Managing stress within the GAMSAT preparation period is important to ensure months of focus does not go to waste directly before, or on, the big day. Maintaining a positive trajectory is paramount in order to continue growth, prevent slumps, and stay clear of paralysing burnout.
Think of the average person who decides to sit the GAMSAT exam – many of the candidates are gifted, dedicated, and ambitious individuals. GAMSAT candidates often have years of high-stakes exams, and difficult university study under their belt. Despite all of these achievements, many students still find that the GAMSAT is the greatest hurdle they have faced to-date, and for good reason. Effective GAMSAT study requires integration of all the knowledge any given candidate has learned up until that point in their life, and across multiple intellectual domains no less! Thus, GAMSAT stress management becomes an important factor in maintaining effective preparation for this exam. But in preparing to run a marathon, you need to consider the most basic question – what is your burnout pattern?
Often, we fall into the trap of thinking that burnout is simple fatigue. Some people see it as cutting your study a few hours short to go watch T.V, or perhaps not having the willpower to commit to an effective timetable for GAMSAT exam study. This simply is not the case – at least not the bigger picture. The first step to cure is diagnosis. It is important to recognise that the first step in mitigating the paralysing aspect of GAMSAT stress is identifying what behaviours you tend towards when you feel psychologically fatigued. Perhaps you stop seeing your friends? Or maybe your sleep schedule becomes disturbed – lots of late night and early mornings? Or is it that you cannot seem to focus when reading GAMSAT questions? All of these (and many more) are signs that your lifestyle is not psychologically balanced. Returning to our marathon analogy– you would not train for such an event by running non-stop, or even by training when you are injured! The GAMSAT is the same, but in order to identify that you are injured, you need to spend some time in reflection.
Ask yourself – what are some early signs that your mood towards study has soured? Are you still finding balancing, and enjoying your lifestyle? It is understandable to experience a degree of anxiety or discomfort associated with GAMSAT, but it should not be dominating your life.
So what does burnout look like during GAMSAT study? Burnout can manifest itself in many different ways. Characteristic signs are emotional and physical exhaustion - every day seems dull and dreary. Reading GAMSAT starts to feel like a mammoth task, as you struggle to get through a single stem without re-reading it multiple times. It becomes increasingly difficult to manage the necessary volumes of information in your head, and connecting the ideas presented to you becomes an absurdly difficult, and time consuming task. Where one question stem used to take 10 minutes, it would now take over an hour, with significantly lower accuracy. While it is reasonable to encounter challenges when preparing for the GAMSAT (especially in the early stages of preparation), pursuing a GAMSAT preparation study schedule when burnt-out has been shown to result in very poor retention. To summarise, if you do not look after yourself, the work will be twice as hard, and you will not even benefit all that much from pushing through your mental distress!
Once you have identified your unique, early signs of GAMSAT burnout it is time to learn to manage mental distress. There are two main aspects to GAMSAT stress management – one is associated with managing signs of burnout when they first crop up. The second aspect is all about designing the best GAMSAT study schedule – we will address this second aspect later on in the article.
So how do you respond to GAMSAT burnout? At baseline, your timetable for GAMSAT exam study should be balanced. Keeping connected with communities such as your family, friends, job, and university life is the downtime necessary to maximise performance during GAMSAT preparation and the exam itself! Often however, this type of advice seems perfunctory – we are not suggesting that you adopt a tick-box approach to socialising. Psychological balance requires interaction with people. But which communities you choose to engage in is entirely up to you. The spectrum ranges from spending weekends gardening with your parents, to volunteering at some organization meaningful to you, to day-trips with your friends, or even the occasional measured dose of online gaming. It does not matter how you reach out to the community, only that you do whatever you find refreshing.
Having mentioned engaging with communities that you enjoy; it is certainly also valuable to diversify your interests. Not only is engaging in multiple activities, with different groups of people a form of mental gymnastics, but it is also an investment in your future medical career. After all, in the hospital, you will find yourself interacting with people of the most diverse background, and it is critical to understand how to communicate with all your patients effectively. This means that downtime from GAMSAT study not only boosts your productivity in your next study-session but is actually training for an important aspect of your future career.
Taking a break is not just the most complete GAMSAT preparation plan – it is the most complete medicine preparation plan!
A critical aspect of making GAMSAT stress free is pacing. One question to ask yourself when you are creating a personalised timetable for GAMSAT exam study is this – how familiar are you with the concepts each section tests?
For Section 1, are you an avid reader? Can you effectively concentrate on humanities texts under timed conditions? Have you studied a humanities subject in VCE or university? Section 1 involves reasoning in humanities, meaning that the texts presented require you to think between the lines. As is implied by the name ‘humanities’, this section is all about logical reasoning in the human context. It is a very introspective section that requires candidates to understand how words create meaning, and emotion. The reason that candidates that read in their spare time excel at this section, is because some people develop the good habit of thinking about the implication of different styles of communication that go beyond understanding facts and storylines. Section 1 preparation is also a collaborative experience, working with tutors and peers allows for the dynamic discussion of questions. This is important because you need to learn to ask the right questions when reading a text - why was this particular word used? Why was this structure of the poem chosen? In literature, just as in science, choices are almost never arbitrary, and the earlier you choose to engage with the world of humanities, the more it will benefit your GAMSAT preparation, and your medical training.
For Section 2, the questions are similar. Think broadly about the types of written work you have created in the past – what are your fields of interest? Which topics can you confidently discuss? Are you aware of the complexities and contradictions within your opinions? These are all key considerations when producing a well thought out essay. Section 2 shares the logical approach of Section 1 in that it requires a careful approach to language. It is incorrect to assume that literature and writing is ‘emotional’, and to be done merely ‘from the heart’, on a whim. Creativity in writing is good, but it is nothing more than the thin icing on the cake of logic and reason. While studying for the GAMSAT, you should understand the scope of your expertise on certain subjects which you find fascinating. The quotes you will be presented with may be unfamiliar, so you need to develop a habit of understanding the perspectives of others, within the context of your own worldview. Analysis has to be balanced, and clear. An example of this approach is this - if you were to decide that you are passionate about ancient greek myths and legends, and the quote set presented to you discussed domesticated animals and pets, it is possible to discuss one within the other. If you believe that contemporary society is a product of ancient Greece, or neoliberalism, or any other concept, you are within your rights to interpret the topic you are given through the lens of your passions. However, challenging your creativity is key here - it is critical to practice giving the quote topic its due diligence, interpreting and integrating the Section 2 prompts seamlessly into your arguments. This, together with a clear essay structure, forms the basis for Section 2 preparation.
Finally – for Section 3, consider whether you have fulfilled the recommended science courses. These are physics at year 12 level,as well as biology, and chemistry at a university first year standard. But the content of these courses is only the basis of success in the GAMSAT, not the full picture. These topics serve as the context for GAMSAT questions, which often twist familiar science into unfamiliar question stems. Often, the strategies you learn to interpret the question will be more valuable than rote-learning formulas. Fraser’s GAMSAT often opts for question classification, and development of tailor made plans for question types, rather than dry reviews of lecture content. Though it should be said that for those unfamiliar with these concepts altogether, our courses strike the balance between both of these tactics.
Once you have established your own strengths and weaknesses, consider what format of study works best for you. It would be misleading to say that managing GAMSAT stress before the exam is all about cramming for one month (or any other time period) prior to sitting the test. This is why the best way to beat GAMSAT exam stress is to integrate GAMSAT study into your lifestyle. For example, some students have difficulty processing Section 1 texts due to distractions and stress during the exam. These students may opt to improve their active focus skills by listening to audiobooks during their commute to university. This activity would also foster the Section 2 skills by expanding their idea base and vocabulary.
These entertaining but important types of activities which indirectly improve your GAMSAT performance are ‘soft-skills’. This means that it is impossible and silly to correlate the number of minutes spent, to a specific point improvement in the GAMSAT. However, the six-month time-window between GAMSAT (that is between March and September) is generally sufficient to see a trend of improvement, provided the preparation is targeted appropriately and is as high yield as possible.
There is, of course, no escape from training the ‘hard-skills’ of the GAMSAT. Managing GAMSAT stress during the exam is all about time management, and effective question management strategies. These skills are a result of the effective GAMSAT study we have developed at Fraser’s GAMSAT. The approach here is similar to the format of study that you would engage in for your university studies. This means a healthy balance of question-based work, with supplementary ‘spot-treatment’ of focused learning of unfamiliar concepts. As is suggested by the GAMSAT prerequisites – first year biology, chemistry, and physics should not take more than an academic year to cover. The reality of the situation is that given the psychometric nature of the exam, it is unnecessary and counterproductive to dedicate this much time to Section 3 concepts. A focused approach dedicated to developing a basic familiarity with the relevant sciences should be a matter of months, rather than a year.
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As mentioned earlier in this article – GAMSAT burnout is real, so starting preparation without a plan is a sure-fire method for becoming overwhelmed. A hallmark of a productive person is goal-oriented timetabling. What this means in practice is that you should consider what you would like to achieve on any given day, prior to commencing study. This achievement should include goals beyond GAMSAT study because our primary GAMSAT advice for stress management will always be maintaining a balanced lifestyle. In simple terms, what we are recommending is an hourly diary or study planner for the months which you have allocated to GAMSAT preparation. As you will learn in medical school, there never seem to be enough hours in a day, so it is important to reign in, and focus your ambition.
Once you have created a planner, it is time to outline your broad, macro-goals. Calculate the time you have until exams and establish weekly, and monthly goals. During your first fortnight of preparation, your goals should be small and achievable. An example of such a goal is being able to effectively interpret a Section 2 quote set and plan your essays within the allocated 5 minute of reading time. On the other hand, in your final fortnight of study, you should be aiming to complete a full practice GAMSAT under timed conditions. These are the broad stroke goals you should be measuring yourself against every few weeks.
Once your macro-goals are established, it is time to complete your GAMSAT preparation plan by considering your daily micro-goals. Many people make the mistake of assigning hours of study to concepts or sections of the GAMSAT. This is not goal oriented study. An hour of work is meaningless – consider what you want to achieve. This means that you should set question targets, rather than time targets for your study. Another piece of advice is to mix sections. Rather than overwhelming yourself with hours of physics, it is much more effective to learn in manageable chunks. An example of such a study plan would be to complete a few dozen Section 3 questions, then move on to writing a Section 2 essay. This keeps the study varied and prevents ‘section fatigue’. After all, if you grow to dislike a particular section of the GAMSAT, this will become a source of distress for you, and is counterproductive to GAMSAT stress management strategies.
Finally, a planner will help you keep connected with the various communities and manage your part time job. An unplanned day can become a time-sink. Carefully setting up commitments is a GAMSAT preparation idea that allows you to take control of your study lifestyle, rather than letting your GAMSAT stress control you.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that since that GAMSAT is a stressful, and difficult exam, it is reasonable to compromise your lifestyle in order to achieve your dream of medical school admission. This is a poor decision for multiple reasons. First of all, the GAMSAT is effectively a trial run of medical school stress, and medical training in general. It is good to start practicing effective lifestyle balancing techniques as early as possible when considering the healthcare field. Over the past decade, it has become abundantly clear that the medical workforce is overwhelmed by the mental strain of the career. Good mental health hygiene is the best investment in your future you can possibly make.
Secondly, stress significantly worsens performance in the GAMSAT exam. It is perfectly normal to feel anxious, or nervous, however feeling overwhelmed will have deleterious consequences on your performance during the GAMSAT.
Our final, and most wholesome piece of advice is this – the GAMSAT exam (daunting though it may be) is the first step on the road to your dream career. The purpose of facing this academic challenge is to achieve a more profound, more satisfying lifestyle. The competition may be unpleasant, but the skills you hone during your GAMSAT preparation may one day improve the lives of so many patients! Over the course of your medical training, you will face many more challenges, and even more failures – this is inevitable. The key here is to enjoy the little things – take pride in learning new concepts and overcoming challenging questions. Sometimes it may feel like you have taken a step backwards, but in the scheme of your preparation, consider how many steps forward you have taken over the course of your journey!
Fraser’s GAMSAT is a tuition company that was founded in 2010, with a focus on changing the way people prepare for GAMSAT and the long-term mentorship of students.
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