Dealing with Test Anxiety and Demoralization

For as long as I’ve been taking multiple choice question tests, I remember when I’d get a question wrong, a lot of the time I would say:

Oh wait, that doesn’t count, I really knew that one.

But the fact is that there’s more than one way to get a question wrong. Most people think of really being “wrong” as when they’re totally clueless, but that makes up a minority of cases. Many times you will actually know the learning point being tested even when you get the question itself wrong. You got the question wrong because you couldn’t link up the facts you know with how they’re requested through a question stem. Other times you went too fast or got played by a plausible alternative choice. Those are good reasons for why doing high-quality practice questions is a critical component of any exam prep: you need to continually pair up facts in your brain Rolodex with answers as framed on multiple-choice questions. It takes time, and there’s no shortcut.

One of the difficulties some of my former students had with studying through questions is that getting questions wrong is demoralizing. And if you’re using questions relatively early on in your developing mastery of the subject matter, you’re going to get a lot of questions wrong. I would encourage you to consider this bottom line: when you’re studying with any qbank, your goal isn’t really to get questions right; your goal is to learn. There’s almost as much to learn from the questions you answer correctly as the ones you get wrong. You need to see the information in its “native“ environment.

Demoralization and test-anxiety

Unfortunately, for many students, this process of demoralization and self-doubt feeds into test-anxiety. For high-stakes tests like the Step exams, that dread could easily ruin months if not years of your life. It’s a hard cycle to break.

One thing I believe (and I do mean believe, no science/data here) is that when it comes to performing on the big day, the more you care, the worse you do. If each time you’re not sure about an answer shakes your overall confidence, it’s going to be a very long test. Being blindsided by a question doesn’t make you an idiot. Derealization is a helpful skill, because dispassionate nonchalance is a better mindset than “this test determines my future.”

So, you need to start by not beating yourself up. Your specific goal of [insert high number here] is awesome and I hope you get it, but you need to know that goals are only helpful as a means of motivation. Not something to tie your entire self-worth into. When you check your performance and get demoralized, you are doing yourself a disservice. A friend’s performance, peoples’ posts on SDN—absolutely none of that matters.

When you get questions wrong, flag them and do them again. There are lots of reasons to get questions wrong and you need to approach the explanations as a chance to learn, not a chance to be disappointed.

I want to repeat that. The reason a high-quality qbank is such a good tool is twofold. 1) Your knowledge is only helpful (in this narrow artificial context) if it helps you answer a question. The best way to see how to apply it to a question is with a question. 2) The explanation teaches you both the key facts, additional competing/confounding information, and the context/test-taking/pearls/trends/etc.

A lot of people shortchange themselves on #2. They rush through with a focus on getting through them to get more volume instead of savoring the explanations. They get upset when they get a question wrong and don’t use it as a learning opportunity. You should almost want to get questions wrong because then it means you have an opportunity to improve, a potential blindspot to weed out. (Okay fine no one wants to get questions wrong). It’s depth, not breadth.

Emotional valence and overreading

The flip side is when people use that negative emotional valence from being wrong to overread the explanation. They take an exception and turn into a new rule. They generalize too much and try to apply something specific on one question as a generic teaching point to another question where it doesn’t apply (“but last time I guessed X and it was Y; this time it’s X, wtf!”). All of this comes from stress and self-doubt.

Remember, learning is a process. Stop paying so much attention to how you’re doing. Whether you do bad or good or your score changes with each practice exam doesn’t really matter except to help identify things to learn. This is how you’re going to study and you’re going to embrace it. You’re going to take the test one day and do your best on it. Agonizing over the data on the way is just self-flagellation.

As you get close to game day, you can switch to timed blocks to simulate the exam. Get into a groove. Find the confidence to go with your gut, not agonize, not get stressed by a long question stem, etc. If one particular thing seems like you’ll never learn it, then don’t. Your score on any exam you take in your whole life will never hinge on a single topic.

The most intimidating part of taking a high stakes exam like the MCAT or USMLE may be your nerves more than your fund of knowledge.

Reframing anxiety as excitement

During your dedicated review, one way to avoid burnout is to work on reframing your attitude from fear to excitement.

Anxiety is different then dread. It was going to be a disaster, you would feel dread. The fact that you are anxious means there’s a chance it might go well.

Telling yourself that you’re calm or to calm down does not work. You aren’t calm, you can’t calm down. At least not before the event starts. Heightened awareness is a sympathetic response, it cannot simply be tamped down with a little wishful thinking. But that heightened response can be reappraised. When you feel something you don’t like, don’t fight it: re-label it. Consistently.

So.

You’re doing this so you can learn, and–before you know it–you’ll be done.

That is astoundingly exciting. It’s a huge milestone.

You need to study, do your best, and be proud of yourself.

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