The SAT and ACT are critical standardized tests that tend to induce a great deal of anxiety among test-takers. This anxiety — which is present during the weeks and months before the exam as well as the actual day of the exam — can adversely influence a student’s performance in such a way that the score does not even remotely reflect the student’s aptitude.
Understanding how to manage test-day anxiety is just one component to ensuring test-day success, and there is a great deal that can be done to guarantee an outstanding performance during the lead-up to the exam as well as during the exam itself. If you will soon be taking the SAT or the ACT, the following nine exam “hacks” are absolutely essential and are also quite simple to incorporate into your test preparation strategy.
It should be noted that these hacks make-up only a portion of the preparation required for an SAT or ACT official test. The three key components of prep are Content Review, Strategies, and Practice, and those must be make up the heart of a prep program. Also, there is simply no substitute for a thorough and rigorous approach to studying and preparation that begins well in advance of the SAT or ACT exam. Each of these hacks simply ensures you will perform according to the absolute best of your abilities, but you should not expect any hack to yield the kind of performance benefits associated with a comprehensive, long-term, and consistent approach to standardized test preparation. These hacks have worked well for students in the past- try them out and see what works for you.
Study after study has demonstrated that an adequate amount of sleep helps your brain focus and ensures you are able to perform at peak cognitive efficiency. Sound sleep habits improve cognitive function and have a positive impact on recall and retention, all of which is critical when it comes to your performance on the SAT or ACT.
In order to reap the rewards associated with sound sleep habits, you have to be committed to a consistent sleep schedule; going to bed early on the night before the exam will not negate your otherwise poor sleep habits on every other night of the week.
Long before you are scheduled to take the SAT or ACT, do your best to find a sleep schedule that works for you and adhere to that schedule on a consistent basis. Not only will you improve your academic and standardized test performance, you will likely find that the benefits associated with proper sleep habits extend into just about everything else you do.
On the morning of the test, it is incredibly helpful to abide by your typical morning routine. We tend to find comfort and calm in that which is familiar, so following your usual before-school schedule and performing all of your daily rituals will reduce some of the natural test-day anxiety. This assumes, of course, that your typical morning routine involves eating a solid breakfast.
Since most SAT and ACT exams start around 9 a.m. and last several hours, you’ll surely want to take steps to promote a feeling of mental and physical endurance. Studies have shown that eating a sensible breakfast contributes to improved concentration and enhanced cognition, which will obviously contribute to an improved performance on the SAT or ACT.
So, what exactly is a “sensible breakfast”? Ideally, it is a meal that contains plenty of protein since brain function is so closely tied to amino acids. Experiment with different protein sources during the weeks and months before you are scheduled to take the test to determine the best way to prepare your pre-test meal, paying attention to how you feel throughout the day and especially during the time from 9am to noon.
3. Body Language
Your body language influences so much more than just how others perceive you, as adopting certain positions can contribute to improved feelings of confidence even when done in a conscious effort to improve self-confidence. A study performed by researchers from Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated that participants who engaged in “power posing” before a critical social evaluation performed markedly better during their subsequent evaluation.
The researchers defined “power poses” as “expansive, open poses,” and they demonstrated a causal link between the act of posing and subsequent increases in “explicit and implicit feelings of power and dominance, risk-taking behavior, action orientation, pain tolerance, and testosterone (the dominance hormone), while reducing stress, anxiety, and cortisol.”
On the day of the test, be mindful of the fact that you can consciously reduce any feelings of anxiety and create a substantial sense of self-confidence in your test-taking abilities by simply walking tall, sitting up straight, and maintaining the expansive, open poses discussed by the researchers from Harvard and Cal-Berkeley.
4. Inner Monologue
Priming is a potent psychological tool that can have a profound effect on the manner in which we perform just about any task, including both mental and physical tasks. You can use this tool to your advantage through the act of self-priming your brain to perform its absolute best during the course of a critical standardized test. Although you probably should avoid talking to yourself out loud during the test, you should should absolutely use your inner monologue to repeatedly prime your brain to succeed just before you take on a new section of the exam.
Before you start the test and again at the start of each new section, give yourself a brief inspirational speech through the use of your inner monologue. It is in this way that you can use competence priming to remind yourself about how well you have prepared to take the exam and how much time and energy you have devoted to ensuring your success. After reminding yourself about your extensive preparatory efforts, tell yourself how well you expect to perform precisely because you have dedicated so much effort to preparing for the exam.
5. Breathe Deeply
Your breathing patterns deeply influence your ability to handle stressful situations, and a high-stakes standardized test certainly qualifies as a uniquely stressful situation. Once you enter the room in which you will be taking the exam, try to be mindful of your breathing patterns and avoid taking the quick, shallow breaths that naturally occur when you enter a stressful environment.
Instead, focus on deep-breathing techniques in which each inspiration lasts three to five seconds and each expiration lasts between eight and 12 seconds. This will engage the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, which promotes a relaxed, stress-free state of being and results in improved organ function. These breathing practices will ensure that your brain is “firing on all cylinders,” thereby allowing you to perform to the best of your ability throughout the entirety of the exam.
6. Feed Your Brain
We have already discussed the importance of eating a sensible breakfast on the day of the exam, but you should also make sure you are able to “top off the fuel tank” during the scheduled breaks that occur throughout these lengthy exams. This practice is analogous to the marathon runner who consumes glucose-laden gels throughout a race to provide ample energy resources throughout the entirety of such a physically and mentally taxing endurance event.
This is why it is helpful to think of the SAT or ACT as an endurance event on the scale of a marathon. After preparing for months and months, the last thing you want is to perform less than your best simply because of an energy crash during the later stages of the test. Since your brain runs on glucose and glucose is made available to the body on an almost immediate basis, eating a small snack high in glucose can help improve your performance on the exam.
Our bodies tend to react differently to different foods, so try to experiment with different sources of glucose long before test day to see how you respond. Some test-takers will find that an apple is the perfect snack, while others might feel that the fiber of the fruit makes them feel sluggish. Once you have identified the right source of glucose, make sure to bring it with you to your designated test location.
Surprisingly enough, several studies indicate that the act of chewing gum is a relatively mild stimulant that benefits test-takers due to improvements in reaction time, accuracy, alertness, and mood. The type of gum is mostly irrelevant, but you should be mindful of others in the room and avoid behaviors that might cause them distraction — especially blowing bubbles. Avoid gum that is spicy as it might lead you to drink more water. More water would lead to more bathroom breaks. Ultimately this could lead to less time sitting and actually working out answers.
Students often find it difficult to clear their mind on the day of the test, and some may struggle to such a degree that it becomes a distraction. In order to avoid this potentially adverse issue, write a brief journal entry in which you spontaneously write whatever irrelevant thought comes into your mind.
Through the act of writing, you will clear your mind and feel a sense of closure that will ensure any extraneous thoughts do not distract you from the task at hand. This is a critical step before an exam like the SAT or ACT, and a clear, distraction-free mindset has been shown to play a significant role in stimulating positive performance outcomes.
Once you have finished the entry, simply toss it into the appropriate bin or pack it away someplace safe where it can remain for the duration of the exam. After all, you are not likely to be allowed to bring anything that could be considered review material into the exam room, so make sure you plan accordingly if you intend on using this effective pre-test strategy.
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Scott Groza is the Co-Founder of Groza Learning Center in Pacific Palisades. The Groza Learning Center provides tutoring in Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Malibu, Santa Monica, Topanga, and the surrounding areas. The Groza Learning Center also offers a $1000 scholarship to any students interested in education.