March means spring, college basketball brackets — and advancement tests.
Yes, the E-4 to E-6 advancement exams are bearing down. But whether you’ve studied too much or too little, it’s not too late. Fleet experts say there’s some last-minute strategies that can help you boost your standard score, the easiest way for sailors to improve their advancement chances.
Your test score can often be the difference as to whether you advance or have to wait another six months to try again.
“Waiting till the last days before an exam, or cramming, can be very stressful,” said Fleet Master Chief (AW/SW) JoAnn Ortloff, the top sailor at U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa. “Walking into an exam can also be stressful. Going into the exam prepared can reduce that stress.”
Ortloff is an advancement expert who’s been helping sailors prepare for exams for years. She believes there’s a science to it and stresses that no one is inherently a bad test-taker. She recommends continuing to study methodically up to the day before the exam, reviewing old subjects to keep them fresh in your memory.
“Repetition is a very powerful tool,” Ortloff told Navy Times in an email. “The more you review subjects, the more it becomes natural knowledge.”
Ortloff shared seven tips for the days and hours before the test, from when to stop cramming to test-taking strategies — even the importance of a good breakfast.
1. Sleep over study
Step one for what to do the night before the test: Stop studying.
You read that right.
Ortloff advises sailors to stop cramming the night before, warning the last-second information could overwrite other, more important knowledge learned in prior study sessions.
“Do not study the night before an exam,” she says. “Cramming [late in the game] can cause only the new stuff to nervously be at the front of your brain and block everything else — remember that if you don’t know it by noon the day before, cramming will not suddenly make you know it.”
Instead, Ortloff suggests thinking through your approach to the test and then hitting the rack early — a step that’ll boost your chances better than any cramming.
“If you don’t normally get eight hours of sleep, this is the time to do so,” she said. “Make it work. It’s your career at stake.”
2. Fill up
On test day, eat breakfast. Even if you don’t normally.
“Your body needs fuel to send to the brain,” Ortloff said. “Don’t starve your brain on this morning and besides, you don’t need the distraction of your stomach growling while you are taking a test.”
Just don’t drink orange juice or any citrus, which have acid and can irritate your stomach.
Next step: Get there early. Ortloff recommends leaving yourself lots of extra time to get to the exam site, factoring in traffic.
“This way you are not rushing — you need a calm start to this day, most of all,” she said.
Dress comfortably and remember to bring your military ID card. Pick a comfortable seat far from any potential distractions.
3. Manage your time
Listen to the exam proctor carefully and don’t rush through the instructions, even if you feel you already know them. Take it easy. This will mentally prepare you, Ortloff says.
“Wait for the proctor to give [the] next step,” she said. “You are not going anywhere if you finish early, and the test does not begin until the proctor actually says ‘begin.’ ”
Once the proctor drops the checkered flag, the race is on. You have 3 hours — 180 minutes — to complete all 175 questions.
That comes down to 50 seconds a question.
“Use this time, [as] you are not going to get another opportunity for six months,” she said.
Ortloff advises to begin by going through the test and answering all the easy questions first. Eliminating the low-hanging fruit. Leave the tougher questions for later on — a strategy that will prevent you from getting stuck too early.
“Don’t waste time and build anxiety by pondering over difficult items,” she said. “Move on and come back to it later — after you complete the easy questions, your mental concentration will be at a peak. Now as you return to the difficult question you will find that they have become easier.”
If you skip a question, remember to also skip the answer space. Keep a list of your unanswered questions on the scratch paper.
4. Remember to regroup
Your challenge is to keep your focus sharp for all three hours, maximizing your chances of getting each question right.
Ortloff recommends taking slight breaks to reset yourself.
“Every 15 minutes or so, look up, shoulders back, regroup,” she says. “The body needs it.”
You also need to keep breathing regularly, a simple step often forgotten in the grip of the test.
“We tend to hold our breath when we are nervous or stressed,” she said. “You need proper oxygen flow to keep your mind sharp.”
5. Double down
Read each question at least twice, pausing between each pass to see whether you can think of the answer. Don’t look at the multiple-choice answers right away.
This tactic allows you to formulate your own answer and then best match it to the choices given.
No idea on the answer after the first pass? Use scratch paper to cover up the answers and then uncover them one at a time — Ortloff says this can help you distinguish the right answer from the wrong ones, which she calls “distracters.”
“By covering them, you force your brain to come up with the answer.” she said.
6. Don't second-guess
When it comes to picking answers, go with your gut.
“For every question on the exam, you either read it, were taught it, spoke it, saw it, heard it or did it,” she said. “It is in your brain, let your brain run on its merit.”
That’s why your first response is usually correct. In fact, statistics show about 90 percent of answers changed on exams are switched from right to wrong. Don’t flip-flop. Only change answers on near certainty, Ortloff advises.
“Only change your first response if you have absolute, positive evidence that the first response was wrong,” she said, such as “discovering you misread the question or you find the correct answer revealed somewhere else in the test.”
If you do change an answer, be sure to erase the old one completely so your sheet doesn’t trip up the computer during the grading process.
7. 'You own the test'
In the end, preparing yourself on test day can make a difference in how you perform on the exam.
Ortloff says attitude is everything.
“Remember, you own the test, not the other way around — so go into the exam like you already passed,” she said.
If you think you’re a bad test-taker — think again.
“You are tested standing in line at the store, you are tested while driving to work, you are tested by seniors and juniors on the job,” she said. “You are tested everyday in life and do great or you wouldn’t be here today.” ■