Preparing for test day is an important part of getting ready for the SAT or ACT. Follow these steps to ensure that you’re performing at your mental peak the morning of the exam.
First, make sure you get enough sleep (think 8-9 hours) the night before the test and during the week leading up to the test. If you fall behind on sleep the week of the exam, getting one full night’s sleep might not be enough.
Plan ahead to ensure you’ll get the sleep you need. Have a major paper due exam week? See if you can submit it the week before. Let your teachers know about your upcoming test and ask them to work with you to help you get enough sleep that week.
The night before the test, put together everything that you’ll be bringing with you to the test center. This way you won’t have to worry about trying to find something while you’re racing to get out the door.
Make sure to put fresh batteries in your calculator and to pack a bunch of pencils (as well as a small sharpener). Bring pencils with quality erasers that won’t smear across the scoring sheet. Ticonderoga pencils are a good option. In terms of food, pack a few protein bars for the breaks between sections. Plan on wearing comfortable clothes and dressing in layers. If it gets too hot or cold at the test site, adjust as necessary.
Set your alarm so that you’ll have ample time to get ready and make it to the test center early. If you’ll be waking up at 6, try to get up by at least 6 on the days leading up to the test as well. This will help you feel more awake the morning of the test.
Leaving ample time between waking up and taking the test will also allow your brain the time it needs to come online. Our brains can take as long as two hours to reach their optimal performance in the morning due to a phenomenon called sleep inertia. You don’t want to get up at 7.45, in other words, if you’re taking the test at 8.
If you have extra trouble feeling awake in the mornings, try listening to some of your favorite music. This can help you feel more alert.
Eat a good breakfast before you leave for the test center. Avoid sugar, which can give you a brief energy rush but then send you crashing. Stick to protein and carbohydrates instead. Don’t eat anything too light or too heavy, and make sure to drink a cup or two of water to hydrate. Follow your normal caffeine regimen: if you drink coffee, do so, and if you don’t, don’t.
Before leaving for the test center, try to do 15-20 minutes of exercise. Studies have shown that students who exercise before an exam perform better than those who don’t. Exercise increases blood flow (and the oxygen it brings with it) to the brain, which aids your mental performance. It also releases endorphins, which will help to fight any stress you might be feeling about the test.
Try to solve a couple of problems from each section of the exam before heading to the test center. This will help you warm-up and get your brain into gear for the test.
When you arrive at the test center, make sure to manage any anxious feelings that might arise. Check out my article on managing test anxiety for concrete steps on how you can do this.
Right before the test starts, pop some chewing gum. Multiple studies have shown that the act of chewing gum increases mental alertness and attention. During the breaks, swap out the gum for your snack bars.
One last thing: take advantage of the bathroom during breaks. Even if you don’t think you need to use it, you don’t want to risk a full bladder in the middle of a test section!