First, a word of caution:
This post is aimed solely at avoiding the letdown between your practice tests and actual test day. Test anxiety refers to the specific phenomenon where capable people underperform when placed in a pressure situation.
This does not mean that if you are scoring low, then you suffer from test anxiety.
The honest truth is that for the vast majority of students, low scores are not properly attributed to test anxiety, because the vast majority of students have large gaps in their fundamentals that have nothing to do with nervousness. Your mindset counts for a lot, but you can’t relax your way out of knowing how to take a contrapositive.
If you’re looking to improve your score generally, the curriculum I recommend is this way. If you’re looking to ensure that you can apply what you’ve learned correctly on test day and hit the same range of score that you’ve been hitting in practice, then keep reading.
1. Interpret your bodily reactions differently
Let’s say that you get the butterflies every time you look at the cover of a fresh LSAT practice test. Rather than interpret those butterflies as nervousness, train yourself to interpret those butterflies as excitement, a sign that you’re about to do something awesome. This has two benefits – it avoids the nervous thoughts, and it puts your mind into a positive mindset.
2. Put your fears on paper
Also known as “Flooding Therapy”, this is a great way to alleviate stress. The key to this technique lies in the fact that your brain interprets your thoughts differently once they’ve been expressed concretely, versus just floating around in your brain. You know those times when you just have to get something off your chest? Yeah, it’s basically that. This technique has been used with varying degrees of success with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients, so it’s probably more than powerful enough for even the most test-anxiety-crippled LSAT taker.
To do this, simply sit down for about 10 minutes or so before you take a practice test and make a list of all the things that you’re worried about. It can be as large scale as thinking you’re going to flat out bomb the test, as detailed as thinking that you missed 15% of your flaw questions on the last test, which is higher than your usual 12%, and you’re scared that it might get worse, or as seemingly irrelevant as you thinking that you don’t look very presentable on this particular morning. Whatever it is, get it out. One study showed that a 10-minute “emotion-dumping” session led to a 15% increase in performance over a control group that just went through their normal pre-test routine.
The goal of meditation is to train your mind to block out distractions. We’re not just talking big distractions, either – while the ability to focus while sitting next to the guy who blows his nose every 4 seconds is a nice side bonus, it’s not the main thrust of the exercise. The goal is to be able to focus through the more subtle things that creep into your mind – in particular, the thoughts of doubt and worry that sabotage you while you’re busy trying to take the test.
You should be entirely awake and alert during the process of meditation – this is not an excuse to take a nap before you start a test. Close your eyes and focus on something. Focusing on your breathing is great since it’s readily available. Don’t let any other thought enter your head. If you find your mind wandering, give yourself a mental slap on the wrist, push those ideas out of your head, and return to focusing on your breathing. Do this for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, twice a day if you can manage it.
This will be exceedingly difficult for the first few weeks, and you will probably be pretty bad at it to start. Eventually, though, you’ll begin to notice that your mind wanders less and less. This is the mental training that, down the line, will enable you to push aside those feelings of doubt and worry and focus your entire attention on beating the LSAT.
4. Positive Self-Reinforcement
One of the simplest and most effective ways to get all those feelings of doubt and worry out of your head is perhaps the most obvious one – just remember how awesome you are! By the time test day arrives, you should know exactly what you can reasonably expect to score, so why allow the doubt to creep back in? Test day is neither the time nor the place. Remembering that you’ve been hitting your target score consistently for the past month and a half goes a long way toward squashing your nervousness. Remember your highest score, remember that time you wrote a perfect logic game section, remember that time that you got every flaw question on the test right – remember SOMETHING that will remind you that you can conquer the test in front of you.
5. Practice under mild stress
Practicing under stress doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you should have the weight of the world on your shoulders every time you take a test. Actually, all that really matters here is that there is something – anything – at stake. If you adhere to a practice test schedule, odds are that you already put some amount of pressure on yourself to do better the next time. Unfortunately, there’s no real pressure to perform and no immediate consequences to doing poorly in practice (except perhaps a slight ego hit). And you’d better believe that on test day, when so much is at stake and the consequences of doing poorly are very real, you’ll be feeling the pressure to perform.
So, create your own consequences. For example, maybe you can put a quarter in a jar every time you miss a logic game question, or maybe you can do five pushups for every logical reasoning question you miss. No matter how trivial the stakes seem, the fact that your performance now has real consequences attached to on a day-to-day basis will train your brain to function under stress.
Again, I must reiterate – none of this replaces real understanding of logic, and you still have to make sure that your actual LSAT capabilities are on point to do well on this test. That being said, if you get nervous when thinking about test day and you want to avoid a big letdown, try one (or all) of these things, and stick with it. By the time test day rolls around, you’ll have trained your mind to dispense with the worry and the nervousness, leaving you free to rock the LSAT to your fullest capabilities. The rest, as they say, is up to you.