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Test-Taking Process, Part I: The Night Before the Exam

Although we’re referring to this step of the process as "the night before the exam," it actually involves more preparation than waiting until the actual night before. You should be thinking of these things the night before the exam, but if you really want to be prepared, you also need to consider them well in advance of that night. After all, you’ll want to try and relax as much as you can the night before the exam, and not wait until the last minute to gather your registration materials, find a babysitter for the kids, and so on.

Okay, what are these "night before the exam" tips? The following sections focus on a few.

Night Before the Exam: Get a Good Night’s Sleep

You may recall the "all-nighters" you pulled in high school or college, waiting until the last minute to study for a big exam and then literally staying up all night. And you might fondly recall these all-night cram sessions: They were sometimes a lot of fun: You could study with friends and laugh about your situation as much as you did any actual studying.

But at the risk of sounding melodramatic and depressing, those are probably bygone days of youth (wow, that really did sound depressing, didn’t it?). More seriously and less depressing, the exam you are studying for is not for a grade, but rather will have a serious impact on your career. In other words, it is not something to be taken lightly, and not something to wait until the last minute to study for.

So although not everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night, the vast majority of people need at least six hours of sleep to really feel alert. Moreover, studies have shown that your ability to retain what you study is not going to be significantly aided by staying up all night and trying to cram everything in at the last minute. In fact, new research suggests that sleep helps you "sort out" what you have learned, so that if you get your studying done early and get a good night’s sleep, you will do much better on the exam than you will if you pull an "all-nighter." Therefore, this type of studying, in addition to making you tired, might actually be detrimental to your success on the test. Taking the time to prepare in advance of the night before the exam, then using the night to relax (a bit of advice we’re going to repeat many times in this chapter) is your best bet for doing well. Final words on the subject: Don’t feel compelled to go to bed at sundown, but at the same time don’t stay up for the late-late movie.

Night Before the Exam: Know Your Route to the Test Center

This might be a piece of advice where you say to yourself, "Wow, that is a really good point." And if you are saying that as you read this, then the purpose for including this information has been served: that is, you are thinking about it now, rather than waiting until the last minute!

I remember when I took the graduate record exam (GRE), which is the standard test everyone takes as part of the application process for graduate school. I was set to take the exam in my hometown of Indianapolis, and I was sure (or so I thought) of the exact route I was going to take to get to the testing center. Well, if you aren’t familiar with the Midwest, Indianapolis is a reasonably large city, and even if you grew up there, many places—although you think you know where they are—prove to be just a little more elusive when you get in the car and try and drive to them. As it turned out, I fell victim to not thinking about how I would get to the test center, and while I wasn’t late, I got there with only ten minutes to spare instead of my planned thirty. I also managed to dump a large cup of coffee in my lap that morning, as well as slip and slide in some unexpected (and not forecasted) bad weather.

There wasn’t much I could do about the coffee (except try not to be clumsy, which is something I’ve struggled with my whole life), but the other two things—knowing where I was going and planning for the unexpected—were definitely issues I should have considered. Although you probably don’t need to have maps and charts for the route you are going to take to the testing center, it might be a good idea to do a pre-test "drive-by" to ensure you not only know how to get to the test center, but have considered other issues as well: Is there free parking? Are there convenience stores nearby where you can grab some coffee? These are just a few things to keep in mind as you plan your route.

The Night Before the Exam: Plan to Arrive Early

Unlike the days you might have spent camping out in front of the box office window for front-row seats to your favorite concert, chances are quite good you won’t need to pitch a tent in front of the testing center the night before the exam.

All kidding aside, though, getting to the test center early can go a long way toward helping calm your nerves and generally putting you more at ease with the actual test-taking process. Consider the following issues that, although perhaps not parts of the actual test-taking process, can nevertheless go a long way in helping you to relax prior to the test:

  • Find a good parking spot—Parking probably will not be an issue at the testing center, but this is not a certainty. Arriving at the test center early gives you a better chance of finding a good spot. Distant parking isn’t an issue on a nice spring morning, but you don’t want to be in the position of having to walk a country mile in a torrential downpour or in bone-chilling cold.
  • Hit the restroom—An obvious one, but something to definitely keep in mind. When nature calls, it’s amazing how that call can very quickly become the single most important thing on your mind. Don’t let this happen to you, especially when you’re taking a test as potentially important to your career as this one.
  • Take a few deep breaths...and relax—If you can take care of the previous items in this list and still have several minutes before the exam is scheduled to start, you then will have time for another critical aspect of your test preparation, and that is taking a few relaxing deep breaths. Or, you can take a walk around the testing center, or call your spouse/significant other on your cell phone for a last-minute vote of confidence. (Use this tip in moderation, though—sometimes these conversations can end up making you more nervous.) The simple point here is that having a few extra minutes to spare will serve you well!

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