Preparing for Long Exams

What does anyone learn about anyone else by making them take a test for more than 4 hours? It may be a secret of the universe why burning out our brains equals aptitude but most of us have had to suffer through at least one of these like the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, USMLE, COMLEX, the Bar…its an uncomfortable amount to be sure.

I have had to take many a test, both obnoxiously short and unbearably long. The studying might be a little more intuitive for those exams but everything else that can impact your final score might a be a bit more convoluted so here are some tips on tackling those exams. These are based off what I know and you might have different opinions and that’s all good.

So he’s an annoying long list for annoying longs test.

Know why you’re taking the test and what it means

In the US, the first real standardized test anyone takes comes in the form of government testing that starts around the third grade, sometimes earlier. And they’re long exams for little ids. Many of us live in a world where you take the test to take the test and move on. As the exams become more high stakes, its important to understand why you’re taking that exam and what it encompasses to best build a plan to tackle it. Understand how scores work and how scores can be interpreted. Know what your options on the exam spectrum.

Get your information from a variety of sources but always go straight to the True Source

Getting multiple opinions and perspectives from people who are in the process, have already taken, and advise for the exam can prove to be a great benefit to you. At the same time, you’ll hear a lot of conflicting information and things that sound too terrifying to be true. There may also be changes from year to year that are a big deal that people who have already taken won’t know (aka I don’t know crap about the new MCAT). That’s why, regardless of who you ask, you should always go back to organization (usually the website) and really know that rules and regulations lest you fall pray to rumors.

Know how things should be timed

Most exams have a breakdown already listed but you should be able to figure it out pretty easily but knowing how much time should be allotted to each section and question can help you get pacing right. It’s not talked about a lot on a public forum I feel, but there is a lot of anxiety with running out of time or spending too much time on a single question. Knowing what the timing parameters are can help relive those feelings because then you can practice and learn to gauge that timing. Become a time master.

Be very critical and analytical of test prep companies

So many of these tests can mean so much, and when things hold such importance to people there will always be wolves ready to hunt down and exploit lost, anxious lambs. Don’t get me wrong, some test prep companies can make a huge difference and can work very, very well for people. But there are many programs out there that have one goal and that is to get you to pay hundreds, and even thousands of dollars for something they have no stake in. The more students taking the exam (say at SAT level) the more you’ll run into these programs, so dig around, look at reviews (away from that company’s page) and get multiple opinions. The last thing you want is to lose a grand with nothing to show for it.

Practice and build in increments

Just because your exam takes 6 hours doesn’t mean you need to jump into practice exams or even studying for 6 hours straight right away. That’s something you should slowly work up to, starting with small periods of work and then breaks and giving yourself a chance to figure out your process. You will try to marathon a study session or prematurely take a full length exam despite any advice and invariably burn out and freak out. But that’s normal as long as you figure out you can’t run a marathon in a day and train accordingly. Be kind to yourself, it’s a long training session.

Don’t screw with your normal schedule

There’s something to be said about making a schedule to fit your future exam, like starting to study at the same time you’d start taking your test and eating lunch at the same time every day. But trying to get it together a week before the exam and starting to eat really healthy all of a sudden or staying up way later than you know your body likes to be “more productive” can really mess with you. It can throw off your sleep cycle or cause you to be hungry or fatigued at strange times and that can carry over to test day. Just go with what you know and with what works.

Recreate as much as possible

When you get to the point where you can do a full length exam, you want to simulate the experience as true to the real thing as you can. Same time, similar outfit you plan to wear, same snacks, and even sometimes you can go to the place of testing and take a mock exam there. Put away your phone, don’t play music, go hard on the realism. It’ll give you a feel for the day, sure, but also insight to anything you weren’t expecting to experience. It like flight simulators. Crash when it doesn’t matter. By the time you fly, you’ll know what to do.

Pretest your safe food

Story time; it wasn’t for a long test but the night before my surgery shelf I ate fish sticks which have never made me sick in the 24 years I have been eating them and I had bought a new bag which I ate and the next day I had food poisoning. So I’m saying even if you know what food works for you it doesn’t matter, test your food and drink from the package or brand sometime before test day. Also I don’t eat fish sticks anymore.

Be wary of vitamins and other substances

If it’s not something you do on the usual, don’t try to load up of different vitamins, or take a bunch of caffeine pill or try something brand new to help medically control anxiety because honestly you’ll probably just get diarrhea. And if you’re worried as a coffee (or some variation of) addict, you can bring drinks you can seal to most places so as long as it’s closed you can still have your liquid caffeine. But loading up on B12 or trying propranolol for the first time before your test…it’s not the best plan.

Don’t practice unfavorable scenarios  

Did the thought to gorge yourself on food before your test ever cross your mind? What about chugging water to have a full bladder on test day? Maybe taking your exam on an exercise bike? No? Then don’t do it while you study or do practice questions to simulate things like having to pee or increasing your own heart rate. Do it to get in some exercise while working, not to try a start up a panic attack “just in case”. You should be prepared for any situation but that doesn’t mean you have to interrupt your learning because you feel like barfing because somehow you thought there was a chance you might ate 6 slices of pizza 15 minutes before your exam. Be ready but be rational.


In the first hour of your exam, you’re going to be feeling it. Feeling good. You got this. Around hour three, it starts going down hill. But FEAR NOT, as you are prepared and people believe in your abilities and you should believe in those abilities too. Many have come before and prevailed and so shall you.

So go forth, and be ready, and know that being forced to sit in a room and take a test that’s long as hell is a product of our society and needed to label things with numbers. It’s not your fault, but you must live with it. Stay strong and good luck.

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