Recently-retired United States Navy SEALs staff psychologist Eric Potterat, PhD, lists four key mental techniques taught to SEAL candidates (BUD/S trainees). The second of those techniques is mental rehearsal. Here’s how you can apply this to help increase your own test performance.
That gray organ betwixt your ears is a virtual time machine that can be used for helping or harming your performance, whether on a an exam, on the playing field, or on the battlefield. As a high school teacher, I noticed that some of my students–eager and able to answer questions during class discussions–were bombing miserably on my tests.
I began researching test anxiety to try and find a solution to their problem, and soon discovered some rock-solid techniques for reducing that stress that was hindering their performance. One powerful tool I uncovered was the same one Dr. Potterat credited with improving BUD/S trainee passing rates. Mental rehearsal involves carefully and clearly envisioning a successful performance before the event.
This not only works for elite warfighters. It’s also used by top-level athletes and is a staple of sports psychology. You can use it to help your academic performance as well!
- Clearly envision your test. If possible, it helps to actually go sit in the place where you’ll be taking the exam. For example, close your eyes and imagine the other students coming in and sitting down, the prof passing out the exam, the feel of the pencil in your hand, the smell of the paper, etc. The more clearly you can mentally place yourself in the situation, the more effective will be the technique.
- Mentally begin the test. Allow yourself to feel confident and in control as you work efficiently through the questions/problems. Imagine yourself getting a really difficult question, one that would normally induce panic. Now imagine your best possible response; for instance, you can say to yourself, “no problem. I’m going to skip this one for now, and come back to it. There are lots of other questions that I can answer, and perhaps one of those will remind me how to do this one.”
- Work your way through the test mentally. Throw up obstacles and then envision your best possible reaction and mindset.
- Do this several times a week, perhaps as your normal prelude to your study session.
- At first, this entire process might take you ten minutes or so, but as you run through it again and again you will soon be able to run through it on fast forward, going through the mental imagery in less than a minute.
- You’ll see and feel the results on the next test!
This technique is a great way to quiet your nerves and give you confidence. It frees you up to do your best on the exam. It will not, obviously, allow you to answer a question for which you do not know the answer. It is not a substitute for study!
I have seen this technique raise nervous test-takers’ GRE scores by over 15 points, and my own personal experience has shown its power. Give it a try. What do you have to lose?