For many students, simply the thought of sitting in a crowded classroom taking the SAT or ACT brings on sweaty palms, shortness of breath, stomach aches, and an overwhelming sense of dread. The supposedly “quiet” room is filled with a dull hum of muttering, noisy sighing, pages shuffling, knees bouncing, and pencils tapping, interrupted by an occasional loud cough or sneeze. The panic that results never helps a student perform their best on standardized tests. However, there are many specific actions and techniques that can help quell this panicky doom. And we at Mindfish are here to help!
Most students feel some increased level of anxiety during high-stakes testing, whether it’s a final for a class, the SAT and ACT, or AP tests. When your brain perceives a threat, like a high-stakes test, glands in your body release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These fight-or-flight hormones speed up your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and make you sweat. While these are important to protect the body when there is a genuine threat of impending bodily harm, these stress hormones can be counter-productive during a test where there are no real physical threats, and you want to be able to think clearly.
What Can You Do to Prevent Stress Hormones from Getting in the Way of Your Success on the SAT and ACT?
1. Just Before and During the Test
As you take your seat in the testing room, take a deep breath – all the way into your belly. We call this “belly breathing.” Breath slowly, in through your nose, down to your belly, and out through your mouth. Close your eyes if you wish, and concentrate on your breath. This methodical breathing should help slow your heart rate and allow more oxygen to reach all parts of your brain and body.
Before the test starts, also try to vigorously shake your hands for 10 seconds. Stop moving them, and feel the blood gently pulse through your fingers. Give yourself a little pep-talk in your head – remind yourself that you are skilled, you are very well prepared, and you can do this! Breath deep again, and feel confident!
During the test, tune the rest of the world out. Ignore the other students in the room and ignore any noises they make. Don’t let disruptive thoughts enter your mind. Focus only on the present moment. After you finish the test, you can let your mind wander to other things, like what you are going to do Saturday night or what you are going to have for lunch. During the test, simply focus on the test in front of you, question by question, and let your test prep guide you to the correct answers.
2. The Night Before the Test
Lay out all the items you need for test day, including your admissions ticket, photo ID, fully charged calculator, at least three sharpened #2 pencils, a good eraser, a bottle of water, and a healthy snack to eat and drink during the breaks between the sections. Keeping your blood sugar up throughout the long test really does help, so definitely eat something (healthy) during the breaks.
Also, lay out what you will wear – something comfortable with layers, in case the test room is either too cold or too hot. Wear a watch – either a watch that does NOT make any sounds – just an old-fashioned watch – or a SAT or ACT specific timing watch. Be aware: any beeping sound can disqualify your test.
Next, make sure you know how to get to the test center, and how long it will take to get there. If your test center is more than a 2 hour drive away, consider staying at a hotel nearby the test center the night before, so you know you’ll be close. Wherever you stay, leave early enough to avoid any stress of running late. Leave your cell phone in your car – or better yet, ask a parent to give you a ride to the test site. Listen to some of your favorite music on the ride.
Perhaps most important thing to remember the night before the test is to get enough sleep. In fact, try to get enough sleep for 2 to 3 nights prior to the test. The importance of being well-rested really can’t be understated. Getting ample rest reduces anxiety, increases your focus, improves your energy, and much more, which allows you to perform at your best.
The morning of the test, wake up early enough to not feel rushed. Eat a good breakfast with plenty of protein to give you energy that will last. Then, get 10-15 minutes of light exercise, to get your blood flowing (elliptical, exercise bike, or short jog). Finally, read for 10-15 minutes to get your brain working. Figure out the timing backwards from when you need to get to the test center, so you can get all these steps comfortably done in the morning.
3. Weeks Before the Test
This is where Mindfish has already helped you! Remind yourself that you are VERY well-prepared: you know what to expect on the test, you know the content and the best test strategies, and you are ready to show what you know!
After the Test
Congratulations, you did it! Now go home, eat a tasty snack, and have a nap. Job well-done! And remember, you can always take the test again if you want to.