Master Test Taking Skills

To fully prepare for standardized tests, it’s necessary to navigate three distinct phases:

  1. Understand the structure of the test.
    This involves learning the layout and format of the test, understanding the different types of questions, and finally understanding the scoring and grading process.
  2. Master the content within the structure.
    Review the material: algebra, geometry, vocabulary, sentence completions, and reading comprehension. At ATS, we create strategies for each problem type and know how to approach every problem on the test.
  3. Practice the test-taking skills to thrive in four hours (or longer if you qualify for extended-time) of pressured testing conditions.
    This is often the most neglected phase of test preparation and one of the essentials of our proven, successful method. To succeed, there are structural qualities of the tests which require particular skills and strategies if students are to maintain focus throughout hours of mental exercising. To build endurance, test day must be practiced.

Timing Counts on the SAT

It’s essential to practice testing in timed conditions. Our regularly scheduled mocks are designed to simulate official test environments, and timed tests at home are also key exercises. The last 3 weeks before the official test date, every assignment done at home should be timed.

  1. Look at the clock or a watch every 5 minutes, no more and not less, for effective time management.
  2. On average, a question should take one minute to answer. The easy questions take roughly half a minute. The hardest questions can take about a minute and a half.
  3. If more than a minute and a half is ever spent on a problem, stop; circle the problem; move on to the next one. Come back to it later if there is time. Remember, it only counts for a single point; don’t sacrifice other points for it.
  4. Never think every question on the test must be finished, and unless the goal is 700+ on a given section, do not push to answer every question. Scores are decreased as a result. Spend time being careful, avoiding careless errors. Repeat after me–every problem doesn’t have to be answered.

Know when to guess on an SAT problem and when to omit it

Never guessing will decrease scores; always guessing will decrease scores. These are simple rules to help clarify and moderate this strategy:

  • If only 1 can be eliminated: always omit.
  • If only 2 can be eliminated: for all problems except the hardest ones, guess.
  • If 3 can be eliminated: even on the hardest problems, always guess.

Bubbling in scantron sheets correctly is essential.

The simplest thing to do with the scantron sheet is this: bubble in the scantron sheet one section of the test at a time rather than question by question. This saves a few minutes, eliminating all the back and forth between the test booklet and the answer sheet. More importantly, it avoids mis-numbering.

Mental Endurance Counts on the SAT

Focusing on the mental aspects of taking the SAT is, for some people, the most important aspect of test preparation.

Natural test-takers

Some people are natural test takers. They don’t mind tests; they know they are good at taking tests, and some can even get excited by the prospect of taking a test. (Yes, they really are out there!) For them, taking a test is like a game; they trust in their abilities and know that they are ready for whatever comes their way. They trust that things will work out, and they focus their attention on the fact that they are prepared rather than worrying about the possible repercussions of things not going well. Doubt rarely enters their minds.

Natural test takers stay positive throughout the testing process. Students who have done the requisite content preparation go into the test with a very positive attitude, are fired up to hit their best numbers ever, and are mentally set up for positive results.

Students with test-anxiety

Most students experience some degree of anxiety during the testing process. This is quite natural and appropriate. No one feels much stress or pressure filling out a test that doesn’t count. Who would stress out filling in a multiple-choice marketing survey? The results have no future implications, so no one worries about their answers. On the other hand, try to find a student out of medical school prepping for the medical boards or a new lawyer prepping for the bar exam who is totally stress and anxiety free. These tests are really big ones, and there is some anxiety, knowing the impact the results will have on the next direction in their lives.

Some anxiety is useful for motivating work and preparation, but some people experience excessive, negative amounts of anxiety about taking tests. For those who are anxious to greater degree, thinking about the SAT can create the fears of not doing well, running out of time, not getting into college and having to live with their parents forever. (Yikes!)

What To Do About Anxiety

What is anxiety and why does it matter?

Anxiety at its core is simply mental energy. It comes from a potentially useful thought pattern – “hey, this test counts – I need to do well.” Some people who lack this thought don’t feel any anxiety and therefore don’t put in any work and don’t get the results. So some anxiety can be a positive. When it becomes dominant, however, anxiety ceases to be useful and can inhibit performance. If this happens, there are ways to learn to regulate the emotions and find a way to harness mental energy and use it to advantage on the test.

How does anxiety affect performance?

The body and mind are intricately connected. Bodily changes can trigger thought patterns, and thought patterns can trigger bodily changes. Deeply feel anxiety about performance on a test or some other task will exhibit itself in physical symptoms. Anxiety causes muscles to tense up; heart-rate changes and respiration will change to shorter, shallower breaths. Less oxygen is delivered to the brain and body; invariably, concentration is lost and distraction occurs as does the inability to process information effectively. Obviously, this is not the ideal physical condition during a mentally rigorous test with future implications.

Pathway 1: Mentally addressing anxiety

The mind is the anxiety-maker and anxiety is approached by addressing mind and thoughts. First of all, ask: “Does it really make sense to be so anxious?” In many instances, anxiety doesn’t make much logical sense. This applies especially to students who are thoroughly prepared, having worked hard on the material. Most people see the anxious thought pattern and they try to ignore it or just push it away. But of course, it will come back. It is important to dialogue internally rather than just ignore the thought.

Ask: “Have I prepared for this test? Have I put time in and worked consistently? Am I grasping the key concepts and the vocabulary?” If the answer is yes to these questions, then, most likely, anxiety is not justified. Use logic to reason, to temper some of the emotion and to decrease the emotion of fear.

Internal and external voices of anxiety

Most of us at some time will hear the voices of anxiety from within and from without. When they are coming from within, I find it useful to imagine them as the little cartoon figures that sit on either side of my shoulders (the little devilish guy with the pitch fork from old Tom and Jerry cartoons). It’s good to have a mental picture of these little creatures so they become easier to deal with. Some of us have other creatures that can cause anxiety who normally referred to as parents and friends. People around us can unintentionally increase pressure and anxiety regarding our performance on the test. During the test, you may find yourself in the presence of other students who have a lot to be anxious about because they are completely unprepared for the test. You need to be able to cultivate a response to a variety of voices. You won’t necessarily vocalize anything, but you need to have some internal messages and reasoning to help neutralize the voices. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I am ready for this, and I’m prepared to do very well.”

Keeping perspective

Many people blow up the SAT to mythological proportions and cannot approach it from the ground level. Realistically, the test is just a few hours of your life; it’s just one Saturday morning event. People who keep things at this level do better on the test. Keep the SAT in perspective. Don’t invest this test with some magical power. Don’t make it bigger than it actually is. There are many dates to practice the SAT throughout junior and senior years.

The real test is no different from drills done at home and our timed mock tests in a proctored classroom. While preparing with ATS for the SAT, you have been working with real SAT questions. The SAT will be the identical format and difficulty level as all our practice tests–the exact same set of activities. Only your mind makes it different. If you can keep your mind totally focused on the material in front of you, you will perform the same on the test day as you do at home or at our mock tests.

A useful metaphor is the experience of walking on a beam of wood that’s six inches above the ground versus walking on a beam that’s ten stories off the ground between two buildings. The task is the same – the same motor skills and steps – but the mind and emotions makes one experience much more challenging. The key is to bring the beam back down. Bring the tests back to the earth. Don’t make it a life or death situation. Keep your perspective and you will do better.

Pathway 2: Physically addressing anxiety

For some students, the mental route is not as effective in dealing with anxiety as is focusing on the body. When anxiety is increasing, you can make physical changes to help to shut off its circuits. The most immediate way to do this is to consciously change the way you are breathing. It is physically impossible to breathe in a deep and relaxed manner and simultaneously feel very anxious. These two forces counteract each other. (The same thing applies for being really angry and breathing in a very relaxed and deep manner – the two systems oppose each other.)

Here are a few simple physical exercises that can help decrease your anxiety level.

  • Practice taking deep breaths
    Deep breaths are rooted in your diaphragm rather than up in your chest. When you breathe deeply – your shoulders shouldn’t rise like cheerleaders going, “Ready! Ok!” Rather your stomach should go out — more like a common depiction of a Buddha. When breathing deeply, steady pacing matters as well. Count to 3 during the inhale, pause at the peak of the breath, and count to 3 during the exhale; this automatically relaxes your entire system.
  • Practice breathing and counting backwards
    Here is a useful exercise that I do before taking tests. Count backwards in your head from 10 to 1 breathing slowly and deeply. 10….9…8….7….. breathing deeply from the diaphragm at each count. I imagine myself become more and more relaxed with every breath and every count. If you do it right before the test, you’ll start centered and relaxed and ready to do well.
  • Sigh deeply – this is a good way to let go of stress and tension.
  • Tense your muscles and then relax them – experience the release.

Using a trigger to create relaxation

Another strategy involves a deeper level of conditioning yourself to relax. You can use a physical cue or trigger to bring yourself to a more relaxed state. This approach creates a mental link between a simple physical movement and a state of mental relaxation. You are, in effect, conditioning yourself to relax when you do a certain action or movement.

  1. You must choose a physical trigger. Here are a few options:
    • Squeeze three fingers together three times
    • Tap your knee slowly three times with your right hand
    • Put one hand on top of the other
  2. You must get into a state of relaxation:
    • Take 3 deep breaths
    • Feel your body becoming a little looser
    • Close your eyes
    • Take 3 more deep breaths using the 3 count – breathe in, hold, breathe out
  3. Perform your chosen trigger in this relaxed state and create a mental association with this motion and relaxation. You will need to do this a few times to create a stronger association.
  4. During the test, whenever you feel anxiety coming on, you will perform your physical trigger, remembering back to the relaxed state. You will take a few deep breaths and you will consciously begin to relax.

Using key test phrases to help you relax

Some people begin to tense when they hear certain phrases:

Open your test booklets to page …

Ready, Begin

You have 5 minutes left

The 5 minute mark can be really stressful for some people. I have seen students do brilliantly for the first 25 minutes of a section, but after they hear the “5 minute warning,” they throw every wise strategy out the window, begin second guessing, and end on a low note.

What you need to do is begin to create a positive, relaxing association, practicing with the same words. You have to imagine a test-proctor saying, “You have 5 minutes, begin…” and then take a deep breath, and see yourself relaxing. Make this phrase a relaxing phrase. During the test, I often advise people to put their pencils down when they hear the phrases, “ready, begin” or “you have 5-minutes.” I ask them to take 2-3 deep breaths, recenter, and then go back to the test. The time you give up in recentering, you more than make up for in increased performance.

Using your imagination

Your imagination can be your greatest ally or your greatest obstacle on the SAT. So much of your performance depends on your imagination. If you cannot imagine yourself doing well and if you really believe you are going to do poorly then, guess what? You will more likely do poorly. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve witnessed this many times. When I hear a student make a statement like, “I am simply terrible at reading comprehension,” I stop them in their tracks. I never let them go on. I help them rephrase: “I used to have a hard time understanding reading comprehension; now I’m beginning to understand it.” I make them turn it around and begin to send a new message back to the brain. This opens up the possibility of doing better. If you or others continually reinforce, even unintentionally, how badly you are going to do – and you believe it – then you are reinforced to do poorly, no matter how much time you put in preparing for the test material. Your mind likes to be consistent and it tends to back up your words.

An exercise in imagination: rehearsing for success

We tend to rise or fall to our own level of expectation. If we expect to fail, there’s a good chance, subtly and unconsciously, we will make ourselves fail. And the converse is true as well. It’s better to set yourself up to succeed. Create a vivid image of yourself doing well. It helps to practice visualizing success. This is an active process requiring time and positive mental energy.

Read the script below, and then imagine the whole scenario with your eyes closed, like watching a movie inside of your head.

It’s the morning of the SAT. You wake up and get out of bed. You go about your morning routine – breakfast, shower, brush–you are feeling more and more awake and alert. You feel good. You feel relaxed. You feel ready for the test. As you drive to the test center, you are beginning to mentally prepare yourself: “I’m ready for this test. I’m going to go in there and knock this out.” You arrive at the test center and park the car. You walk to the registration line, show your ID, and go to your testing room. See the people in the room. Some are fidgety; others are relaxed; and some are totally zoned out. Find your seat. Sit down in your seat. Again visualize yourself feeling ready, and relaxed. The proctor asks you to clear your desk and begins to distribute testing materials. See yourself penciling in all the preliminary info. You are feeling confident. The proctor announces the beginning of the first section: “Open your test booklets to page 1. You have 30 minutes. Begin.” Everyone else in the room dives in. You pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. See yourself picking up your pencil, and then turn to the first page.

You approach the first problem. It’s easy as you knew it would be. You feel relaxed. You choose your answer and move on to the next one. I want you to visualize yourself walking through all the problems on the first section. You come to harder problems; you solve them when you can or omit them if you need to move on. You feel confident and know that you are tracking for your best score ever on this test. You move on through the sections and the breaks. You are doing the best you’ve ever done on the SAT, seamlessly going through the sections, stress-free. You know this is the best test you’ve ever completed.

Now I want you to visualize the score you want to get on the SAT. I want you to imagine the number very clearly. Move forward in time. I want you to imagine yourself going online or to the mailbox to see your score report. You picture The College Board’s official results sheet. See your score report with your goal number directly next to your name. Really see it and know you can get it. Repeat this exercise a few times between now and the test.

This is a simple process called creative visualization. A vast majority of the world’s most successful people use visualization to help them achieve their goals. Successful people imagine success before they create it. The image pulls them along.

This process is something my high school coach made us do before region and state meets for cross country. We spent 30 minutes mentally going through every phase and turn of the race before we had to do it physically. Using active imagination is something the majority of Olympic athletes do. Get your mind prepared to succeed and thrive and you will have laid the pathway to do well in real life.

Mental coaching during the test: positive self-talk

The final piece is learning how to be your own mental coach. You will be sending yourself messages throughout the test preparation process and during the actual test. What you tell yourself at these times is critical.

Always stay positive in your self-talk

If you had a rough morning getting to the test center, you must learn to use re-centering phrases to bring yourself back to a balance: “It’s going to be okay; I’m ready, just relax…. just slow down.”

During test breaks, it’s important to coach yourself as well. “I’m going to nail this thing. I’m doing great…a few more sections left.”

I have helped students make short audio tapes with 5-10 minutes of positive messaging. “I’m ready for this. I’m going to do great. I’m the most prepared I’ve ever been.” When students drive to the test center, they repeat and imprint these positive messages, hearing them in their own voices. When they begin the test, the positive messages will continue.

Some students feel better having their tutor in the room. Often students tell me, “working next to you, I simply understand things differently,” or “working with you, things just make more sense”. I can relate very well to this. I am a painter, and I often feel this way about my painting teachers. Whenever I am struggling with a painting, I call up the image or the voice of one of my teachers. They aren’t physically in the room, but they are coaching me in my head, repeating the phrases I have heard from them dozens of times. In the same light, you can imagine your tutor taking the test with you. What would your tutor tell you to do on this problem? Hear his or her voice. This is really useful to help you feel more secure.

The key is to use whatever makes sense for you. Discard what doesn’t work. Now is the right time to begin to mentally prepare for test success.

Final Preparation for the SAT

  • The day before the test
    • Avoid strenuous work the day before the test
    • Go to sleep early! Don’t throw away months of work for a few late hours on a Friday night. Get rested and ready; celebrate later.
    • Prepare things you will bring in the morning:
      1. Admission ticket
      2. Identification
      3. Calculator with fresh batteries
      4. Several pencils (#2), sharpened
      5. Snack and water
  • Test day
    • Eat breakfast
    • Relax on the way to the test site, breathing deeply
    • Don’t stress or get caught up in anyone else’s stress. You’ve prepared and you should feel confident and ready to roll.
    • When the test begins, take a deep breath and pause to focus and re-center before you dive in
    • Relax whenever you are asked to turn a page or put down your pencil
    • Grid in one page at a time
    • Keep focused and stay centered, and remember, you will do your best!

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or