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The Stuff You Can’t Study For: Handling Exam Day Surprises


Thu Apr 11 2019

The Stuff You Can’t Study For: Handling Exam Day Surprises

I had spent months preparing, and today was the day to take the CPLP Knowledge Exam. I walked into the test center mentally prepping myself to get into the test-taking zone. I checked in, got settled, and was 20 minutes into the exam when my screen froze. I couldn't move to the next question. I could see that the clock was still ticking for some reason, but the computer was otherwise completely frozen. I was locked out and no one else was around.

How do you not panic when you realize the clock is still ticking and you are only on the 20th question? How do you prevent this situation from disrupting your testing-taking mentality zone?


Luckily, I was able to resolve the issue with the test proctor and had the test reset. Of course, by then my test anxiety was higher than when I walked in the door.

What does common advice tell us to do to handle these situations? I used to work at Kaplan advising students on how to prepare for and take standardized tests like the pre-college admissions exam, the famous SAT. I used every bit of my experience and knowledge to help me stay focused on the target during both test dates. But in fact, the most common checklist items to help you in this situation can take you only so far:

  • I studied and practiced taking the test—check.

  • I had a good night’s sleep—check.

  • I had a good breakfast—check.

  • I arrived early—check.

  • I immediately organized my space and made notations of key concepts I didn't want to forget—check.

  • I took a deep breath and resisted panic mode—check.

  • I completed the test and somehow passed—check!

Several months later, I was ready for the Skills Application Exam (SAE). Same test center, same time. I felt I knew less of what to expect with the SAE. There is so much practice material and information available for the Knowledge Exam, but the SAE is different. I could feel my nerves strung tighter this time.

I settled in. I was ready. I clicked to open the first case study—and nothing loaded. It was a blank PDF. I closed out and tried again. Still no dice. This time my computer was not frozen; it was almost worse, in a way . . . the timer really was ticking away and all I had was a blank screen of case studies. When I got up to find a test proctor and explain the situation, there were five other testers waiting to get checked in. I waited 30 minutes before I could even report my problem; I felt mentally off at this point and was just hoping they could reset everything and resolve the issue.

Thirty minutes later, I was set up at a new computer in a brand-new testing room and had to force myself to mentally reset back to the mind frame I had walked into the test center with. The checklist above just didn’t cut it by then.


It is somehow ironic that I had technical difficulties during both tests. Ultimately, I passed them both the first time and still had time to spare to review my answers. The one thing you cannot prepare for is the unexpected—so how do you navigate it on test day and manage your own test anxieties as well?

  • Take a deep breath and focus on the feelings of confidence and preparation you had before you arrived at the test center.

  • Count to 10 and remember why you are there. The test proctor’s expertise is resolving these types of situations. Yours is in demonstrating your hard-earned knowledge and experience, so focus on your purpose. If you have high test anxiety, you can also count to 10 to help you calm your nerves and focus on your purpose.

  • Clear your mind. Take five minutes to close your eyes and create some mental quiet space. Use this time to reset. Do not think about what happens after the test; focus on the here-and-now. If you have trouble calming your thoughts or are feeling overwhelmed, focus on something else in the room, like the desk, the window, or the lights.

  • Pay attention to your self-talk. “I am going to fail” vs. “I have studied and I will pass” are statements that generate different feelings—in this case, anxiety vs. calm.

  • Remind yourself what success looks like for you and praise yourself using positive language. What would your best friend tell you?

When you are done, congratulate yourself; do not dwell on any mistakes you may or may not have made. Give yourself a break and treat yourself to a pleasant meal, a glass of wine, a walk, or whatever helps you relax.

Remember, when all is said and done, you already have the knowledge and experience to pass the test—so focus on your purpose, and good luck!

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