I. One Focus at a Time
Success on test day includes many, many factors. We will outline many of the logistically clever things to do to best ensure a high probability of success, but let’s begin with a broader, more overarching philosophical point that runs counter to popular understanding: the human mind cannot truly multitask. The brain is a sequential processor—if we wish it to accomplish 7 things, we must allow it first to focus on the initial task until that job has been performed; then we can push it towards the second task, etc. Unless we wish for a maelstrom of shoddy work, we cannot ask the brain to perform all seven tasks—or even two of these tasks!—at once. There is much literature on the subject in support of this truth.
Take, as an example, a much-maligned pastime: texting while driving. Are we really, truly able to drive a car and text a friend simultaneously—or, more probable, are we able to focus on driving, then briefly focus on texting (neglecting the road for a few seconds), and then return to driving? I hope we all agree intuitively—if not by experience—that the latter is true. This is why texting while driving is so dangerous! We really cannot do both with high quality at the same time.
This important truth—that the mind must focus on one thing at a time if it is to perform well—informs and edifies my main test-taking philosophy: test success relies on creating and then maintaining the most beneficial focal point for the mind. Remember, there can only be one!
~ONE focal point for your ONE mind at any ONE time~
Unfortunately, most people choose the wrong one. In fact, most people do not consciously “choose” one at all. Many people give conscious thought only to the academic material that will be present on the test; however, few give even a modicum of effort to emotional and psychological readiness, which are typically LARGER contributors to success than is academic knowledge. As such, we see intelligent, diligent students nettled, flummoxed, and finally undone by test day anxieties (and other focus miscues). Our goal here is to DESTROY the entrenched viewpoint that tests are a purely academic exercise and to PROPEL students into a more holistic, pragmatic, and effective study regimen that includes conscientious endeavor in non-academic fields. Beyond these, our ultimate goal is to create life opportunities for students by empowering them to STORM THE TEST!
II. Prevailing Mentality Faux Pas
Emotional focal points, when reinforced over time, become what I call “prevailing mentalities.” Is your prevailing mentality in life generally one of “The world is a safe place; I feel secure and happy”? Or is it closer to “I am unworthy of respect; I am stupid”, or perhaps “I’m afraid of taking risks”? Whatever our typical mentality is in life, we can work—through conscientious endeavor—to achieve a prevailing mentality on test day that is most advantageous.
“…we must allow it first to focus on the initial task until that job has been performed; then we can push it towards the second task…”
Before unveiling to you what I believe to be the most beneficial prevailing mentality—the one that unlocks all the doors to academic success—I would first like to point out typical “prevailing mentality faux pas.” Typically, people choose (largely unconsciously) a prevailing mentality the day of a test that is insidious and undermining. The most common of these are Quality, Clock, and Stakes.
A Quality focus sounds promising, but it is not. People whose emotional commitment on test day is toward quality often struggle: they over-commit to any one question and get lost in it at the expense of the bigger picture, and they often run out of time. They also can become extremely frustrated when they struggle with as few as two or three questions in a row, as this blatantly undermines their main goal of getting every question fantastically, flawlessly correct. People in this category make great physicist or engineers because of their commitment to quality and precision—but they are not gifted test takers.
A Clock focus implies that the test taker is obsessed with the fear of running out of time, often to the extent that he or she is unable to truly engage with the academic material because of a constant time preoccupation. Running out of time is the cardinal sin of test taking, this student thinks. This person may indeed hit the goal of finishing on time, but at what cost? Typically, at the very high cost of sacrificed quality. In certain standardized tests like the SAT, finishing on time is far from the main strategic goal—but an explanation as to why is lost on a clock-focused test taker.
A Stakes focus is an equally detrimental prevailing mentality, for it keeps the test taker focused outside of the present moment. It is the constant, badgering inner voice that reminds the test taker that the current test has HUGE future implications. The imposing specter of the test’s implications completely consumes the test taker’s emotional energy and conscious focus. Instead of looking forward to the test with joy and optimism, he or she dreads the test, fears it—and makes it bigger than it really is. These test takers are typically quite nervous, fidgety, and scatterbrained—only to become lucid minutes after the test booklet has been officially handed to the proctor.
All of these mentalities are destructive, and answer the oft-asked “If I am generally a very intelligent person, why do I struggle so much on tests?” There are other destructive prevailing mentalities, of course—fear of others’ judgments of results, indolence and avoidance of self-challenge, etc—but I find the three mentioned above to be most prevalent and pernicious.
III. Let this Mentality Prevail!: Optimistic Momentum
The good news: we CAN consciously choose our prevailing mentality for the day. We can coax it out of ourselves, and we can maintain it once we have established it. If we execute this process enough times, it becomes an ingrained habit that is unstoppable in the most wonderful way. The prevailing mentality we want to engender on test day is what we will call OPTIMISTIC MOMENTUM.
“Is your prevailing mentality in life generally one of “The world is a safe place; I feel secure and happy”?”
Optimistic momentum implies the following: a healthy, balanced understanding of the stakes of the test; a confidence that everything will work for the good in the big picture, regardless of results; a high sense of emotional energy and optimism; a razor-sharp, disciplined strategy for how to attack the test as a whole; and, above all, an enlarged sense of joy for the grand, wonderful opportunity to take this test—because it is going to be so much freakin’ FUN! This last point, of course, sounds especially laughable for most people, but it is achievable—and when people train themselves to view a challenge as fun, keeping in mind that the stakes are not as big as they think anyway, true breakthrough scores are feasible. Truly, people should look forward to test day, rather than loathe it—this test is one of many, and life goes on afterwards. Why not prepare well and then go in and storm it??
During the test, a person employing optimistic momentum sticks to strategy, technique, and pacing without over-thinking any of these; he cares more about maintaining his unflappable mentality than getting any particular question correct; he is resilient, recovering from temporary setbacks by breathing, smiling, retaining perspective, and giving himself a pep talk. When optimistic momentum is properly executed, quality and time management are naturally taken care of—there is no need to focus on them. Focus instead on enjoying the test, on being emotionally present and self-confident, and these good things will follow naturally.
IV. Before test day
From this strong place of aiming to achieve optimistic momentum—the kind of good vibes that propels one through a test with vim—we create logistical steps:
“…people should look forward to test day, rather than loathe it…”
- First, if we have a number of days or even weeks or months to prepare for Test X, we begin by doing a personal inventory: What is my typical prevailing mentality on test day? Become self-aware and begin taking pragmatic steps to arrest the persistence of unwanted habits: start a journal, get an accountability partner, utilize symbolic measures (“I’m using this new pencil and wearing these new shoes to symbolize that this is a new day!”), etc.
- Second, learn the invaluable skill of giving yourself pep talks. Seriously.
- Third, attack the academic material in earnest and learn the strategic pillars of this particular test; inculcate yourself, gain deep comfort with the material & strategy, so that on test day you need not worry about recalling them. These things should just “be there.”
- Take as many full-length simulations as possible.
The night before a test, should we cram? Absolutely not! This only serves to feed one of the other, destructive mentalities—often that of Stakes. Do the work properly during the weeks and months prior to test day, and then use the night prior to establish optimism. For me, this means watching a goofy movie (I use “Dumb and Dumber”) with a good friend, and laughing a lot. I give my students a lot of latitude on this front—so long as they’re getting into a positive mentality, I am pleased.
Going to sleep much earlier than usual is discouraged—if the body has not been physiologically trained to sleep at 8pm, why get in bed at that hour? Chances are good you will simply lie there, growing frustrated and anxious. Instead, go to sleep perhaps just a bit earlier than usual, confident that you will fall sleep quickly.
V. Test day
We will assume for this discussion that the test begins in the early morning (8am). Most of these principles help whether the test takes place at this hour or not.
“The night before a test, should we cram? Absolutely not!”
No later than 6am. 545am is ideal. The typical adult brain requires 70 minutes to be fully alert; the typical teenage brain requires 90. People think they should sleep as much as possible before the test to ensure they are well rested—but this approach is counter-productive. Give the mind time to wake up, so you do not bomb the very first section of the test—which, as we can imagine, sets a terrible emotional tone for the rest of the day.
Do 20 minutes of physical exercise. This does not mean heavy lifting, but it does mean stretching, jogging, push-ups, yoga, etc. The action has two crucial benefits: it moves oxygen to the brain, which it needs to properly wake up, and it raises the levels of endorphins—the chemical that makes us “happy.” I often encourage people to listen to uplifting, powerful songs while they do this wake-up workout.
Stick roughly to your norm. Sure, it’s not ideal to drink coffee or eat sugary treats—but if your body is accustomed to them, it may have problems getting out of the gate. The ideal is to start on a healthy regimen a week or two before the test—protein (via eggs, avocado, nuts) and high-vitamin fruit (bananas, berries) are ideal. However, I do not stress this point too finely—whatever makes the student comfortable and happy is fine by me.
If the person showers that morning, he or she should not let the shower be uber-hot… too easy to fall back into sluggish mode. We are going to dominate today! Life is good! We take tepid or cold showers.
“People think they should sleep as much as possible before the test to ensure they are well rested—but this approach is counter-productive.”
This point is non-negotiable: you MUST wear smart clothes. No sweatpants or pajamas, which your brain has been trained to associate with tiredness and sloth. Instead, we do what professional athletes do when they travel between cities: we dress sharp, because it sharpens the mind. Slacks, button-downs, nice shoes, even hair gel and cologne/perfume—these things tell us to be sharp, to be aggressive, to be professional. We are here to kick butt and take names.
Meditate, pray, do some light problems, give yourself some pep talks. Smile. Tackle a puppy. It’s time to keep up those good vibes you established last night.
WHAT TO BRING:
Extras (extra calculator, batteries, pencils, etc); a stopwatch if helpful; and a “bag of tricks”—snacks, water, mouthwash, Altoids or other potent breath mints, headache medicine (I personally use Excedrin because it also has a dash of caffeine), etc.
“…you MUST wear smart clothes.”
If pre-test is properly executed, the test taker should be awake, calm, and optimistic. He or she will probably notice that the other test takers are far less so, and this will only serve to augment our test taker’s confidence. We should have no problem jamming through the first two hours of the test.
We take breaks seriously—especially the one in the middle of the test. We need to avoid hitting a physical or emotional energy wall, so we use the break to gear back up. How? By reestablishing some pivot points we hit that morning: by moving oxygen in our systems (jumping jacks in the hall, push-ups in the bathroom), by eating/drinking a bit, by giving ourselves a pep talk and high-fiving a buddy (“Isn’t this fun, bro?”), and by delving into our bag of tricks (taking an Excedrin, popping a handful of Altoids, etc). We are doing well!! We are enjoying ourselves! Section 2 was not our best, but it’s all good—we can still hit our goal score if we finish strong. We are engaged in the moment—not over-thinking the stakes, not looking forward to being done with this wretched thing… we are right here, taking care of business.
If we can avoid hitting the wall somewhere around halfway to two-thirds of the way through the test, we have got it made. If we let our general enthusiasm and optimism surrounding the experience to suffuse our mentality, we will not agonize over individual questions—none of which makes or breaks the overall score—but rather briskly, confidently rock from one question to the next and keep the vibes positive. In short, if we manage to create optimistic momentum the night before the test, and carry that momentum through the test day experience itself, then we will have truly given ourselves the best possible chance at succeeding.
On the brain’s inability to multitask:
On the effect of stress on focus and test-taking abilities:
(Or search “Thomas Goetz, et al, ‘Emotional experience during test taking’, 2007”)