There are few tasks in life that require as much concentrated, uninterrupted, and intense focus as the SAT. In its current format, the test lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes. Even with the brief breaks during the exam, it can feel like a mental marathon. Like top endurance runners, you can use certain strategies to improve your performance and prevent your focus from wavering at any point during the test.
Given the stringent time limits, zoning out for even a minute can stunt your pace and cause you to hear “pencils down” before you’re finished. With a perfect score within reach, leaving questions blank that you otherwise could have answered will drain precious points from your score. Here’s a few strategies to stay on task during the SAT …
Keep an eye on the clock:
Even in the span of a 25-minute math section or even a 10-minute writing section, it’s easy to lose track of how much time you are spending on each question. Wear a wristwatch and quickly remind yourself when the section ends and is halfway over. This strategy serves two purposes: First, by checking in on the time periodically, you can adjust your pace accordingly. Second, and perhaps even more important, the act of checking your watch can momentarily interrupt the monotony of standardized testing which can keep your more alert.
Mind your own business:
When the proctor announces, “you may now begin,” there tends to be a mad rush to start the test, like horses out of the starting gates. The sounds of eager students vigorously flipping through their test booklets can certainly be nerve-wrenching, especially for first-time testers. It’s best to avoid looking around at the other students (a typical reaction to this initial testing scramble) and concentrate on your own test. Looking at your neighbors will only make you anxious, the proctor suspicious, and time run dry. A relaxed test taker is more focused and effective than an anxious one.
Stretch and walk around during breaks:
In general, during a long test like the SAT, when you’re not physically moving around, your mind begins to move around and drift off in random directions. Some deal with this by fidgeting, twirling their pencils or tapping their feet, but doing so can be noisy and distracting. Luckily, the folks at College Board mandated that there must be a few breaks during the testing session, which are the perfect times to get all your jitters out, stretch, and walk around.
Get more sleep:
This is probably something you’ve heard before many times, but that’s because it’s important. You must get enough sleep (? 8 hours) during the nights leading up to the test. No matter how much coffee you drink, sleep deprivation before the SAT is a recipe for disaster. Exhaustion clouds the mind, inhibits memory, stifles critical thinking, and hinders ambition, so why risk it?
Michael Rothberg is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor. He began tutoring his freshman year of college and is excited to help students conquer the SAT by unlocking their academic potential. Currently a rising sophomore at Harvard University, he is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology major and Staff Reporter at the Harvard Crimson.