If you’ve been preparing over weeks or months for the SAT or ACT, then you’ve likely spent the majority of your time learning and reviewing the material covered on the exams (i.e., Math facts and grammar rules) as well as test-taking strategies for each section and various question types. After all, that is precisely what both the ACT and the SAT measure: knowledge of specific bodies of material and a set of test-taking skills.
But there are also very important “soft factors” involved in managing your focus and concentration on game day, and these can translate into HUGE increases in your bottom-line scores! So here are CPE’s top 12 do’s and dont’s as ACT and/or SAT game day approaches to help you crank out your maximum score on whichever one you’re taking:
- Get plenty of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. This is NOT simply pat advice mom and dad dole out because they don’t know how else to advise you. Studies show that better-rested students learn more and get better scores on exams. Period. If you don’t believe me, see, for example, “Go to bed! say experts at pajama party panel” in the Harvard Gazette. Eight hours of good sleep the night before the test won’t cut it either. Get as much sleep as you can the whole week before your exam, especially the last three nights. Ask for extensions if you need to. Try to exercise and eat low-carb and high protein foods, too; your body and your mind are, duh, part of the same organism, so you can’t neglect one without impacting the other.
- Spend more time studying material, less time taking practice tests. As game day approaches, you will likely have taken enough practices to have reached a point of diminishing returns. Remember that the SATs, PSATs, and ACTs all test your knowledge of a finite body of material. Spend the final days of preparation reviewing and, okay, cramming in as much of that material as you can—math facts (CPE’s Math Review Packet©), the 10 Essential Grammar Rules©, and items you got wrong in your practice tests.
- Practice deep breathing and relaxation at each study session. Whether you’re about to take a timed practice section or review your notes or go over problems you previously got wrong—begin each study session by closing your eyes and taking several deep, slow, full breaths of air. Train yourself to breathe deeply to relax your body and oxygenate your brain. Really do practice this so that on Game Day, when you do the same thing—for example, when the bubble sheets and test booklets are being distributed and filled out—you will automatically snap into a relaxed and focused state of being. Just as in sports, you will perform on Game Day the same way you practice, so practice with clear intention and focus.
- Don’t set an alarm with music (with words). If you wake up to music with lyrics, you run the risk of having those lyrics echoing between your ears all through the test. Aerosmith is awesome, but you don’t want Steven Tyler screaming “Dude Looks Like a Lady” throughout a reading compression passage! Set your alarm to a classical music station or use the buzzer (parents make for good alarms, too ;-)).
- Do your normal morning routine on game day. Don’t be one of those idiots who gulp down three extra cups of coffee during breakfast. Instead, be smart and do what you always do (unless you typically skip breakfast—and quit doing that, btw). Breakfast IS the most important meal, especially on Game Day. Eat a low-carb, high-protein meal. Do NOT eat sugared cereal or anything with syrup (you can do that the day after). Eggs and oatmeal (in that order) are the best choices.This will be enough nutrition to carry you through the first 2 1/2 hours of the marathon. (See #12 below.)
- Write Out Your Worries and Nervousness. Based on solid research conducted by Dr. Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and reported in her great book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, spend 5 to 10 minutes while you’re eating eggs and/or oatmeal WRITING DOWN everything you’re nervous or worried about surrounding the exam you’re about to take; for example, I’m worried I won’t get a good score and be able to go to the colleges I like; I’m nervous there will be a lot of math problems I won’t understand; I’m worried all my friends are going to do better than I can do; etc. You might think this would heighten your anxiety, but clinical research has shown that it actually has the effect of off-loading your nervousness and test-anxiety, so that when you’re actually taking the test, you can harness more of your brain power (mostly in your pre-frontal cortex) to get questions right. Try it! You have nothing to lose, and lots of points to gain! (Listen to my interview with Sian Beilock, Episode 16 of “Prep Talk with CollegePrepExpress–free on iTunes 🙂)
- Bring ID, pencils, a calculator (with fresh batteries), your own watch, and a snack (see #11 below) to the test center. I hate to insult your intelligence by mentioning these things, but, alas, history has shown that sometimes people forget. As for the calculator, bring the same one that you use for practice tests: the last thing you want is anxiety over finding the bleeping square root key or where they trig functions are! Also, don’t rely on the clock in the room (it might be inconveniently positioned relative to your seat). Best to have your own watch to set on your desk.
- Listen to Mozart or nothing in the car on the way to the test. For the same reason you don’t want to wake up to music with words (#4 above), don’t listen to music with words on the way to the test center. Classical music, especially Mozart, has been shown to stimulate alpha brainwaves and help put you in a quiet, meditative space. My personal preference on game day would be Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Haydn is perfect, too. NO ROCK (sorry); save that for the party afterwards.
- Reaffirm Your Self-Worth. While you’re sitting in the car listening to Mozart or Haydn or nothing at all, calmly think about all the things you really like about yourself. Maybe you’re a great friend or sister or son. Maybe you’re grateful to be a member of your family or soccer team or jazz band. Maybe you’re happy you’re healthy and safe and have a whole life ahead of you. Maybe you know in your heart you’re a good person, kind, honest, and generous of spirit. Thinking about the things you like best about yourself, which may or may not have anything to do with school or success on tests, will put you in the best psychological state to achieve your potential on the exam. Feeling confident and comfortable in your own skin as you enter the exam center translates into lots of points.
- Be in your own space at the test center before the test and between sections. Do not consort with your friends. Don’t talk to anyone. You don’t have to be rude; you can wave, smile, nod, and otherwise gesticulate, but refrain from hanging out in groups and de-focusing your attention. Politely tell your friends you’ll catch up AFTER the test to find out who said or did what to whom the night before. Breathe deeply and oxygenate your brain. Remind yourself of all the preparation you have put into the test and look forward with confidence to the opportunity to show what you know! Be quiet, calm, cool, and collected. Think of your sports and performing arts heroes and imagine how focused they would be before an important event.
- Do some mental stretching and layups in the minute or two before each section. While you’re sitting at your desk waiting for the proctor to announce, “Turn the page and begin,” think about the section you’re about to take. For example, if you’re taking the SAT and you’re about to start the first section, Reading, you should think about what you know about the Reading section: I’m going to see 5 passages, I have 13 minutes per passage, I’m going to see lots of evidence-based reading questions, I’m going to see some infographics, etc. If you’re taking the ACT and about to start the first test, English, think about all the grammar rules you remember; the uses of commas, dashes, colons, and semicolons; that there are 5 passages of 15 questions each that should take on average nine minutes apiece, etc. Think of it as a quick warm-up before the game. No one shows up for a soccer or basketball game right before the first whistle blows; it’s important to run a couple laps, stretch out, do some layups. Similarly, warm up your brain for each section of whichever exam you’re taking.
- Eat a source of sugar before the last hour. During one of the breaks before the last two or three sections, eat a chocolate bar or an apple or something like that. The sugar will lift you up during your dash to the finish line. Do NOT eat it too soon, though, or you might crash before the exam is over. One hour or so before the end, scarf it down. If you get a cantankerous proctor who won’t let you eat anything in the testing room, run to the bathroom and scarf it down there! Wash your hands first ;-).
When it’s all over, you should reward yourself after such a long, arduous journey. Here’s something fun to do as you’re leaving the test center: listen to all the morons who say how easy it was and that it was no big deal. Yeah, right. Concentrating as hard as you can for nearly four hours is really easy. Students who claim it was “easy” typically fell into all the traps and just don’t know it yet. Mwwwaaaaaaa. Immediately following the test, you will likely feel as though you’ve had a sizable chunk of your brain removed. That’s normal, and it’s a good sign that you concentrated really hard. Go home and take a nap, and then later on go out and celebrate responsibly with your friends.