My Relationship with Standardized Test Anxiety

I took the MCAT four times. I used to be so embarrassed of that sentence. I didn’t properly prepare and that’s a story for another blog post. I got into Medical School after the third retake but was preparing myself for another application cycle so I threw in an extra three months of studying and an eight hour exam- just for good luck, because you can never be too sure when it comes to your future. When calculated: I’ve spent 32 hours of my life in a Pearson testing room with MCAT questions in front of me. Gross, right?

The MCAT used to make me cringe, keep me up at night, haunt my dreams, make my heart race and palm sweat. I would dodge conversations and had standardized test material come with me everywhere I went for years. My prep books have traveled to more countries than some people have at this point. You may think I’m being dramatic but I’m not.

We all take Standardized Tests be it: the MCAT, COMLEX, STEP, the GRE, NCLEX. The standard response when someone shares that they have to prepare for one is, “Oh my gosh Good Luck.” Another variation: is an inquiry about study methods. You’ll get the occasional supportive comment which is always appreciated: oh you’re so smart! You’ll do great. 

We compare with our friends, peers and colleagues. We talk about study patterns, study resources, schedules, how long you should dedicate your time for….but is anyone sitting down saying how they really feel about having a test score: determine their future? Determine if they achieve what they’ve been working towards? Determine if they match? I don’t see that in Instagram captions.

Because it’s uncomfortable. People reminisce on the time spent studying- granted these are periods of episodic stress and will end eventually- as “some of the worst months of their lives.” Test day is looked at as a war zone- that they barely made it out alive. It’s stressful, absolutely. However, I think it’s time we change our perception of measuring our worth in our numbers.

Standardized exams are a HUGE part of our professional careers and aren’t going anywhere so isn’t it time we made peace with them and took some pressure off of ourselves?

You may be sitting there say, Jess, this is easier said than done. I won’t say you’re wrong. As someone who has had to try four times to get her target score I’ve spent a ton of time analyzing my relationship with that MCAT. 

So, how does one change their perception about Standardized Tests?

  • Acknowledge your relationship with them. If it’s good, well keep it that way. If it could improve: think about the test as a way to show how prepared you are and what you know. At this point, you’ve studied and you’re ready to kick butt and show off.
  • Have a little courage: Most people have a negative connection with Standardized Test and negativity spreads like wildfire. So, pay attention to your surroundings. Try putting out a little positivity and rewarding yourself when your study plan works, you improve on practice questions. If you are studying with your friends- be honest about your feelings or concerns, and try collectively as a group to change your mindset. 
  • Look at it as a way to improve: generally if you’re in a professional school, you’re probably a bit competitive or at minimum, up for a healthy challenge. So take this as an opportunity to push you out of your comfort zone. Make a game out of it and try to make studying fun. Be sure to take care of yourself along the way: check in with friends/family, schedule some down time. 
  • Don’t let the anxiety control you: it’s no secret that our mind and bodies are connected. You start thinking you may fail and all of a sudden you have chest pain and a stomach ache. When you have these feelings- close your eyes, take a deep breath and try and imagine your best outcome. As much as the worst case scenario is “likely” the more prepared you are, the higher the odds the best case scenario takes place. 

If I’m being totally honest, I can say I finally got it right that fourth time. And I mean: calm, cool, collected and confident. Which years back I would never use when describing my relationship with tests. I let it define my worth, my effort, if I was “good enough.” I was worried that I would be considered a “bad” medical student or even worse a bad Doctor. If you’re sitting there and can align with any of these feelings I would just like to present a reality check: a test that you took at 19 years old will not define your career. AT ALL. It will be a learning experience for your future and one that teaches you so much about yourself.


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