How to Increase Your Mental Focus and Endurance When Taking the ACT, SAT, GED or Other Standardized Tests

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A common concern that students have when they take a major test, like the SAT, ACT or GED, is how they can maintain focus.  Here are 15 things that can help you improve your mental focus when you are taking a test. 

1.       Get Plenty of Sleep.  If you are cramming for a major memorization test, sacrificing a bit of sleep can make sense.  If you are studying for a major conceptual and problem-solving test, however, adequate sleep is essential.  The SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, GED and other major standardized tests uniformly are conceptual and problem-solving tests.  As such, be certain that you are well-rested for test day.  If you are thinking about staying up late to study the night before the SAT or ACT, please don’t!  Get a good night’s sleep instead. 

2.       Caffeine Can Backfire.  Caffeine can be a helpful supplement for students who have attention deficit issues (please talk to your doctor about your personal situation).  For most students though, caffeine can make you jumpy and jittery on test day.  The adrenaline you have pumping through your veins will more than be sufficient to make you alert.  You want to make sure you are not accelerating your thinking such that you make lots of careless errors. 

3.       Don’t Ask Too Much of Yourself.  If you have only score in the 50th percentile on practice tests, do not expect that you will score in the 99th on the actual test!  You will have significant focus issues if you attempt more problems than you should and if you attempt to read faster than you can comfortably do so.  If you give your mind a reasonable task to do, it will comply.  If you don’t, your mind will shut down and think about other things. 

4.       Get Medical Help if Needed.  If you notice that you have quite a bit more difficulty in focusing on tests than your friends do, it couldn’t hurt to have a doctor or psychologist evaluate you.  I once had a student who told me that every time he took a test, he could never stay focused.  I suggested that he see a doctor, since he had never been evaluated for attention issues.  He was able to get some ADHD medicine for his test.  He took the test with his medicine, and did well enough to get in the college of his choice.  It doesn’t hurt to look into this if you never have.  If paying for a medical evaluation is a concern, your school psychologist should be able to do an evaluation on you free of charge. 

5.       Control Where You Take the Test.  Don’t just sign up for any old test-center.  Try to take it at a school or facility where distractions will be kept to a minimum.  If you are distracted by large rooms and lots of noise, take the test at a school with small classrooms.  If you are distracted by having lots of people you know at a test center, sign up to take the test on the other side of town.  In any event, think  about where you should do it.  As long as you plan far enough in advance, you should be able to have plenty of control over where you take your test. 

6.       Declare a Drama Moratorium Leading Up to the Test.  You don’t need to take it to the extreme that one of my students once did – he broke up with his girlfriend a week before the ACT so she wouldn’t be a distraction to him!  You may want to isolate yourself a bit more leading up to a test so that you don’t have the “drama” that your “friends” may often cause.  Plan on going out for a fun evening with everyone after the test is over!

7.       Practice Without Social Media Distractions.  Nowadays, we are almost like cyborgs in how we are constantly connected to our phones, computers and tablets.  If you are practicing for the SAT, ACT or another test with the test in one hand and your phone in another, you are setting yourself up for failure.  Get used to practicing without having the constant interaction of social media so that you don’t experience internet deprivation when you are stuck taking a test for 5 hours. 

8.       Have a Snack During Breaks.  This is one of the easiest yet most helpful things you can do to stay focused during tests.  Most every major test will give you some sort of a break.  Use this time to get your blood sugar up to where it should be by having a healthy snack:  granola bar, banana, energy bar, etc. 

9.       Wear Earplugs.  I have never come across anything saying you can’t use earplugs during major tests.  If you are distracted by the smallest of noises, go ahead and bring earplugs (they only cost a few dollars) and tune out your fellow test-takers.   Just be sure that you are aware of when the test proctor is calling time so that you aren’t ejected from the testing site for continuing work when you shouldn’t. 

10.   Eat Peppermint When Studying and When Test-Taking.  I have heard and read from various sources that eating peppermint while you study and then having peppermint while taking a memorization-based tests can help you remember things because you are connecting key concepts to your primitive sense of smell.  I have not tried this personally, but I have had students do this and say that it is helpful.  If nothing else, it will have a placebo effect, giving you more confidence in your ability to remember things. 

11.   Do Relaxation and Hypnosis Exercises.    Athletes do mental conditioning.  Musical and dramatic performers do too.  Performing well on a standardized test is a major undertaking – why not do some relaxation or hypnosis exercises to help you focus?  If your situation is really bad, you may even consider hiring a professional hypnotist to help you learn to subconsciously tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand while taking a test.  If your lack of focus is more mild, you can do any number of relaxation exercises available in books or online to help you channel your energy when test-taking.  

12.   Get Test Anxiety Under Control if Needed.  If you are always distracted by serious worries about your performance when taking a test, address these concerns ahead of time by thinking through how you will handle your test anxiety.  I have an in-depth guide of suggestions here:

13.   Get Motivated if Needed.  If you are distracted when test-taking because you just don’t care, find motivation.  The best way to do this is to talk to your parents, teachers or older friends who can tell you why doing well on test you are about to take is indeed very important.  I can assure you that they will have some advice that will ring true for you. 

14.   Accept That There is Nothing Else You Can Do During Test Time.  When I go on an airplane ride, I accept that I will not be able to call anyone or use the internet during this time.  I embrace this quiet time, reading or talking with family members.  Use the same mindset when you take a major test.  Let go of any of the other things that could be bugging you during this time because there is absolutely nothing you can do about them during the test.  Given the ever-present media distractions we face, doing a standardized test can in a way be a bit liberating!  (I know that’s a stretch, but some of you may be able to look at it that way. . . )

15.   Build Your Mental Endurance.  If you are about to run a marathon and you haven’t even gone for a run around your neighborhood, you will completely fall apart.  Similarly, if you are going to take a 4 or 5 hour test, it is unlikely that you will be able to focus for this long if you have done nothing to build your test-taking stamina.  If you know you have issues with mental focus, be sure to do some full-length tests leading up to the actual thing. 

I hope you have found this discussion helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

How Focusing on Areas of Weakness Can Hurt You in Preparing for the ACT, SAT and Other Standardized Tests

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, GED, PSAT, SAT Prep, Study Tips, Tutoring
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Many people take it as common sense to focus on their weaknesses when preparing for the SAT, ACT, GED and other major tests.  If you have taken the ACT, for example, and done poorly on the Reading and Math, why not focus more on preparing for those problem areas the next time around?  Here are some things to consider when trying to decide the extent to which you want to focus on your weak areas when studying:

1.  Are you doing the ACT or the SAT?  Since the vast majority of schools superscore the SAT (i.e. they take the best score from each section), it makes perfect sense to focus on your weak areas on the SAT.  If you have already scored well on the SAT Math, for example, you can focus on doing much better on the SAT Critical Reading for the next test.  The vast majority of schools do not superscore  for the ACT, so you will need to have a strong across-the-board performance in order to have a solid composite score.  There are some exceptions to this general rule:  some colleges will superscore the ACT, and some may not superscore either test.  Contact the college to be certain as to its particular policy. 

2.  Have you maxed out your prep in one area?  Have you focused all your energies on bolstering your math score while doing virtually nothing for English or reading?  A little bit of prep can go a long way in an area of strength.  Perhaps you need to clarify some punctuation rules in English, or perhaps you need to adjust your timing on the Reading.  Think about where you will find the biggest bang for your buck.  I have often found that when I have tutored students just  a little bit in an area of strength, the score improvement was more on that section than it was after a great deal of focus on an area of weakness. 

3.  Are you going to let things slide?  Are you the type of person who gets really focused on one thing when you take the test?  In the back of your mind, will you be obsessing about your area of weakness even while you’re doing the sections with which you are more comfortable?  If so, you will want to adjust your attitude prior to taking the test – you will want to have a balanced attack and conserve your energy to perform at a high level on every test section.  I have had many students over the years who have gone into the test so determined to improve on one section that they let the areas of strength fall by the wayside.  Mentally prepare yourself so that you don’t let this happen. 

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Which Letter is Best to Guess on the ACT, SAT, GED, GRE and other major tests?

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“Always Guess C!”  How did I learn the hard way the reality of which letter is best to guess? 

Last December, I was tutoring a young lady for the ACT.  I advised her to guess on quite a few questions  because she had difficulty with time management.  On her math practice test, she guessed “C” on the last 20 questions.  Much to my surprise, she only got one of them correct! 

After discovering this, I looked at every publicly available ACT test to see if there was a pattern on the last few questions of the Math test.  On every single one, I found that “C” or “H” (the middle choice of the 5 since the ACT alternates between ABCDE and FGHJK on the Math Questions) was used less frequently than the other choices. 

I thought about it, and it made sense to me why this would be true.  1.  Most students don’t finish the ACT Math section.  2.  Most students guess “C” when they run out of time. 

So, I figured that ACT realized that people guessing “C” quite a bit at the end must be blindly guessing rather than actually knowing the material.  I guessed that they were trying to punish these guessers by turning conventional wisdom on its head and penalizing those who followed the “Guess C!” rule of thumb. 

I thought I was on to something – I advised my students prior to the December ACT to not guess C on the last 10-20 math questions.  I was really excited that I had discovered a hidden strategy that I hadn’t found stated elsewhere. 

Then, I took the ACT in December and ordered the question/answer service so I could review my answers.  And guess what:  THEY USED “C” A WHOLE BUNCH ON THE LAST FEW QUESTIONS OF THE MATH!  I had given my students terrible advice for that test date.  Fortunately, the rest of my advice was much more sound.   ;-)

Lesson learned – one letter is as good as any other on major tests like the ACT or SAT.  If it were as easy as picking a particular letter, why on earth would colleges put any stock in these tests? 

The Most Important Test Taking Strategy

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, AP, GED, IB, PSAT, SAT Prep, SAT Subject Tests, Study Tips, Teaching, Tutoring
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When I was a public high school teacher, one of the courses I instructed was AP World History.  The AP World History Exam typically has around 3 out of 9 as the median score on its extended responses.  One year, the median for a questions was only around 1.5 out of 9.  Why was this the case?  Because the vast majority of students thought the question included countries from “South-East Asia”, like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, when in fact the question asked only about “South Asia”, which included countries like India and Pakistan.  If a student taking the test had simply answered the question discussing what little he or she knew about India, he or she would like have received a score well above average. 

This example illustrates the most important strategy for taking the SAT, ACT, GED, AP, IB exams or any other major test:  you must understand the question!  If you rush through what they are asking and think they are asking something else, you are definitely going to miss it. 

Why do we do this?  In school, we often have questions that are quite simple in their wording:  “solve for x”, “who was the main character?”, and “define mitosis.”  Quite frankly, we don’t even need to read the questions much of the time on school tests – look at the choices and you know what you have to do. 

On standardized tests, on the other hand, the questions are far more elaborately worded.  If you skim over them really quickly, you will have no idea what they are asking you to do.  Instead, make sure you read the questions very, very carefully so that you fully understand the task at hand.  Remember that a careless mistake is still a mistake, so don’t let yourself make them by allowing yourself to misread the question. 

For any teachers reading this, know that you can help your students quite a bit by giving your students questions with more difficult wording.  I was conducting a teacher professional development workshop about the ACT when a math teacher said, “My gosh!  We never have words in our problems – only numbers!”  After our meeting, he made sure to do more word problems on his math quizzes in the future.  I know it takes more time to write questions like these, but even a couple of toughly worded questions on a test will really help your students become better prepared for major tests like the SAT, ACT or AP exams.  If you feel you are only “teaching to the test” by doing this, know that you are teaching the very, very important skill of learning to carefully read and understand what one is supposed to do.  I don’t know about you, but I definitely would want my accountant, lawyer or doctor able to carefully read what they are supposed to do and not make careless errors.  J

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Preparing for the GED

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If you want to prepare for the GED, there are several good options. 


1.      You can see if there is an in-person class that you can take.

Many educational service centers and community organizations provide classes that can help you get ready for this test. 


2.      You can purchase official GED Practice tests.

Taking practice tests from the test authors is always fantastic preparation – I do this with my students in preparing them for the ACT and SAT.  The cost of a GED practice test, at roughly $8, is very reasonable. 


3.       You can use my free practice questions accompanied by video solutions. 

We have made a full set of practice GED questions, all of which are accompanied by in-depth video solutions.  You can use them anytime, anywhere to prepare for the GED.  There is no registration or payment required.  Having video explanations gives you the experience of being in a classroom without feeling like you’re asking stupid questions if you don’t get something. 

Best of luck in earning your GED!

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