If you’ve been out of school for several years, the process of taking a professional exam may seem tedious and stressful. In particular, many professionals struggle with maintaining focus on the day of the exam. But if you can clear this all-important “hurdle” you’ll dramatically improve your odds for success.
4 Tips for Improving Exam Focus
Learning Works describes focus as the “thinking skill that allows people to begin a task without procrastination and then maintain their attention and effort until the task is complete.” In other words, it’s your ability to zero in on the task at hand. And in today’s world of distractions, trying to focus for an extended period of time is more difficult than ever before.
When it comes to taking a professional exam, which can sometimes last for four, five, or even six-plus hours, focus must be prioritized. A failure to plan ahead could leave you on the outside looking in.
In light of this, here are a few specific ways you can improve your exam day focus (and increase your odds of passing your exam):
1. Get Prepared Ahead of Time (Avoid Cramming)
Have you ever crammed for an exam? If you’ve tried to memorize a bunch of information right before a big test, you probably didn’t perform well. And there’s a reason for that.
According to groundbreaking research from Carnegie Mellon biologist Alison L. barth, increased stimulation immediately after brain synapses have been strengthened can actually wipe out the learning and set you back.
“Psychologists know that for long-lasting memory, spaced training — like studying for your classes after every lecture, all semester long — is superior to cramming all night before the exam,” Barth explains. “This study shows why. Right after plasticity, synapses are almost fragile — more training during these labile phases is actually counterproductive.”
Thus, if you want to focus on exam day, you’re better off developing a consistent study schedule that allows you to gradually accumulate the right information and knowledge in the weeks leading up to the test. And this is where formal exam preparation courses come into play. If you’re taking the CPA exam, for example, a CPA exam prep course forces you to plan ahead and create a consistent study schedule. It’s like having built-in accountability that prevents the need to cram the night before.
2. Wake Up Early
You should aim to get somewhere between seven and eight hours of sleep the night before an exam. Additionally, you should plan to wake up earlier than you typically do on a normal day.
Waking up early might sound miserable, but it’s one of the best things you can do to put your brain in the right frame of mind. By waking up early – at least three hours prior to the start of the exam – you give yourself ample time to get ready and prime your brain. (Most people find that their brain begins operating at peak performance roughly three hours after waking.)
On a related note, arrive at the exam center at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the exam. This will prevent you from feeling rushed and provides ample time to adjust to your new surroundings before the test begins.
3. Block Out Distractions
Distractions are the enemy of focus. Do your best to avoid as many of these distractions as possible. One simple way to do this is by limiting what you bring with you on exam day. Consider leaving everything in your vehicle (other than required exam materials, water, and your car keys). This removes distractions from your immediate environment and gives you a better opportunity to focus on the task at hand.
4. Take Micro Breaks
Regardless of whether or not your exam has built-in breaks as part of the test-day experience, you should take your own “micro breaks.” These are brief 60-to-90-second breaks that you take without leaving your seat. You should use this time to close your eyes, conduct deep-breathing exercises, and reset your brain.
Try not to think about the exam or any of the test questions. Imagine a peaceful scene in your mind – like a warm beach – and disconnect for a brief moment. Then slowly bring yourself back into your present environment and resume the test. (Take at least one micro break every 30 minutes.)
Take Control Over Your Focus
While there are plenty of factors outside of your control, you have way more influence over your mental focus than you realize. By approaching exam day with intentional processes and systems, you can improve your performance every step of the way. Good luck!