Despite taking numerous practice tests, one of the most significant barriers to achieving the best score on the MCAT is your anxiety about the actual test. Feelings of anxiety can range from getting sweaty palms as you wait in line to enter the testing room to blanking out when you take a look at the first question that pops up on the computer screen. Some premeds may just get a few jitters and feel a few butterflies, while other may completely “lose it.” While it may be impossible to completely defeat your MCAT-related anxiety, there are some things you can do to ensure that you can actually apply all of the things you’ve learned and studied so hard and score at or above what you’ve been getting on your practice tests. Here are a few strange (but proven) ways to beat your anxiety:
Write a love (or hate) letter.
You’re probably thinking what on Earth does this really mean and how in the heck is it going to help you ease your testing worries come the big day? Well, it’s pretty simple – by writing about any worries you may have about the MCAT and the consequences of your scores before you actually take the test, you can improve your performance. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers reported that when they tested this method – which they called a psychological intervention – they found that when test-takers completed a quick, expressive writing assignment immediately before taking an important test, they significantly improved their performance on their exam. This was especially true for students who reported being habitually anxious about taking test. So go ahead, pour your heart out and write a letter to express how you feel, what you’re thinking, or anything else you want to get off your chest if the MCAT was a person and you had the opportunity to share your true feelings about how you felt.
Strike a pose.
A meditation pose that is. When it comes time to take the MCAT, a simple seated pose may very well be the answer to all of your test anxiety woes. According to one study, the simple breathing techniques of Pranayama had a positive effect on lowering test anxiety. Specifically, 73% of the participants experienced low test anxiety. “For students in anxious situations such as in-class tests, standardized examinations, final examinations, oral resentations, and so on, knowing this technique can be the difference between success and failures,” the study authors wrote. “For a nervous student or anyone who knows too well how anxiety manifests itself in the body and mind, the knowledge that something as simple as breathing differently can produce a different physical and mental response is quite powerful.”
Put on a happy face.
The anxiety you my feel leading up to the day of the MCAT has a lot of feelings of stress rolled up with it. In a study involving students from Midweatern university, researchers found that smiling during brief stressors can help to lower the intensity of how the body responds to the stressful situation. “Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” said study author Tara Kraft.
Scratch and sniff.
You’ve heard about aromatherapy before, but could this really be the solution to calming your MCAT jitters? Some say yes, and hey, it won’t hurt to try it out. When researchers at Florida Atlantic University sought out to test the effects of lavender and rosemary essential oils on test-taking anxiety among graduate nursing students they were simply looking to help students realize their goals of graduation. As it turns out, the use of oil sachets of these two oils actually reduce test-taking stress in the students as evidenced by lower scores on test anxiety measure, personal statements, and pulse rates.
What? Yes, that’s right. As stressful as your life has been leading up to the MCAT and as much as you are stressing about how much you’re stressing about, this might actually be a good thing. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers reported that while individuals with high working-memory capacity experienced an increase in anxiety before taking their exam, this pre-test anxiety was actually associated with higher test scores. “The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests,” said lead researcher Dr. Matthew Owens, who conducted the study at the University of Southampton. “The findings also suggest that there are times when a little bit of anxiety can actually motivate you to succeed.”
This article was first published in the July/August 2013 issue of PreMedLife magazine.