How to Prepare for a Big Exam or Test (LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.)

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Throughout life there are certain tests that are critical to your career path. These include the LSAT and bar exam for law students, the GMAC for business students, and the MCAT for medical students.

The outcome of these exams often determines whether you are eligible for a particular career track and able to get into the schools you want. The test score may have an impact on your finances worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over your life. So preparing for these exams is critical.

Here are a few tips that I have learned can be helpful for these monumental exams. Although these tips may be useful for small tests, the ideas suggested here may be overkill for small exam situations.

Test preparation starts months before the big exam.

Three Months before the Exam

At least three months before the exam, you should identify everything that needs to be done for the exam. This includes registering for the exam, knowing what topics will be on the exam, buying or loaning from the library a book on preparing for your particular exam, obtaining practice exams and scheduling on your calendar days you will do them, and possibly making a list of people you know who have taken this exam to talk with them about their suggestions and experience. If you don’t know someone who’s taken this exam, you might consider searching online for blogs that discuss your particular exam (LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.).

Once you know what you have to do, schedule when you will study for the exam and when you will take practice exams. During the following three months, remind yourself that sticking to your schedule is critical to your future success for decades of working in a career you will love.

10 Days before the Exam

About 10 days before the exam, start gathering what you’ll need for the exam. Make sure you know where the exam is located, have your registration ticket, and have the rules. Review the rules for the exam to know whether you can have food or drink, calm, a stopwatch, earplugs, pen and paper, or other things you may want to have with you during the test. If you need special accommodations because of a disability, be sure you notify the test center well in advance.

Start making a list of everything you need for exam day. Consider starting a little pile in your bedroom of the things that you need on exam day. You should include some taxi money in case your car breaks down and you don’t have anyone who can give you ride. Make a schedule of your next 10 days as it relates to procure them for the exam to ensure that you buy anything you need, have all the information you need, and are ready for the exam. The key is to leave nothing to chance, eliminate anxiety of forgetting things on the morning of the exam, and be able to relax the last few days before the exam knowing that you are prepared.

As you schedule the next 10 days, keep in mind that you will need a break one day before the exam, and possibly two.

48 Hours before the Exam

The two days before the exam should be focused on rest and peacefulness. This doesn’t mean sleeping more than normal, because you don’t want to mess up your normal sleep schedule, which could cause you to have a difficult time sleeping the night before the exam or feel tired on exam day because your usual sleep schedule was altered. What you want to do is give your mind and body a break so they have energy on the big exam day. Especially during the last 24 hours, don’t exercise more than normal, don’t study at all, don’t work on a job, and don’t get in fault in stressful situations. Instead, do things that you find somewhat relaxing. This might be a hobby, a movie, gardening, organizing your house, socializing with friends or family, or reading a light book.

Another useful exercise is thinking through the entire exam day. Visualize yourself getting ready in the morning, driving to the exam, the instructor telling you to begin, working through the problems, and being done. Medical and psychological studies into how the human mind works have found that the brain does not know the difference between imagining you are doing something, and actually doing it. These studies realized that the brain actually works at learning a process by thinking through it over and over again, which in part accounts for why we dream of all things that cause us anxiety, which is the brains attempt to prepare for a stressful situation. These studies concluded that your mind will be more prepared for a particular activity if you have thought through that activity already.Olympic gymnasts use this exercise to think through their routines before doing them. Studies have shown that plan your brain has thought through an entire sequence or experience, is more prepared to make quick decisions during the actual experience because it has already worked through the basics of the situation once. So spend 15 minutes thinking through your exam day. It might also help you remember something you’re forgotten so far, like the fact that you need to get directions to the test location, you don’t have any number two pencils, or other things that may not cross your mind until exam day.

The Day of the Exam

If you have done everything discussed here, you should have little to worry about on the day of the exam. You already have piled everything you need in your bedroom. You’re a list of everything you need to take with you. You have studied for the past three months in accordance with the schedule you determined would prepare you best for the exam.

If you want, spend up to 15 minutes reviewing any flash cards, key concepts, or other important information you want to commit to short-term memory. But don’t do more than 15 minutes because your brain needs all of its mental energy for the exam.

Plan to arrive at your exam location at least one hour before the exam is scheduled to start to eliminate the anxiety of problems that can cause you to be late. You don’t want to have to worry about traffic. If your car breaks down the way there, you want time to call a taxi. Parking can be bad and exam site, so you may need additional time to find a parking place and walk to your exam. You may show up at the exam and realize you forgot something critical, and need to decide how to deal with that. Registration may take longer than normal. And most importantly, you do not want your mind and body exerting energy on anxiety about being late. By arriving well in advance, you can sit at the exam site and mentally prepare for the exam.

After the Exam

When the exam is over, congratulate yourself on having taken the exam. The past few months will have been in marathon, and you completed it.

If you thought the exam was very hard, that’s okay. It was. Those who produce exams often have to answers that seem right, so you are correct to observe and that another answer to a particular question could also have been the right answer. In fact, students who felt and exam was very difficult often did much better than students who felt the exam was easy. Students who felt the exam was easy had missed something, but students who felt the exam was difficult were able to identify the intellectual challenge of the exam and their higher scores reflected it. So don’t beat yourself up if you felt the exam was very difficult. It was.

Congratulate yourself on being done. When you are done celebrating, life will return to normal, and you will try not to think about your test score as you wait weeks for it to arrive.

Other reading:

  • How Long Should I Prepare for the LSAT?
  • How to Prepare for Law School Exams

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