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Feb 02 2008

Does the MCAT Generate Anxiety and How to Handle It?


Author: Dr. James L Flowers
Category: MCAT Prep Tips

Of course it does.

Why does anxiety affect taking the MCAT?

Anxiety is an affect, a mood, and is closely related to fear. Fear is for a specific situation/object/event. Anxiety is a vague state not necessarily associated with a specific situation/object/event. Anxiety is an apprehension and feeling of uneasiness about something whose outcome is uncertain-this definitely describes the MCAT. Anxiety has two components-worry and emotionality. Worry is the cognitive component, the thinking component, and involves troubling thoughts and doubts about ones ability to deal with a situation/event. The other is emotionality, the affective component, which has physiologic (racing heartbeat, the butterflies, the muscle tightness, the sweats, etc.) and behavioral (pacing, restlessness, etc) components.

Its effect on testing is very interesting and has been fairly well researched. If you plot test performance on the y-axis and anxiety level on the x-axis, an inverted “U” curve results. This means there is an optimal level of anxiety, the peak of the inverted curve, for optimal performance. So, some anxiety is good and it varies from person to person and situation to situation. But, there are some general rules. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states “a high level of anxiety enhances your performance on easy and automatic tasks”. But, it has also been demonstrated that the same degree of anxiety about a test may enhance the performance of high ability students, for whom the test is easy, while lowering the performance of low ability students, for whom the test is more difficult. So, anxiety becomes a negative if the student is poorly prepared. This is when the student sees the test as a threat (student believes they have little chance of success and the anxiety becomes debilitating), versus a challenge (students believe they can succeed and anxiety becomes a positive factor).

Another negative effect of anxiety is the worry component. Worrying takes up space in working memory. So, to the extent that anxiety generates worry, you have less space in working memory to solve the problem. This is part of debilitating anxiety’s effect on testing.

How do you handle your anxiety?

Its my view that anxiety can be a friend if you are well prepared…this should be your first strategy for dealing with anxiety. But, many will need some additional preparation to decrease their anxiety to manageable and effective levels. Here are some sites which can assist you:
Student Forum on MCAT Test Anxiety

Studentdoctor.net anxiety forum
This is discussion of anxiety and MCAT by students.

General Discussion on Anxiety

Natural Anxiety Management Suggestions
A discussion of natural methods to manage anxiety.

Readers Digest 37 Stress Management Tips
Generic methods to decrease anxiety.

The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques
Speaks for itself. From a University Counseling Center ( Australian National University).

Specific Discussions on Test Anxiety

Overcoming Test Anxiety
A free site with strategies to deal with test anxiety.

University of Buffalo Counseling Center
Recommendations by a university counseling center regarding Test Anxiety.

General suggestions from how-to-study.com regarding test anxiety. Also has multiple other test-taking skills discussed.

Praxis Series Suggestions
From Praxis, a general discussion of how to handle test anxiety.

From Campusblues, a discussion of test anxiety and how to manage it.