The voicemail from the testing center is garbled, but the message is clear: “Your test will not be offered on such-and-such a date. Please go online to check your account…
“If a new test date and location has not been added to your account, you may call our 1-800 number. Note that we are experiencing heavy call volumes and unusually long wait times, so please be patient…”
Right. Patient is the last thing you can be right now.
If your test has been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, here are ten ways to stay sane—and sharp—as you grapple with this painful delay.
TOP 10 WAYS TO STAY SANE
1. Be okay with being upset (for at least a little while).
There’s no sugar-coating this bitter pill. The test you’ve been prepping for matters; it’s high stakes. That’s why you care. That’s why you’ve put in so much time, so much work, so many late nights and early mornings and stolen lunch breaks over weeks and months, to get ready.
Normally, when you set a date for the official test, your test prep got real. It popped into focus. You built your game plan backwards from the test date and executed it to the best of your ability. You’ve been running toward a finish line that seemed anchored in the ground.
Now, however, the ground has shifted. Even if you’ve gotten a new testing date and location, who’s to say they won’t also be moved? And you can’t help wrestling with bigger, thornier questions: should you push off the test longer? Maybe a whole year? Who knows, maybe even do something else entirely with your life?
The answers are uncertain, as are many other things these days. This profound, widespread crisis is overturning all kinds of plans.
It is normal to be upset about this disruption. It’d be strange not to be upset. So feel these feelings, and let them run their course. Little by little, they will subside.
2. Lean on your real social networks—and a notebook.
Vent to a friend who’s a great listener. You can still meet for coffee or a drink; just do it by Zoom, Hangouts, Skype, or a plain old phone call.
Be a little directive about what you want in the conversation. “I’m not looking for a lot of advice right now, I just need to vent” is fine to say. In fact, it’s better to say that up front, before your well-meaning friend offers you a slew of suggestions you’re not ready to hear.
Also consider writing down how you’re feeling. You might not be a regular journaler or think of yourself as extremely expressive on paper. That’s fine. You’re writing only to yourself.
Psychologist Sian Bellock has studied how writing down private thoughts just before a big test helps performance on that test. The likely reason is that it helps you get a handle on those thoughts. Private writing works well at other stressful times, too, such as this one.
Conversely, be careful right now about venting in very public ways. Tweeting your anger to the world may feel good in the moment. But unless you want to drain your energy in battles with strangers, avoid the comments.
3. Be kind to yourself as you decide whether to stay the course or radically postpone the test.
This decision about further postponement is tough. There are no easy answers. It’s okay to leave the question unresolved for now.
In the meantime, as you wrestle with what to do about your test and more generally your life path forward, practice “self-compassion.” Self-compassion is being as kind to yourself as you would be to a good friend.
It sounds fuzzy, but according to lots of research, self-compassion helps you progress and maintain your motivation in the face of difficulties. It makes you more gritty and resilient. That’s important in rough times like these.
Being kind and understanding to yourself doesn’t mean avoiding introspection. Rather, beat yourself up less often. Don’t over-interpret negative signals you may get about yourself (mistakes, criticisms) or under-interpret positive signals you get (successes, compliments).
4. Focus on what’s in your control.
This bit of advice makes a good plaque for a wall. It’s always worth remembering. But when the world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s an even more crucial precept.
Narrow your attention and your intentions to what you can directly affect. The coronavirus has appeared, and your test has been postponed. These events were outside of your control.
What remains in your control is your response.
5. Trust the process you’ve already gone through.
You have prepared. That preparation is not going to go away in an instant.
Imagine two basketball teams that are about to play in the championship game of a tournament. The crowd has assembled, TV cameras are rolling, the ball is about to be tipped… and the lights go out. Power has been lost to the building.
If the game is pushed to another day, would the teams totally forget their plays? Would the athletes suddenly get out of shape?
No. They’d get some sleep and run a few focused practices. Meanwhile, the coaches would tell their teams, “You deserve to be here. Who cares about a power outage? Remember what got you here in the first place: hard work and preparation. Trust what you’ve done.”
You’re in a similar boat as these basketball teams. Trust the work you’ve put in. Yes, this postponement is a curveball, to change up the sports analogy. But whether you take the test now or later, your deep, fundamental training will hold up. Your brain isn’t going anywhere.
6. Be positive about the big things and rigorous about the little things.
Try to stay upbeat about the long term. Have faith that in the end, you will get to where you need to go.
And now that you’ve given yourself a dose of big-picture optimism, be realistic and rigorous about the little picture. Imagine those basketball coaches during the unforeseen delay: they’re running drills, making a few adjustments to a couple of plays, keeping their players sharp.
The little things are what’s in your control. As noted above, focus on them.
7. Regularly do ten-minute mini-tests.
If you plan to keep preparing to take the test soon, here’s how to stay sharp.
Take a short set of test-like questions, mixed across topics, and do the whole set as if it were a miniature test. That is, do the set under time pressure, with no distractions, as if it were a slice of the real test.
How long should the mini-test be? Ten minutes is a great length. Long enough to simulate the choices you have to make on the real test, most importantly whether to stick with the question you’re on or to move on. You should have to ask yourself, as the Clash put it, “should I stay or should I go?”
But the set should be short enough to analyze thoroughly afterwards and still finish within half an hour. That’s short enough to fit both the test-taking and the analysis into an ongoing daily plan.
Think ten minutes of test-taking is too short? Stretch it to fifteen or twenty minutes. But you don’t need more stamina right now. You need a high-intensity but short scrimmage. It should feel like a little part of a real game.
Ideally, the questions are new. But it’s fine to mix in questions you’ve seen, or even construct the set entirely of such questions.
8. Occasionally do targeted topical work.
As you analyze the results of these mini-tests, you should notice patterns. Where did you struggle, when push really came to shove? What kinds of questions did you frequently get wrong? What kinds of errors did you make? What particular topics deserve a quick revisit?
Armed with this specific knowledge, you can then dive back into a limited amount of topically focused work.
Do not reopen the seals on every topic you ever studied, every kind of question you faced, etc. etc. Like Pandora, you will become overwhelmed if you open that box.
That’s another reason why the mini-tests are an effective tool. They help you target narrow kinds of issues to go back to the textbooks for. Rework those issues, solve them, then come back to the timed mixed drills that simulate the test.
9. Even more occasionally, do a timed practice test.
It can be helpful to put a practice test on your calendar for three or four weeks out. That goal is near enough to work toward.
But don’t go digging up all your leftover practice tests and running them every other day. You’ll burn out.
Take significant space between practice tests. First, analyze the results yourself question by question (including ones you got right, searching for opportunities to improve your speed or facility). That should take 1-2x the time of the practice test, if you’re doing the analysis right.
Then you need to run a combination of the short mini-tests (as daily bread-and-butter practice) and highly targeted topical work. Do enough of that before the next practice test to make a difference. Otherwise, you’ll get similar results.
By the way, it’s fine if any one of these practice tests is one you’ve done before. Don’t worry much about the score. Focus on your game-time decisions, as you study the “film” of your performance, and determine what you could have done better (faster, more easily, and/or more accurately) at each opportunity.
10. Remember the big picture.
As you execute this “stay sharp” plan, be sure to raise your gaze at times and remind yourself why you’re doing all this.
Stay in touch with your big-picture reasons and goals. The test is just a means to those ends, and one day it will be in your past. As will this entire crisis.
Take the test cancellation in stride as best you can. Stay oriented toward your long-term destination. You’ll get there.