May 08, 2019

The ACT Can Be Stressful, Even for a PhD: Here's How I Survived


As a 31-year-old biologist with a Ph.D., preparing to take the ACT was a surreal experience. I never thought I’d one day go back to high school and put myself in the shoes of today’s students.  At the time, I had been developing ACT science content for UWorld for over a year, and I knew the science portion of the test down to its minute details, yet after signing up for the test, I felt anxiety come over me. My job performance wasn’t going to be evaluated based on the grade I received, and I knew no one would see my score, but here I was, feeling anxious like the very first time I took the test back in high school.

I'm not sure if the anxiety was due to my lack of understanding of what was on the other sections, the time aspect of the test, or a general feeling about not performing well; but I figured that I better prepare in order to reduce my anxiety. I started out by taking a previously released test.

Boy, was I wrong thinking a previously released test would reduce my anxiety. I honestly did pretty poorly on the English and Reading portions of the test. My graduate work had always taught me to slow down and look carefully for details. Even though I knew about the time aspect of the exam, old habits slowed me down, and I found myself running out of time.

Based on my performance on that test, and the internal stress it created, I availed myself of the UWorld ACT  QBank, practicing to increase my knowledge and improve my performance.  When I started my practice, I was scoring in the mid-60s; however, by the time I finished all the problems on UWorld, I was in the mid-90s!

As the day of the test drew near, I felt pretty comfortable with the material, and my anxiety was reduced.  The night before the test, I made sure to get new #2 pencils with good erasers (not those crappy pink ones), snacks, and breakfast ingredients for the morning. Most importantly, I made sure to print my ACT admission ticket and get plenty of sleep.

I got to my designated school, and all the students were corralled together in the cafeteria. A test proctor made a general announcement and pointed us in the direction of where we were supposed to be.  I made my way to the classroom and got in line to enter based on last names. As I handed my drivers license to my proctor, he stated: “Oh, you’re an adult!” “Yes, yes I am” I replied. It was kind of funny because I suppose he hadn’t looked up previously from his role sheet and seemed to be genuinely surprised.

As I settled into my seat, the proctor began reading the instructions from the test booklet.  I began to fill out the answer document, using information from the ACT admission ticket that I had printed the night before and brought with me to the test. After filling out the information, it was time to break the seal on the test booklet. Although this may sound silly, there were several students who could not break the seal on their exams, and the proctor had to help (it may be good to somehow practice this in order to not get flustered right before the test).  After recalling some useful hints, I began. By the time the proctor called out “5 minutes remaining,” it seemed like time had flown by. After the second portion of the test, we were allowed to exit the classroom to grab a snack and use the restroom. Walking and stretching my legs felt pretty good.

A few more hours later, I was done. Reflecting back on the exam, I find it kind of weird because I took the test to get a better feel for what material I needed to cover, but in reality, I came out with a greater understanding of how students feel and prepare for the test.  Either way, I think I’m a better UWorld author for it.

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