How to Eliminate Test Anxiety [Episode 427]

How to Eliminate Test Anxiety
How to Eliminate Test Anxiety

Ace any standardized admissions test, with top-tier academic coaching and effective tools to manage anxiety [Show summary]

Bara Sapir has been providing test prep for over 20 years and is a pioneer in mindful test taking, implementing a holistic approach to the test prep process. She shares her best tips along with her comprehensive approach for success on any test.

Approaching test prep with mindfulness [Show notes]

Welcome to the 427th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, thanks for joining me. Before I introduce our guest for today, I’d like to invite you to take advantage of Accepted’s price rollback. Last year in the midst of the pandemic, Accepted experimented with a price rollback and it was so popular that we are doing it again. Today and tomorrow you can purchase Accepted’s outstanding admissions advising and editing at 2017 prices. Just go to accepted.com/services, choose the service that’s right for you and save. The rollback prices will only display in the shopping cart, not on the website page, but hurry this special ends at midnight July 21st Pacific time. Then it’s back to contemporary times and 2021 pricing.

Our guest today, Bara Sapir, is an internationally recognized expert in high performance coaching and personal empowerment and is a pioneer in mindful test taking and transformative test preparation. She has a BFA from the University of Michigan, a MA in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a MA from the University of Michigan in art history, gender and holocaust studies. Well-resourced and experienced, she has had a 20+ year career in the test prep field with expertise in eliminating test anxiety, managing stress, building confidence and improving each student’s journey through the academic terrain. She founded City Test Prep, a hybrid test preparation company providing academic mastery, test taking strategy and techniques in holistic and mindful test taking. 

Given your background in the arts and history, how on earth did you get involved in test prep? [2:26]

It started when I was at University of Michigan. I was in the Fine Arts program and felt that I wanted to stay on to really take advantage of the university. I could have either gotten a double major or I could have stayed on to get a Master’s degree and be in the PhD program and thought, “Let me apply to PhD programs,” but to do that I needed to take a test prep course in order to take the GRE. And I did, I took the Princeton Review and felt like, “Oh, this is really interesting. This is really fun. I can do this too.” So I started working for Princeton Review and I saw once I started teaching how the work that I did as an artist, which is so much about being in the zone and being present and really allowing yourself to be just so fully immersed in the now so that you can produce what it is that you’re trying to express, was really relevant to students who were learning a lot of the material. So I started to bridge these worlds between the fine arts and being in the zone, and the students I was teaching in test prep.

How do you define mindfulness? What role does mindfulness play in effective test prep? [3:42]

Right, it’s a very popular term right now, everyone is talking about mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state that is achieved to be in the present moment. It’s a practice of being in the present moment. When you’re in the moment, it doesn’t negate that there’s things that come into your mind. It’s being aware of the things that come into your mind whether it’s thinking about what came before or what came after or what your feelings are about whatever it is, whatever bodily sensations that come up. It’s acknowledging that those things come into play, but that at all times you have the practice and presence of acknowledging it but then coming back to the moment. The practice itself allows you to be in the moment even when you’re not actually in a mindful meditation. So in a lot of ways it’s similar to prayer because when you pray, you’re in that moment of harnessing that gratitude, that acknowledgement of being there. But other things can come into play so that when you’re actually not in prayer you’re learning how to actually be in the moment, especially when things come up that are stressful or uncomfortable or even happy or things to be grateful for. So it’s all practices and trainings of just allowing the moment to be a bigger burst of awareness. That’s a big definition, right?

That’s a big definition but I think the idea of focus is probably the essential kernel, am I correct? [5:32]

Yes, focus because there’s going to be things that are always going to be vying for your attention, but allowing yourself to be in that focus, just acknowledging that we live in a world and always have where there are distractions but that we can be focused and allow that moment to open up to us so that we can be the self that we hope to be.

How does mindfulness affect test prep? [5:53]

The way it affects test prep is a lot of students go into testing either feeling that they’re not good enough or they’re never good test takers or that clock is ticking or that person is sniffling or there’re skateboarders outside. Whatever it is, there’re things that come into play and by learning how to better harness the moment and improve focus or upgraded focus, you have a better chance of really accessing what you’ve learned, what you’ve retained, and to recall it in that moment. So it’s similar to playing a game of tennis. When you play a game of tennis or when you practice tennis, you learn the skills, then you practice. You can even have a ball being thrown at you and you practice that muscle movement on and on and on. And you get that muscle memory so that when you’re in a match itself, the inner game, what we’re playing in that moment, you’re not going to think, “Oh, I need to have my arm at this particular angle. What’s the percentage angle?” It’s really thinking about it in terms of being in that moment and knowing all the practice that brought you there, you’re going to be able to show up for yourself as long as you’re present.

Usually I tell my students, “No matter what, really your job at this point is to be present. You’ve already done all the work, you’ve done all the studying, you’ve done all of the building up for this moment, and now it’s about releasing and letting the moment unfold in front of you and showing up for it.”

Can you give any guidelines for how much time students should allocate for test prep? [7:36]

Absolutely. The guidelines are that there are no guidelines. The way that a student can be informed about what they need to do is that you want to be armed with knowledge. The way that you’re armed with knowledge is you take a diagnostic test. Many of the test prep companies, the folks that actually write the tests, provide diagnostic tests that you can take. And so taking the diagnostic test allows you to take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. We look at it not only in what a person gets correct or incorrect, but are they guessing? If you’re guessing and getting it right, you were lucky in that moment, you still need to look at it. But we’re also looking at how people answer and what the patterns are and are they making careless mistakes or are they making mistakes because they just are deficient in knowledge? Is it a timing issue? If they had all the time in the world, they’d be able to answer it, but they were under that pressure, and what’s their mindset? So we look at content mastery, test taking strategy, the mindset and time management and students need to look at that through a diagnostic way so that they can know. A student might need a week of prep or they might need three months of prep. So it really depends on the individual.

The big companies will have six week to two month courses, that’s usually how they’re set up because I think that’s the average time that it takes to really have a complete overhaul of what you need. But not everyone needs an overhaul, or sometimes people just need to fine tune and that fine tuning is really just stubborn and it’s really difficult to move past it and they might need a little bit more time. It really depends on what a student needs. So we generally say, think about it as six weeks to two months but we need to look at your diagnostic first to see really what it is that you need. And students need to think about taking the test at least twice.

Why should students be taking the test twice? [10:02]

Typically it kind of works out whatever kinks there are, whatever is not quite working in the first test and it’s like, “Oh, this is what the test’s about.” As many times as someone can take a diagnostic, it’s being in the real test center and really feeling what that’s like that the second time is usually often a charm. If they can get it done the first time, that’s fantastic. But often students need to take it two or three times. 

You mentioned mindset as one of the three things that the applicant needs to look at. By mindset do you mean the growth mindset and let’s say Dweck’s view or does it mean something else to you? [11:04]

I love that you brought that up. It’s an amazing book and amazing work. And it’s really valuable for everyone, not just test takers. Growth Mindset for those of you who are listening now, has to do with a way, an approach to life. There’s a fixed mindset and there’s a growth mindset. 

The fixed mindset is when you think that things are just absolute and this is just the way it is. So before when I mentioned that, we sometimes have students that say, “I’m not a good test taker,” that’s a fixed mindset. That’s a way of saying, “This is an accurate measure of my worth and my abilities of what I’m capable of doing.”

The growth mindset basically looks at life as more like a game and more like an opportunity for growth. So a growth mindset as compared to, “I’m not a good test taker,” would be someone who says, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I didn’t do so well on that but this is a really great opportunity for me to improve and for me to learn and for me to grow.” It’s just much more positive and open to the mystery and being open to what actually can happen. 

So the mindset piece that I’m talking about, the growth and fixed mindset is part of this, but it also has to do with how are we going to deal with some of the symptoms that are coming up that have to do with negative self-belief patterns, negative limitations that we put on ourselves, any kind of phobias. Some people have phobias about math or about testing centers, not just about snakes and planes and water, but people have real clear issues with what these tests stand for or being judged in a particular way. Once we realize what the symptoms are, we’re able to address those.

The mindset is the overall umbrella, and Dweck’s work is an important piece of that and it’s really helping the student really look at themselves and see how they want to show up in the world and how they want to show up on the test? Most of these tests are metaphors of how to be in life. Once you learn how to crack being judged or evaluated against other people in whatever way that shows up, you can actually have this help you with interviews and help you with presentations and just moving through life. Especially growth mindset.

Do you have any advice for people taking a test, be it the LSAT, the GMAT, the MCAT, for the second or third time? [14:20]

I have to say that all these tests are coachable. That’s the secret, they’re all really coachable. For the most part there is some knowledge or material that people need to understand. But a lot of it has to do with critical reasoning. It has to do with critical thinking and thinking through things. I’ve taken tests, you know these funny internet tests they have like “What Animal Are You?” or whatever it is. I’ve taken some, and I might not know the answer but because I’ve been so close with tests, I actually score really well on things I know nothing about because there’s a kind of ethos, there’s a kind of surfing that takes place of understand what are the purpose of these tests and what are they trying to get from the person who’s taking them? So getting a student in the mindset of critical thinking is super, super helpful, and it helps them beyond.

Like the verbal section of the MCAT, the verbal section completely simulates what’s happening for a medical student to diagnose and prescribe to a patient, like it’s simulating that kind of scenario through language. So we very much recommend that if a student is taking it a second, third or even a fourth time that they really look, they go back to the basics of that diagnostic and see where have they improved? Where have they not improved? Has something fallen by the wayside? What do they actually need to do? But it’s a really data driven process. It’s interesting because while it is data driven, it is a coachable test, and we also want students to trust their intuition and gut once they’ve trained it to be able to see the things that they are going to see.

For example, if you’ve got five answer choices let’s say, three of them are probably not going to be so great but two of them are going to be pretty good, and what’s the least wrong answer, especially when it’s verbal based? We want to get that sensitivity and familiarity down. So for the student that you’re talking about that everything is so great, I would probably challenge them on that, that there was something there that might not have been great and they might not want to take it again, but to get in line what kind of fine tuning they need to succeed and to really look at the whole scenario, what didn’t work and what are we going to make work this time? If it was a noise outside, well then we need to teach them how to avoid being distracted. So it’s really looking at all the pieces, what didn’t work, make it work better the next time.

Do you have any advice for nontraditional applicants who have been out of school for five or more years? [18:10]

There’s a couple things that I usually will say to them and it comes down to the why. Why are you doing this, what is this about? And why are you seeking our help, and why should we give you the support? It’s not just that people come to us and they just sign up. We want to know what it is that people are about and why this is going to be important to them. Then honestly say, “You need to call people like Linda. You need to call an admissions consultant because you need to look at your entire candidacy to see what’s actually going on.” Now those are often the students that are most scared of math, and I do know that it’s popular and effective to tell students to take some math that’s on their transcript to show that they’re capable of doing the math. I often tell them that this is all coachable, but that you really want to get a team together to help you move through each part of the process; the interview, the essays, your application. Like who are you? What kind of extracurricular have you done? Why is this school going to be excited about you? And I don’t work on that piece of it. I’ll recommend if someone comes to me as a nontraditional student it’s like, “You really need to speak with an admissions consultant because the schools are going to be looking at you differently, and you want them to be excited about the experience and the knowledge that you’re bringing, especially if it’s a tangential field that you’re leveraging into a new study.”

What are some of the more common mistakes in test prep that you see applicants making? [20:03]

So two of the popular ones we see are they think that they’re better than the test and that the test is stupid, but they are just very arrogant and not in alignment with the test. Or the opposite, they’re petrified of the test. They feel almost like the test is out to get them and like, “Why do I have to do this?” and it’s so awful. So you have these two poles, and it’s really bringing people to the middle that the test is not out to get them and that yes the test actually has some authority still so that it’s really about bringing them to just a sense of surrendering and allowing them to move through the test. I think often we hear this, “Well my friend said this is what I need to do to score really well on the test.” Or, “I read this on Reddit,” or, “I saw this on the boards.” It feels to me like everyone is a professional, everyone is putting out their placard saying that they know what to do because they scored really well. Even tutors that have scored really well but don’t have experience necessarily teaching, or they have a lot of experience teaching but they don’t have experience scoring really well.

It’s really about going to the professionals and getting a professional opinion, not your uncle’s best friend’s brother’s son to tell you how to do really well on these tests. I can’t tell you, it’s not super frequent, but it does happen and I’m just like, “You didn’t just say that, did you? Really, your brother’s best friend’s son’s cousin?” So it’s really looking to the professionals. We wouldn’t go to a medical specialist and say, “Well, my brother said to do this.” Go to the specialist. It’s really the same with test prep, and I think applications.

What can students do to reduce or eliminate anxiety before a test? [22:15]

Reducing is great. Reducing is as good as just completely getting rid of it. I do want to say, some people come to us and say, “Yeah, but a little bit of anxiety is good. I heard that a little bit of anxiety’s good.” And it’s true. A little bit of anxiety cannot be experienced as different than excitement, and if you have a little bit of excitement, that could help you to stay on target and stay focused. The challenge is that it’s a very specific amount of anxiety that gets mistaken for excitement and focus. It’s pretty difficult to do the kind of training that that would require to get someone in that exact percentage. So we teach students a variety of techniques based on the symptoms that they have. We talked about mindfulness before, and mindfulness is wonderful and you need to have time, at least a couple of weeks to really start to see the benefits of mindfulness. So we draw from hypnosis, EMDR, EFT tapping.

What is EMDR and EFT tapping? [23:30]

EMDR is an eye movement modality that allows the body to sync and get grounded, and it’s used therapeutically. So we combine that with tapping, which is a kind of acupuncture without needles, affirmations and reframing. Reframing is similar to growth mindset in that if a situation happens, you can see it one way. For example, if I spilled this water, I could get super upset that I spilled water, and it’s near my computer, or I could say, “Wow, it didn’t hit my computer and I guess I have to clean my table.” Like I can look at it as a different way of seeing things. Often when students go into tests, a lot of the anxiety and stress have to do with just not having a clear canvas. They could be thinking about things in a relationship or they could be thinking about things of how they feel about the test and how this test is so important for them to get in and have they studied enough and is it really going to show up that they’ve studied? So it’s identifying all of these voices, the monkey mind, that are occurring and giving voice to them prior to the test and giving them techniques to quiet them to see that they’re doing the best that they can.

Also, honestly there are no surprises. When you go into the test calm and focused, however you scored on the diagnostic test is probably how you’re going to score plus or minus 20-30 points. There’s not going to be a big surprise. If a student comes in and they’re scoring, let’s say on the GMAT they’re scoring a 650 and they say, “Well I want to score a 750.” Well that’s great, you actually need to work up to that. You’re probably not going to score the 750 on test day, but if you start to score 780 on your diagnostic tests, it is likely that you can easily score 750. It’s really looking at the score a student wants to get, making sure that they’re answering to that level, and making sure that they feel good when they go in to take the test.

So hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, mindfulness, sound therapy, making sure they’re sleeping well, making sure that they’re eating well, and really getting them on course whether they’re coming to us a week ahead of time or two months ahead of time, looking at that span and what does that look like for that student. Many of our students are just coming to us for straight test prep, straight content, straight test taking mastery, that’s all. But many also come to us and there’s just something not feeling completely right, and so we want to unpack that and give them the tools to go in and feel grounded, emotionally regulated.

Do you have any tips that are specifically geared for the day of the exam or the day before the exam? Should students be cramming? [26:17]

No, they should definitely not be cramming. For many students, that will add to stress. And really if I go back to the tennis metaphor before or the tennis example where you’re practicing all along, this is a marathon.  You wouldn’t do a marathon the day before a marathon. So you don’t really want to cram the day before an intense testing situation. We teach students something, for example, called the backwards spin, which deals with panic. What happens when you’re looking at a question and you’ve not seen it before or you don’t think you’ve seen it before and all of a sudden you feel this panic moving through you, we teach them a modality to help them to just defuse that feeling and then move into a much more empowered, embodied state. All of the mindfulness training that’s been done, they can bring that the day of the test also. There’s a breathing exercise based on a heart map that has to do with just grounding and allowing the student to ground. There’s bilateral stimulation where you can take an object and just go back and forth, passing the midline, which emotionally syncs the right brain and left brain and helps you ground emotionally.

There are many things you can do on the day of the test but you don’t necessarily want to learn it the day of the test. You can learn some of them the day before the test and we’ve worked with many students the day before, but with those students we’ve done hypnosis, we’ve done what’s called change work to get them to see things differently so that when they go in for the test they are feeling very focused. Even during the test, there’s things students can do that will eradicate the anxiety or at least reduce it.

How do you deal with stress? [28:36]

Everyone is going to deal with stress differently. Some people will shut down from stress; some people get activated and get anxious. The way that a person will best deal with stress is to understand how it affects them and then figure out a plan of what to do when that actually happens. Some of the modalities that I mentioned before are super helpful, and then you wind up having a toolbox of what to use in those scenarios in order to not let stress affect you. I think of stress similar to an injury or not feeling comfortable. It’s really a memo to yourself that something is not right, something is off.  There’s something out of balance here. Recognizing that it’s a gift because it’s actually letting you know that something is not in alignment, and once you get that memo you don’t need the symptoms anymore — you’ve gotten the memo. You’ve gotten the information, so what can you do to move beyond it? Life is not always plateaued, but you don’t want to fall into lethargy and you don’t want to fall into overdrive. You want to be able to say, “I’m stressed, this is why I’m stressed, these are the triggers that are making me stressed. And what can I learn from this and who do I want to be in this moment with all of this?”

You can’t stop the world. I notice that for myself because I’ve been doing this work for so long that I don’t react in the same way that I used to because of all the work that I do with students, I get the borrowed benefits from working with them. So I notice that I have a little bit more of a, “Oh, look at this is what’s happening to me now.” We give students those tools to have a little bit of pause or space between that which is stressing them out. We’re going to have stresses, we live in a world where there are distractions and stresses and things to be concerned about, we’ve also all been sheltered in place over a year and we’re going to have stresses that we don’t even realize that we’re going to have because we’ve been away from normal stresses and normal things that didn’t stress us before like being around a lot of people. So it’s really identifying, “Wow, what is this moment teaching me and who do I want to be in it and what do I need to do to be my most calm?” Or, “What is my desired state at this time?”

There are a lot of test prep companies out there, how is City Test Prep different? [33:01]

City Test Prep has been around now for over 20 years, and we look at each student carefully. A lot of test prep companies do that — they have an individualized approach. We’re the only one that I know of that takes a four pronged approach in dealing with students improving their scores through content mastery, test taking strategy, and speed. We deal with that with speed reading, and mindset. With mindset, a lot of companies will bring in mindfulness. I shouldn’t say a lot, there’s a handful of companies that bring in mindfulness. Some, the individual tutors might bring in breathing exercises. I feel like from what I see out there, we’re the only company that really looks at this from the holistic health, wellness, and mindfulness approach. We’re drawing from many different modalities and have products that reflect this and do workshops and one on one coaching that deal with the mindset piece of it.

We’re about to launch an online mindful speed reading platform, we’re in beta testing now. This is test specific and it has a mindful channel and it’s all gamified with a gorgeous user interface. There’s no other test prep companies that I see bridging different worlds. There’s a lot of amazing test prep companies but I see that many are very focused on the content strategy. We make sure our students practice, but the majority of our students are just coming to us for the test prep aspect, but we have these other pieces when things don’t fall into place. Because inevitably, everyone feels a little anxious. We have different products and tools to help students with that piece of it and we make sure that those four pieces; speed, strategy, content and mindset, are all in alignment.

Are you mostly online? Do you have some in person classes? What options do you offer students and where do you see it going in the future as we hopefully come out of COVID? [35:27]

We do teach some courses, but those are usually with organizations or with schools that hire us to do particular programs. The workshop that we teach is open to the public, and we’re always open to teach workshops if a group of people come to us and they want us to teach something, but we teach the speed reading course as a workshop. We’ve been teaching it online for several years, I knew Zoom way before COVID, but we’ve been online for quite some time because our clientele is all over the world so we’ve been online doing one-on-one. If we have a tutor that’s a good fit for a student in that city or town that they live in, we will have them work with that particular person in person when things are safe again. We were doing it before COVID, but right now we mostly work virtually. And we do have products that students can use like our audio products and then this new one. It’s called Mind Flow Speed Reading, and it’s going to be accessible to both tutoring companies and admissions consultants and schools for them to use. We have an enterprise version of it but also a consumer version as well. But a lot of what we do is one-on-one coaching.

What do you see in your crystal ball for test prep and City Test Prep particularly? I see that you’ve moved beyond aptitude tests and are now getting into licensing exams, do you think you’re going to go more in that direction? [37:16]

We definitely meet the market where it meets us. Where we see that there’s a need we will show up for it. We’ve been teaching FINRA and the bar, we’ve been teaching medical boards. We’ve been doing this for many years now. I’m really excited about the online piece that we’re going to be offering, I feel that this is super exciting to have a gamified platform. I’m really excited about this next piece. We’re going to continue with the online coaching because it’s such an upgrade for so many students and so helpful to really show up where students need us. I love that what we do is so fine tuned, it’s not, “Buy the whole thing,” it’s, “What do you need? How can we show up for you?” I see more of that.

What would you have liked me to ask that I haven’t asked so far? [38:28]

Well, I love all the questions you’ve asked, they’ve been wonderful. There’s a really interesting conversation happening now among my colleagues and also in the industry, about equity and tests and having an admissions consultant. There’s a lot really happening here, and I wouldn’t say that it’s affected us personally, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having because there’s a sense that if people have money then they’re getting test prep and then they’re getting into the schools. When you really look at it, there’s a lot of ways that students can improve themselves and improve their scores and move through, there’s a lot of material that’s available. And that same kind of scrutiny isn’t happening for, let’s say, sports. It’s not happening, people don’t say, “Oh, people who play sports have a lot of money.”

Really for some reason test prep, and that aspect of self improvement, and we see test prep not just for the end goal of getting a great score, we see it as an educational opportunity to learn great study skills, to understand what’s your learning style. I think that’s an interesting thing to look at and consider how test prep is really a vital way of preparing yourself for further study, it’s not just for the score itself. We see the tests as both a metaphor for further study and also just a practical process, especially when schools see that a student has taken the test a few times, it really talks about resilience and grit and determination. There’s more to the test than just the score. We like to look at it that way, as an educational tool across the board.

Where can listeners and test takers learn more about City Test Prep? [42:07]

Thank you so much Linda, it’s great to see you and such a joy to have a conversation like this.

Listeners can find us at citytestprep.com and they’re welcome to reach out to me. We have free consults if people have questions about what they need to do on their test and we’ve got lots of resources on the website and I’m happy to talk to folks if they’ve got questions about how to improve their test scores.

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How to Eliminate Test Anxiety [Episode 427]