Dear Dr. Linda,
I’m in my 20s and have decided to go to college. I got into a local four-year college and I’m starting this summer. My parents are thrilled because I’m the first in my family to go to college. I’m also happy about it, but I’m really scared. The reason I didn’t go in the first place was that high school was really hard for me. My biggest problem was that I always thought I knew what I needed to know before an exam and then I’d sit down to take the test and I wouldn’t be able to remember anything. I don’t know if I was just nervous or if I really didn’t remember anything. I’d appreciate any advice.
Your parents should be proud of you because you’re taking a big step. Getting a college degree takes time and energy. Is it necessary for success in life? Not necessarily, but it will give you more choices and hopefully lead you to a successful and happy career.
Should you be scared? Probably. Everyone who goes to college is scared. It’s a big change in your life and it’s normal to be a little anxious over change. Should you be concerned that your mind will go blank when you take tests in college? Being concerned about that is good because you have time to change the dance. Before you take your first test, you can learn some strategies that will help you with test taking.
First, be sure that you truly understand the material. The advantage of taking courses in college over high school is that college instructors have definite office hours. Take advantage of that! Meet with them. Review what you need to know for the test. Tell your professor that you want to go over the material—not in detail, but in general, to be sure you’re understanding it. Be more specific if you know that there is something that you really do not understand. They will admire you for your perseverance and dedication, so don’t be embarrassed to go to them. They appreciate meeting students who are serious.
Next, when you try to memorize the material, first chunk it into three, four, or five bits of information because it’s easier to remember information in small pieces. As I’ve mentioned before, our telephone numbers, zip codes, Social Security numbers and credit cards are all chunked in three, four or five numbers and that’s one of the reasons.
If you’re learning vocabulary or a foreign language, chunk the words by grouping them by parts of speech, alphabetically or by any other suitable category. If there is no pattern, just group them into three-, four-, or five-bit chunks. Then write them, scribble them and say them until you know them. Once you’ve learned them, move on to the next chunk. Once you learn the next chunk, go back and put all the words together and see what you can remember before moving onto the third chunk.
If you’re learning history, do the same but chunk by time periods or dates. For example, the Revolutionary War can be divided into the steps that led up to the war, the war itself, and the results of the war. List the events under the appropriate category. Literature can be chunked by listing events under each new episode or chapter, and science can be chunked by concepts.
Finally, it’s critical that you practice and practice and practice. Review, review and review. Use all your senses so that you stimulate more parts of the brain when trying to remember the information…talk, sing, draw, scribble or dance your way to better grades.
Once you understand the material and can remember it, your anxiety about the test itself will drop because you will feel much more prepared. If you try to do all I’ve recommended and you’re still struggling, don’t quit. You have options. Meet with your college counselor, the psychologist on campus or a professional off-campus to help you identify specific problems and take action to move forward.
Good luck and have fun,