Preparing for Standardized Tests

A talking bluebird says "I have a condition that makes me forget everything in times of extreme stress."


Standardized tests are notorious for being the bane of high school students’ existence. School-mandated PSAT/NMSQT tests during junior year followed by ACT and SAT testing is enough to induce anxiety, but when you throw on AP exams, IB exams, SAT Subject Tests, and CLEP tests, it seems amazing that anyone would be able to get everything done. Keeping stress levels low, starting to study early, and trying to manage anxiety are all easier said than done, but you can try. Here is a list of actions you can take to ease stress and promote focus and concentration before your big test.

Months before the test:

  • Decide on your study technique. If you’re studying for an AP exam, you may have premade study materials in the form of your textbook and your class notes, but if you’re taking the SAT, you may want to consider doing a prep course or at least buying a study guide. Flashcards, study guides (self-made or purchased), practice tests, and free online videos are all good options, and a combination of materials is probably your best bet for acing the test.
  • Start early. You’re never going to ace a standardized test if you start studying the night before the exam, and you probably still won’t if you start to study a week before. Instead, start studying at least one month out (but longer is better). This way, you only have to study for an hour or two each night and you’re not pulling a couple of all-nighters to cram in 30 hours of studying.
  • Take practice tests. If you can get your hands on a practice test, whether you bought a study guide with practice questions or your teacher distributes one, take it. Practice tests allow you to get a feel for the types of questions on the exam and get an idea of how long you have to answer each question. You can grade them afterwards and see how you did!
  • Use a variety of study tactics. Reading your textbook over and over again isn’t going to do you much good, and it’s probably not the best way to retain information. Obviously, reading over the material is a good place to start; you’ll learn what your weaknesses are and what you should focus your time studying. Once you know, though, mix it up. Read over a study guide one day, but find and practice sample questions the next. Consider making an outline for a certain topic that’s difficult to grasp. It’ll help you stay fresh up until the test.
  • Read. What you read doesn’t have to be related to what you’re studying, but particularly for tests that value an extensive vocabulary, reading just about anything you can get your hands on won’t hurt. Not only will you become a better conversationalist (think about all the topics you can read about!), but you’ll absorb new vocabulary words and different styles of writing that may be applicable on the exam.

The day before the test:

A character on Reba talks about a healthy cake she made.

Reba / Giphy

  • Visit your test center. The day before the test, learn your exact driving, biking, bus, subway, or walking route. If you are bringing your car, notice the parking layout. Time yourself and plan to give yourself a few extra minutes in the morning so you are not behind schedule if you hit unexpected traffic. Check your gas gauge and make sure to fill up if your car is low. The last thing you want is to be stranded while on your way to a test.
  • Eat a healthy dinner. Complex carbohydrates, like potatoes and pasta, are good fuel for your brain. Add some protein to the meal for sustained energy and some leafy green vegetables to improve your memory, and you’ll be good to go.
  • Collect and pack everything you will need. The night before your test, gather everything you will need for test day. Pack all the items in a bag and set it by the door so you won’t forget it in the morning. Your bag should contain the following:
    • A print-off of your admissions ticket
    • A valid government-issued or school ID with your full name and picture
    • Two #2 pencils (no mechanical ones)
    • An effective eraser
    • An approved calculator (for the ACT, SAT, or an SAT Subject Test in Math Level I or II)
    • An approved CD player, (for an SAT Subject Test with listening)
    • Extra batteries
    • A watch with the alarm on silent (suggested)
    • A healthy snack (suggested)
    • A water bottle (suggested)
    • Extra clothing layers (suggested)
  • Don’t study. Studying or cramming the day before the test is likely to raise your anxiety levels and burn you out. Instead, spend the day relaxing, eating, hydrating, exercising, and enjoying some time with your family or friends.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Practice going to bed early for the week leading up to the test. You want your body to become used to the schedule. Five hours of testing is exhausting, especially if you’re only going on five hours of sleep. Do yourself a favor; set your alarm and head to bed early. Aim for at least eight hours of sleep. You’ll feel more refreshed and ready to face the test in the morning.

The morning of the test:

  • Dress in layers. Unfortunately, testing rooms aren’t usually temperature controlled, and you won’t know what to expect. Wear or bring extra clothes that are easy to layer so you are prepared if either the heat or AC is blasting.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast and stay hydrated, but don’t overfill your bladder. Eggs and toast, oatmeal with nuts and fruit, a yogurt and fruit protein smoothie, or a whole-grain bagel with cream cheese are all good breakfast options. Keep caffeine to a minimum to avoid the jitters and keep your energy from plummeting around noon. Do have a small cup of coffee if you are accustomed to it, but drink it with food.
    • Make sure that you use the bathroom right before the test. You don’t want to be preoccupied with a full bladder when you still have 45 minutes left in a math section. Use any breaks between sections wisely.
      Hanging up a Garfield phone

      Ninja Terminator / Giphy

  • Leave your cell phone at home. If you have to take it with you, double-check that it’s completely off and packed away in your bag. You will be dismissed from the testing center if the proctor hears or sees your phone any time during the exam or on breaks, and your scores will become invalid.
  • Arrive early. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the testing facility so that you arrive 15 minutes early at the very latest. For tests you take at school, make sure you aren’t tardy. There’s no late admittance to standardized tests, so arriving late means you’ve forfeited your seat.
  • Pace yourself. During the test, keep track of time and move on from a question if you are stuck.
  • Guess (sometimes). Sometimes, you will come to a question and have absolutely no idea what the right answer is or how to figure it out. In cases like this, it may be okay to guess and not have it negatively impact your score. You will not be penalized for guessing on the SAT, ACT, AP exams, or CLEP tests, so know when your time limit is almost up and quickly fill in answers for questions left unmarked. The PSAT/NMSQT and SAT Subject Tests, however, will penalize you for wrong answers, so unless you can narrow down your options, guessing is not the best strategy.
  • Relax and remember to breathe. If you begin to panic or tense up, focus on your breath. Make sure your inhalations and exhalations are equal in length and that you are breathing into your belly, not just your chest. Tense your whole body and then immediately release to relax all of your muscles. Press your feet into the floor to feel grounded. Notice if you are grinding your teeth or gripping your jaw, and try to open your mouth slightly. On your breaks, stretch your neck and your sides, plus any muscle that feels tight. Stand and sit with good posture to increase blood flow to your brain.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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