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

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, AP, GED, IB, PSAT, SAT Prep, Study Skills, Study Tips, Uncategorized
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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

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

The Impact of the Newsweek Rankings on High Schools

AP, High School, IB, Teaching
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Newsweek has taken a cue from U.S. News and become involved in the academic ranking business.  Since colleges and graduate schools were already taken by U.S. News, they decided to focus on high school rankings.  Here are the criteria they use:

Just as the U.S. News ranking have a big impact on how colleges focus on alumni donation participation rates and graduation rates, the Newsweek rankings have already impacted the importance that high schools place on AP and IB exam participation.  30% of the Newsweek ranking is based on simply having lots of AP and IB course offerings and only 10% is based on student performance on those exams. 

This is set to contribute to a conflict between high school administrators and high school teachers, because they will have very different agendas when it comes to AP/IB exam instruction.  What do the different parties want?

High School Administrators want teachers to be inclusiveAdministrators are usually much more concerned about how their school appears to the community at large, so to them, rankings matter.  Since Newsweek has put a premium on having lots of AP and IB courses and having lots of students take them, administrators will want AP and IB classes taking as many students as possible.  They will frown on summer reading assignments and difficult tests at the beginning of the year that can cause students to drop out.  They may also discourage teachers from assigning difficult tests and assignments so that the reputation of their courses will not make students shy away from taking them. 

Teachers generally want their AP and IB courses to be exclusiveI do not know of any teacher who loves to have enormous class sizes, who wants to grade tons of extra work, and who enjoys having students who are not sufficiently prepared to take the course.  Teachers also feel that they are judged by how well their students perform on AP and IB exams, and want only fully prepared and motivated students representing what has gone on in the classroom.  As a result, teachers typically want to “weed out” students who show little ability or motivation so that they don’t drag down the class the rest of the year. 

Newsweek has perhaps unknowingly set the stage for teacher-administrator conflict in the years to come.  Which side ends up winning will likely be determined on a school-by-school basis.  I hope that I have at least illuminated the motivations of either side so that teachers and administrators can have an honest conversation about what is best for the school, the teachers and the students. 

Advanced Placement versus International Baccalaureate, or AP vs. IB

AP, College Admissions, College Applications, High School, IB, Teaching
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Having taught both IB and AP courses, attended several trainings for IB and AP, and also having been an AP grader, I hope I am able provide a solid summary of the differences between the two programs.  Since I no longer teach high school and have no vested interest encouraging students to do one program or another, I am also free to be completely honest in my assessments. 

1.        Which is less expensive and easier to implement for schools and students?  AP

The fees to set up an IB school can often be prohibitively expensive:

This is why we don’t see a whole lot of smaller schools and private schools going the IB route – they don’t have the opportunity to achieve the economies of scale that make it worth the investment.  IB works best financially in a large school district where one high school can be designated the “IB Magnet” school, drawing students interested in the program from throughout the district. 

AP does not require any school wide investment, and individual courses can be easily implemented rather than an entire program.  The IB requires full school-wide implementation of the program, so a school cannot implement just one IB course at a time.  Moreover, IB has an extremely rigorous school approval process before the IB program can even be allowed at the school.  This does help ensure a higher level of program quality, but it can be a major paperwork hurdle for a school administration to overcome. 

As far as student fees to take the exams, AP is a bit less expensive.  If you take multiple IB exams, the costs are comparable, but if you are doing just one or two IB exams, the mandatory student fee can add quite a bit to the costs.  Compare for yourself here:

Finally, AP will allow individual students to take an AP exam without having taken the AP course.  IB doesn’t allow this, so self-study is not an option. 

2.       What kind of student prefers each program?  It depends on the student.

Do AP if you like:

  • Multiple Choice Tests
    • AP Tests typically have multiple choice as roughly half of the overall AP assessment, and free response the other half. 
  • More structured in-class essay writing
    • The rubrics for AP essay grading are more straight-forward and less open to interpretation than the more holistic rubrics for IB. 
  • If you are able to quickly memorize information
    • You need to know a broader array of facts for the AP assessments. 
  • You don’t care for big papers and projects
    • Most AP teachers will model their in-class assessments on the AP exams, which are generally combinations of multiple choice and free response.  It is unlikely that you will have as many large research papers or presentations in AP since these types of projects do not prepare you for the AP exams. 
  • You learn well with lecture
    • It is more likely that your AP teacher will use lecture to cover the vast amount of material that’s needed for the AP exam.  There are plenty of AP teachers who don’t do this, but in my experience, lecture often comes with the territory in AP. 

Do  IB if you like:

  • Writing
    • You will have tons of writing to do for IB.  The Extended Essay, Internal Assessments, in-class essays, and more.  There is relatively little multiple choice in IB.  If you are looking to improve your writing skills, you will definitely do so in the IB program.
  • Going in-depth
    • On many of the IB assessments, particularly those in the humanities, you will find that you are required to achieve mastery of deep areas of knowledge rather than going through a broader survey. 
  • You like working in groups
    • There are more opportunities for group activities in the IB assessments and in-class activities.  Although an AP teacher may encourage group work, it is hard to not do group work as a part of IB. 
  • You enjoy projects and presentations. 
    • In IB you will have all sorts of portfolio projects and unique internal assessments.  If you are good at demonstrating your knowledge in ways other than multiple choice tests, then IB may be right for you. 
  • You don’t procrastinate. 
    • If you put off doing your internal assessments and extended essay, you will be in a ton of trouble.  If you have the discipline to get things done over a period of time, you will find IB tough but manageable. 
  • You are interested in the intersection of different types of knowledge.
    • AP is much more compartmentalized, i.e. the AP U.S. History course won’t discuss anything from the AP Physics Course.  In IB, particularly if you are doing the Theory of Knowledge course, you will look quite a bit at how we claim to know what we know, and what that means in different areas of scholarship. 

3.       Which is more widely accepted by colleges?  AP for the most part.


  • If you are like most American Students and plan on going to college in the U.S., AP will make it easier to get college credit.  Although more and more colleges are becoming familiar with IB, many schools are behind the times and are more willing to award credit to AP students.  In addition, you may need to do the Higher Level IB course (a more rigorous 2 year option) in order to earn college credit.  With AP, you do a one year course, and most colleges will give you credit.  The only way to be certain about this is to ask the colleges to which you want to apply what their policies are. 
  • If you are thinking about going abroad for college, IB might make it easier.  IB was originally formed to make it possible for students who had to move around Europe a good bit to be able to transfer between schools without trouble.  Since so few American students are thinking about going to Europe, Canada or elsewhere for college, this usually isn’t a selling point.  (In my opinion, Americans should consider doing this as I argue here.)  If, however, you are open to international schools, IB can be a plus. 

4.       Which prepares you more for college coursework?  For the most part, IB does

Freshman-level introductory courses are often survey classes that involve multiple choice tests, some essay work, and quite a bit of lecture.  AP will prepare students very well for these types of classes.  For upper level courses and independent studies that involve quite a bit of research and writing, IB is far superior in helping students learn the process. 

5.       Which will likely have better teachers? 

IB may have better teachers for the following three reasons:

  • Better training.  Having attended both IB and AP training, I found that the IB training to be more in-depth and comprehensive.  We received more materials, had more discussion, and had smaller workshops. 
  • They choose to do it.  Since IB is typically done as a “school within a school”, the teachers who teach IB courses typically want to be there.  This is not always the case, of course, but I think it is more likely than would be the case with AP teachers. 
  • They choose what to cover.  IB allows teachers the flexibility to go in-depth into areas about which they are knowledgeable and passionate.  AP mandates covering everything more superficially.  This difference will be far more pronounced in the humanities courses than in math/science, but even in the IB math/science courses there is more opportunity for outstanding educators to do what they would really like to do. 

 6.       Do colleges prefer IB over AP, or vice versa, when it comes to applying?  The consensus I have found is “no”.  Colleges want to see applicants who are doing the toughest courses offered at their high schools.  Both IB and AP constitute “tough” courses, so do whichever one you prefer and don’t worry about how it will look to college admissions officers.     

 7.       Are there any other options if I don’t want to do IB or AP? 

Yes!  Try to take college classes while you are in high school!  Talk to your guidance counselor about the logistics of this, but many states will allow you to take classes at State Universities at no cost while you are a high school student. 

I look forward to your comments on this piece.  If you found it helpful, please share it with your friends and colleagues.  Thank you.  

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