You’ve heard it over and over: “She’s just a good test taker.” The phrase clings to standardized tests, where some students have the luck of Steph Curry sinking 30-foot shots while others feel like Shaquille O’Neill at the foul line. Like shooting a basketball, we often treat test taking as innate and immutable, but any basketball coach will tell you that hard work and a good advice can fix a jump shot. This makes perfect sense. We know every other part of the test can be prepared for. If you can learn to factor a quadratic or spot a misplaced semicolon, why can’t you learn to be a good test taker? The answer, of course, is that you can. You just need to know which muscles to train.
Do the Leg Work
The single biggest thing you can do to be a better test taker is to understand the material. Sure, there are tips to help you reach that final peak, but first you have to make it to base camp.
Figure out when you want to take a test and make a study plan (or, even better, find a tutor who will develop a plan with you.) Start with covering the material, making sure you understand all the baseline concepts. Then transition to practice problems. Don’t just do problems and forget them, make a log of the questions you struggle with and go back a few weeks later. Look for patterns in the problems you’re getting wrong; are you consistently struggling with semicolon placement? Are linked questions a particular challenge? Identify your weaknesses and drill them until they’re your strengths.
- Just as top athletes taper off workout intensity in the week leading into a top competition, you should not be driving yourself crazy with prep the week before your test. If you’ve done the leg work already, then stuffing in last-minute practice tests will do nothing but stress you out. Instead, review your trouble spots, collect your materials, walk through the test day in your mind, and try to relax.
- Everyone knows to get sleep the night before the test, but did you know that the night before is just as important to how you feel on test day? That means no pulling all-nighters on Thursday if you’re taking a test on Saturday.
- Your resting brain consumes twenty percent of your daily calories, and intense problem-solving can increase its caloric load by a factor of ten. That means that a three-hour standardized test can burn more calories than most sports matches. Make sure to eat a solid, but not crazy breakfast: you want something that will lift you up not weigh you down. If you drink coffee, drink a reasonable amount. If you don’t, now is not the time to start. And pack a snack for the break. Your hungry brain will thank you.
- Athletes would never compete without warming up but most people roll out of bed and go take their test. If you’re not a morning person (and I’m certainly not) this means you’ll still be groggy when you show up to the test. Before you leave for the test, do a mini-workout. A few jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push-ups (workouts aren’t just good metaphors, they also get your blood pumping and ready to go). Also, do a couple of problems from each section of the test. Your brain needs warming up too.
Sometimes well-meaning people will tell you not to be nervous. Ignore them. The legendary basketball player Bill Russel puked before every game because he was so nervous. But then he went out and won thirteen NBA championships. If it’s good enough for Bill Russell, it’s good enough for you.
Instead of trying to not be nervous, try to show off. You’ve been practicing for months, working on your own or with a tutor. All the hard work is done. Now you get to revel in everything you’ve done. Back when I was in high school, I ran cross country. In the final stretch of the race, we always yelled “This is why we work!” It was a reminder of all the hard work you’ve done to get to this point: the long runs, interval training, and sit-ups (or in your case lessons, drills, and practice problems.) The hard work is already done. Now you just have to show off, win the race, smash through your goal score.
The biggest difference between good test takers and bad test takers (soon to be formerly bad test takers) is having fun. People who enjoy test taking tend to do better. Some of that is correlation rather than causation (after all, people tend to enjoy things they are good at) but having fun makes you relaxed, focused, and enthusiastic, the perfect attitude for taking a test.
Find moments of joy in the test experience. Does your proctor have a terrible toupee? Is one of the math questions a super weird scenario? Can you learn something from one of the reading passages that is interesting? I still remember my first SAT test had a passage about how Roman and Chinese numerals feature one, two, or three lines to represent the numbers one, two, or three and how Arabic numerals (what we use) are actually the same but with the connecting lines included. It blew my mind and you can bet it made me have fun, and do better on the test.
Back in the 90s, there was a joke that reporters would ask a sports champion what they were going to do now that they had won and they would say “I’m going to Disneyland.” You probably can’t go to Disneyland (but if you can, you should!) but you can reward yourself. Whatever brings you joy, plan to do that after the test: hanging with friends, going to your favorite restaurant, skydiving. If your parents have a problem with you rewarding yourself, tell them to email me and I’ll tell them they have to let you. Unless it’s skydiving, then they are just being reasonable. The point is to tie the test to the reward, so instead of being worried about the test, you can be excited about taking the test AND getting a six-scoop ice cream sundae. If you want to really help yourself, give yourself a treat every time you complete a practice test. Your brain will weave the reward into the test and you’ll start looking forward to practice tests.
Standardized tests are hard. That’s the point. But with the right tools and a bit of mental gymnastics, you can change how you relate to them. After all, not even the hardest test can compare to running 26 miles, yet people do that all the time. For fun.