Mindful Test Prep

By September 21, 2015Blog
Mindful Test Prep - Avoid Test Anxiety

When you think about how much time is actually spent taking tests, they have a disproportionately large role in the course of a life.

Each test prep company seeks to deliver a silver bullet to students — capitalizing on ‘strategizing’ and thinking smarter than the test, and providing the most upgraded content to keep and grow their market share of test takers.

Test Prep is big business.

Bloomberg’s Businessweek has reported that the number of test prep centers in the U.S. more than doubled to 11,000 from 1998 to 2012 and it has steadily become a multibillion-dollar market. This value has only increased while oversight has remained close to nil.

The low entry requirements of this market has tempted many to become tutors, and in Manhattan just about every street has a shingle for test prep.

I saw a flood of tutors in the early 2000’s enter the arena as people were losing their jobs and ‘tutoring’ seemed a safe and easy way to go. But even if you know math (beyond balancing one’s checkbook) and read Chaucer, that doesn’t mean you really ‘know’ what these tests are aiming for when they tether students to desks or in front of a computer screen for hours on end.

Yes, one needs to know basic math — and even more advanced concepts for the MCAT and USMLE — but it’s the thinking and engagement that is necessary for a student to excel. It is up to the tutor to instill in their student a way of thinking and being that transcends the test itself. It’s about being mindful and call to be present.

We’ll soon face more changes coming up around the bend in the world of tests: the MCAT changed earlier this year and the ACT and SAT are following suit, each allegedly becoming a ‘better’, more difficult, more telling test.

Soon after, we can expect other tests will follow with their own alterations; cosmetic or in the kishkes(with scoring algorithms, we hope, to reflect a classic curve that schools can use effectively to determine if a student is deemed worthy to enroll in their program).

True to the narrative, test prep companies and private tutors in tow will esteem to build better mousetraps and have the answers. The silver bullets.

Conferences beginning last summer have had caucuses on ‘the changes’ coming up and what we need to do to help students navigate the impending chaos. I don’t believe there is much to worry about. Whatever changes are planned, we will have ample time to prepare for them (or whatever time we do have) and make sure our students are equally armed with knowledge and personal power to succeed on these tests.

A bigger issue for us test prep folk may be if there is an immediate domino crash of the majority of schools accepting tests.

It seems like the graduate school tests are firmly entrenched, but ‘test optional’ and ‘not required’ tests, like the SAT and ACT are becoming more mainstreamed by the more liberal schools.

People ask me what I’d do, as a founder/CEO of a boutique test prep firm, if this trend continues or if schools eliminate testing all together. I am not worried. Because what is offered in the test prep biz, or at least how we look at tests, will remain important because tests don’t only measure what you know, they measure how well you take tests.

Since “life” is all about a series of tests, literally and figuratively, large and small prep has the potential to deliver in this vein, and such ways of ‘learning’ and ‘being’ can easily transfer to critical thinking and other ways of knowing.

At our company, we maintain that the tests we take for entrance into school are merely a metaphor of what we’ll be doing the rest of our lives, if we are engaged and ‘doing it right.’ In other words, I want to be challenged, think out of the box, be able to know how those who I engage with think and live deeply with purpose.

Yes. I like tests. I like the test prep biz. I’m an educator and I like empowering students to be bigger and better than the questions in front of them. I like to teach students to overcome their fear because this is not the first nor is it the last time that they’ll need to draw from a place within or beyond themselves to manifest their best self.

Because each question and each test is a dance, and we become better dancers when we understand how our ‘partner’ moves. And if students can accomplish performing to the best of their ability, as well as feel great while doing it, it can have major consequences in how they engage in their daily lives. And this can positively influence the communities they live in and maybe even the world at large.

It’s true: how you perform during a few short hours hunched over a small desk or in front of a computer in some strange building can have major consequences. But even more is invested in the time preparing for a test.

Great preparation can lead to advanced thinking skills.

And while a score can likely influence, even determine, which school you go to, then what job you’ll get, and so on, it’s the thinking that ultimately we as educators are after and what will determine, in at least a small part, the way one engages with life around him or her.

When I worked at Princeton Review in the 90s, the main spiel or dominant message I was trained to give students was that the tests were not an accurate measure of their intelligence or how well they’ll do in college or grad school. Do I believe that? Somewhat.

Tests have a role in our lives to provide opportunities to learn how to best perform under the stress and scrutiny of others. And if a student gets anxious it has little to do with the questions and answers in front of him or her; it has to do with the history of one’s experience in being judged. In this moment we have the opportunity to share what an athlete, musician, artist, and even spelling bee participant experiences when performing in real time with all eyes upon us — in this case, it is our scores.

What we do will be judged and compared to others. So if we can let go of this reality, and enter into a state of flow, we’ll can carve a future for ourselves while in other situations; we can learn how to draw out from what we know and feel rather than succumb to fear and that which we are compromised by.

So when students believe they aren’t good test takers, we hope to be given the opportunity to transform and reverse their ‘belief.’ It’s easy. It means cultivating a greater curiosity and engagement with one’s life and the ‘material’ or ‘content’ placed in front of them — whether it’s math, verbal, or physics (etc..).

It means building skills and charting one’s progress. It means learning from mistakes and improving upon weaknesses, and it also means celebrating when we perform our best. For me, this is an improved way to ‘live.’

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Bara Sapir

About Bara Sapir

Bara Sapir, MA is an internationally recognized expert in high-performance coaching, personal empowerment and transformative test preparation. She partners with each of her students to achieve success. She is an inspirational, highly skilled, passionate expert and teacher with twenty years’ experience teaching test prep, including six years as an instructor for The Princeton Review. Click here to learn more [...]

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