Fighting Test Stress: A Survival Guide to SAT Prep

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This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Courtney Tran at Veritas Prep.

Regardless of the number of hours you’ve spent poring over your calculator, how many practice tests you’ve churned through, or how prepared you feel, if you’re like me—and most SAT test takers—you’ll probably experience some stress before the SAT. Stress is normal but becomes a problem if it reaches high levels. Before the SAT, too much stress can interrupt your sleep cycle, make you less alert, impair your studying skills, and cause you a lot of unnecessary worry. During the SAT, too much stress can distract you from your work, cause you to lose your train of thought in the middle of solving a problem, or make you forget test strategies that could earn you more points. What’s a test taker to do?

As a current UC Berkeley undergraduate, an alumnus of a rigorous high school, and a SAT prep instructor, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of test anxiety. Here’s what I’ve learned.

When it comes to tests, worrying is useless. Are you worried that you aren’t prepared for the SAT? Study for it. Is it too late to study more? Worrying won’t fix the problem; too much stress might even contribute to lethargy or illness. Your energy is better spent on productivity and being proactive than on worry.

Stay positive. Instead of using stress or fear to drive yourself to study and do well, use positive motivations. Keep in mind that a high score on the SAT could help you gain admission to the college of your dreams, which can help you build skills valuable to a future job or career. Imagine how gratifying it would feel to achieve a high score or a score increase. Remember that the SAT isn’t worth panicking over; although it’s important in college admissions, it’s certainly not the only factor considered. You have the option of retaking it, or even submitting the ACT instead. (Note: Do not use this as an excuse to be lazy about SAT preparation. Don’t forget that your score will not achieve itself. Diligence, focus, and persistence are key. My point is simply that they need not be accompanied by stress.)

Take occasional breaks. Grab a snack. Go for a walk. Working too long can frustrate you and decrease your productivity, since mental fatigue can prevent you from thinking actively, creatively, and logically. Check out MIT’s study tips for some useful guidance on maximizing productivity through breaks.

Don’t stay up too late. Getting enough sleep does wonders for your stress level, mood, productivity, and health. (Exercising regularly and eating well are important as well.) At 2:00 a.m., you’re probably too tired to retain new information anyway.

Do practice tests. This is, in my opinion, the best form of SAT prep. Having a good understanding of the structure, wording, and logic of the SAT greatly diminishes the element of surprise associated with standardized testing. It will be easier to relax if you are confident that you will be familiar with the material you encounter on your test day.

Prepare well. Being familiar with the material you’ll encounter is great. Knowing how to answer the questions is better.

Have fun. SAT reading passages often contain fascinating information. Some math problems are actually pretty fun to do, especially if you think of them as puzzles instead of as assignments. Take a moment to appreciate that feeling of satisfaction after each problem completed, or each strategy mastered. Consider studying with a friend or rewarding yourself after each SAT 2400 chapter with a snack.

During the test:

Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths if you’re feeling anxious. Focusing on your breathing will help you relax and think more clearly.

Stretch. Take advantage of time between sections and during breaks to do this. If you feel cramped or tired during a section, quietly shake out your hands, rotate your neck and shoulders, or extend your legs. The few moments it takes to refresh yourself physically and mentally will make you more alert.

Skip and return. Sometimes, all you need is a little time and distance to be able to attack a tough SAT problem more creatively and effectively.

Write as you solve. Keeping track of your thoughts on paper will clean up your logical process and eliminate the need to keep track of many parts of a problem in your head, thus keeping your mind uncluttered and your work less confusing. (This is especially important in the math section. Not sure how to apply this strategy to writing and critical reading? See the SAT 2400 textbook.)

Don’t waste time thinking about how you could have prepared more. It won’t help you. Accept that, however much you did or didn’t prepare, it’s too late to do anything about it. Your only task now is to do your best.

If you’re really scared, remember that you have options. The College Board allows you to cancel your score before you leave the test room or retake the SAT later. You can even sign up for the ACT.

Some things are worth worrying about. The SAT isn’t one of them. Keep your stress levels low to boost your mood, your health, and your score.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? Sign up for a trial of Veritas Prep SAT 2400 on Demand.

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