the one: the voice 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>.

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. But using a mantra can help you get rid of it!

Not sure what mantra will work for you? We have a few suggestions. Pick one or a few to use at key moments!

Click here for Magoosh’s five favorite GRE mantras!
  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 an 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 GRE 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. 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.

 

6. Practice Mindfulness

And particularly, meditation. For some folks, meditation may seem too rarefied and spiritual to have anything to do with test prep. Getting ready for the GRE involves a lot of learning, but few would describe it as a deeply enlightening process. But before you navigate to another page, you might want to take a look at the results of a recent study on meditation and performance on the verbal section of the GRE exam.

This study took a group of undergraduates at the University of Santa Barbara and had them take the verbal section of the GRE (I’m sure a few demurred and fled at the first triple-blank Text Completion). Next, the subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the nutrition group or the mediation group.

The nutrition group learned about the importance of healthy eating and was encouraged to keep a food journal, in which they wrote down what they consumed daily. This was to make sure both groups spent about the same amount of time doing something and ensures that just taking a bit of time each day to better yourself isn’t what made the difference.

The results are actually shocking: the average score before the interventions was 460. Participants in the meditation group saw their average score increase to 520. This is with zero GRE prep! (I should mention this score is based on the old testing score, but that increase is similar to an increase from a 151 to a 154). On the other hand, participants in the nutrition group saw no change on their GRE verbal section score.

 

7. Abandon the Need for Perfection

We’ve seen a lot of perfectionist students balk at the gentle suggestion to “set realistic expectations.” But honestly, would you rather be aiming for a 170 and be bummed when you get a 169—or be aiming to get a 165 and get that 169?

It’s so important to keep those perfectionist tendencies in line with what’s realistic. How much time do you have? What’s your baseline score? (If you don’t know, these GRE diagnostic quizzes are a great place to start!) And what score ranges do your dream schools have?

Depending on your answers to those questions, reevaluate your goals in terms of how realistic they are. If you need a 20-point increase for deadlines in two weeks, you’re setting yourself up for the impossible. Changing your goals or your test date can take the pressure way off.
 

8. Have a Backup Plan (and a Backup to Your Backup)

I’m writing this at the beginning of 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about the way we live—including any expectation of certainty. But no matter when you’re taking the GRE, making a backup plan is a great way to make your test prep calmer.

If you’re planning to take the GRE in person, try to take it early enough that you can retake it if needed on a second GRE test date. This is often enough to soothe dread about a lot of things: not hitting a goal score on the first try, the test getting canceled, even sleeping through your alarm!

Realize, as well, that you have lots of options. In 2020, ETS (the GRE test-maker) launched the GRE at-home test. They’ve since announced that it’s here to stay, making it a great Plan C (or B, or A)! If you suffer from GRE anxiety, this may be your best option: being in a familiar environment, if it’s calm and you have the tech, is a good way to soothe your test-taking brain!
 

9. Practice Your Test Day Routine to Beat GRE Test Day Anxiety

If you have a solid GRE study plan, it likely recommends taking multiple practice GREs. Use these as an opportunity to prep for the full GRE test-day experience itself.

Start with an early night. Prepare snacks and meals at home (even if you’re planning on taking the test there!) Get pencils and scratch paper ready—on test day, the test center will provide these, but you’ll need them during practice.

Treat your practice tests like real tests by starting at the same time that you will on the morning of your test. If you’re taking an in-person exam and it’s currently safe in your area, it’s a good idea to go to a library or other public space where you won’t be interrupted but may still experience minor distractions. It’s not pleasant, but then…neither is a four-hour test in a test room.

And getting used to it is a great habit. Knowing what you’re getting into is super helpful for calming anxiety about what will happen on your actual test.
 

10. Don’t Discuss Anything Test-related Before the Test

We’ve been there, too: the morning of the exam, goal scores, weak areas, and test fears all just seem to crop up in breakfast-table discussion. But actually, talking about the test before you take it is just going to wind your brain up even more, posing the test as more of a threat than it actually is.

Instead, prepare beforehand by setting aside some reading material that you’ve been dying to get into. Focus on that instead of the test. And no matter what, no last-minute test-prep! You’ve already learned everything you’re going to before test day by now.

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Advice from Magoosh Students: What are your strategies to combat GRE test day anxiety?

We asked some recent GRE test-takers what they recommend to help you minimize GRE test day anxiety. Here are a few of their suggestions!

Going for a walk the morning before your test listening to pump up/inspiring songs! -Kendall

 

If possible, go to the building location before test day, using whichever mode of transportation you’ll use on test day. That way, you can see what route to take, how much time to allow, etc. That way, you set yourself up for a smooth start to your test-taking experience! -Kate

 
Bonus Tip: Try practicing meditation! A few recommended apps? Try Headspace, or Stop, Breathe, & Think!

Those are all our tips for how to beat the GRE test day anxiety and still get a great score! Do you have any other techniques for overcoming test day anxiety? Tell us in the comments below!

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Author

  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

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