Some of us perform well under pressure, and some of us tend to crumble and crack. Even if you tend to do well under pressure, too much anxiety can wear you down and affect your performance.
One study even found that students who experienced test anxiety performed worse than those who did not experience anxiety on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1. Of course, knowing that test anxiety can impair your performance likely only proves to make your anxiety worse. This is why it is imperative to find strategies to overcome your test anxiety.
Not only can test anxiety potentially decrease your scores on the MCAT, but it can also make your life downright miserable. It’s normal to experience stress and anxiety while studying for the MCAT. The more you address these feelings, the happier you’ll be, and the more smoothly your preparation and testing will go.
Read our Tips for Success on MCAT Test Day
What is Test Anxiety?
Some people know they have test anxiety—they’ve always struggled with it. Other people may not feel this intense anxiety creep in until the MCAT when they’re met with an extremely difficult and important test.
You’ll know you have test anxiety when you fear failure and worry about the test to an extent that it interferes with your ability to study for and/or take the test.
Common symptoms of test anxiety include:
- Brain fog
- Panic attacks
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Ruminating thoughts
- Heart palpitations
- Syncope or near syncope
- Obsessive thoughts
A 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that test anxiety was related to high-stakes tests that are perceived to be difficult. It’s no wonder so many students face anxiety when they are preparing for the MCAT.
How to Reduce Test Anxiety
Because test anxiety may interfere with your score, finding effective coping strategies is essential. You’ll also feel happier and more relaxed if you are able to manage your anxious thoughts and feelings. Try these coping strategies as you prepare for and take the MCAT.
1. Take Practice Tests
Take practice tests, and take them seriously. When you take a practice test under testing conditions, you may feel more at ease knowing you’ll have an idea of what to expect on test day. A lot of our stress and anxiety comes from the unknown and not being able to control situations. Practicing under testing conditions can also desensitize you to the test; ideally, it will feel like just another day of practice when you walk into the testing center.
2. Rule Out a Learning Disability
This might sound preposterous. You’ve gotten this far and have been incredibly successful in school; there is no way you could have an undiagnosed learning disability. However, a learning disability does not make you unintelligent, and knowing that you have one can help you find supportive tools and do even better in school. Some common undiagnosed learning disabilities include dyslexia and ADHD.
If you find that you do have a learning disability, you may also become eligible for MCAT test accommodations. Instead of working against your nature, you’ll be able to play to your strengths and receive much-needed support.
3. Practice Efficient Study Strategies
One of the best ways to reduce test anxiety is to be confident and adequately prepared for the test. Sometimes, anxiety can come from the fear that you didn’t study the right information or you don’t know enough.
When you have an organized and evidence-based study strategy, you may feel more confident come test day. Memm uses spaced repetition, active recall, interleaving, and desirable difficulties—four evidence-based strategies—to help you confidently learn and retain the information you’ll need to know for the MCAT.
The more prepared you feel, the less likely you are to worry about your competence.
4. Practice Positive Self-talk
Negative and anxious self-talk can lead you down a dangerous spiral that is hard to escape. When you find yourself repeating negative things inside your head, stop the thought and turn it into a positive.
Instead of “I know I’m going to fail,” try “I’m well prepared. Worst case scenario, I’ll have to take the test again.” Or instead of “I always get anxious during tests,” try “I have learned ways to combat test anxiety, and I will be calm during the test.”
Positive self-talk can be extremely powerful when creating your own narrative for test day as well. The physiologic response you have to the test — increased heart rate or rapid breathing for example — can be interpreted in two different ways. Either you’re excited and pumped for showtime… or you’re afraid. The narrative you choose can change your outcome.
5. Don’t Fight It
This might seem counterintuitive to the previous strategy, however, the two can work hand in hand. In addition to positive self-talk, try simply accepting some of your anxious thoughts. After all, some anxiety is normal.
When an anxious thought comes into your head, try to simply let it pass without judgment. If you try to fight it, the thought might stick around longer, and you may begin to ruminate. Meditation can be helpful if you struggle with this.
Acceptance is such a powerful tool; often, the things we resist begin to increase in magnitude and power. When you accept that some level of physiologic response is going to happen, the response won’t have the same hold on you.
6. Learn Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques can be helpful both while you’re preparing and while you’re taking the test. Try some of these simple and effective relaxation techniques:
- Breathing techniques (try breathing in for two seconds, holding your breath for 3 ½ seconds, and breathing out for four seconds)
- Emotional freedom techniques (tapping)
- Progressive muscle relaxation (tense and hold muscles then release)
- Positive visualization (try picturing yourself calm and prepared on test day or earning the score you’re aiming for)
- Recite a mantra in your head
- Remind yourself to relax your shoulders and jaw
- Practice grounding
The more you practice these techniques, the more they will become a habit.
7. Fuel Your Body
Fuel your body with a balanced diet and be sure to drink plenty of water. Try not to drink too much caffeine as that can increase anxiety. Additionally, avoid excessive amounts of sugar, which could make you crash.
On test day, eat a balanced breakfast that your body is used to, and pack more than enough food and water to get you through the day.
8. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep is imperative not just the night before the test but in the weeks leading up to it as well. Anxiety can even be a direct result of sleep deprivation. Try to avoid screens in the hour leading up to bed, create a consistent sleep routine, and keep your bedroom around 70°F.
9. Recognize Cognitive Distortions
A cognitive distortion is an untrue or irrational thought that can cloud your mind. Realize that some of the thoughts you are having surrounding the test are distortions. Your thoughts are not always true, and when you recognize this, you may be able to dismiss the thought more easily.
10. Be Social
When you’re feeling incredibly anxious about the test, you may be tempted to lock yourself in your room and study all the time. This can perpetuate the cognitive distortions you have. Make time to be with friends or family, which can help you relax and put the test into perspective.
11. Talk to a Professional
A therapist may be able to provide you with tools and strategies to help with your test anxiety. It’s also worthwhile to visit your primary care provider or a psychiatrist. He or she may be able to determine if your anxiety extends beyond the test. In this case, medication may help improve your situation.
How to Overcome Test Anxiety
We recognize that overcoming test anxiety is difficult, particularly if it’s something you have struggled with for a long time. A final piece of advice is to put the MCAT in perspective. While it is a high-stakes test, it is not the sole measure of your success and abilities.
Additionally, there are many supports available to you as you prepare for and take the MCAT. Memm can help you prepare for the MCAT with confidence using an evidence-based study strategy that’s tailored to your needs.
We also recommend reading our MCAT Study Guide. It includes everything you need to prepare for the MCAT, including how the MCAT is scored, MCAT study strategies, MCAT resources, and FAQs.