The hours leading up to a standardized test can be stressful and frightening for students. While most test-takers spend a good deal of time focusing on their academic preparation, they tend to think less about the practical challenges of actually taking the test. This can lead to last-minute anxieties and poor choices, which ultimately hurt test day performance.
Believe it or not, your routine on test day can be just as important as your academic preparation in the months before. Everything you do the night before and the morning of your test should help you create a nice, warm bubble of confidence that you can live in during your exam. But with the ACT, SAT, AP Exams, and other high-stakes tests looming ahead, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are 14 simple and practical mindfulness tips to help you reduce stress and elevate your mood on the big day:
1. Pack the Night Before: Do as much packing as you can the night before the test. Print out your ticket, make sure you have your ID, check the batteries on your calculator (and put it in your bag!), pack a few sharp, non-mechanical no. 2 pencils with erasers, and check the directions to your test center so you know how to get there and how long it will take.
2. Wake Up Early: Rush = Stress! The more frazzled you are in your morning routine, the less focused you will be in the hours leading up to the test. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get ready in the morning. And remember, waking up early also means going to bed early — it’s important to get a solid eight hours of sleep!
3. Do a Physical Warm-Up: We all feel a little groggy when we first wake up, and snuggling back under the covers can seem more appealing than getting ready. A good physical warm-up shakes out those cobwebs and gets the blood flowing. Simple stretches or yoga can do wonders first thing in the morning, and jumping jacks or push-ups can help elevate your heart rate and get you going.
4. Do a Mental Warm-Up: A good mental warm up could be completing simple test problems you already know how to do — reading an article, doing a crossword or sudoku, etc. — or anything to stimulate your brain and help awaken your thinking. You definitely don’t want to treat the first section of the test like the first period at school! Many students will be entering their tests feeling groggy and sleepy, and will have to warm up as the test goes along. You want to be fully awake and ready to take the test the moment you walk in the door of the test center.
5. Have Breakfast: Today is not the day to skip a meal. Most students leave their house around an hour before they have to be at the test center, and don’t get home until an hour after the test is done. This generally means leaving around 7am, and not getting back until after 1pm. That’s a long time to go without a meal! Even if you are someone who isn’t usually hungry in the morning, try to have some kind of healthy breakfast so that you have the energy to make it through to the break.
6. Bring Snacks and Water: The day of the test is already nervy enough — you don’t want to add unnecessary stress to your experience. Make sure you bring a water bottle and plenty of healthy snacks to keep you hydrated and energized throughout the day. Sitting through the test with a dry throat and rumbling tummy will make you sad and distracted; snacking on almonds or a banana during the break will make you happy and focused. Choose option number two!
7. Bring a Sweater: Just as you don’t want to be hungry or thirsty during the test, you don’t want to be sweating or shivering either. Remember: You are trying to remove as much external stress and distraction as possible. Bring a sweater and/or wear a layer you can take off, just in case the room is too hot or too cold for your comfort. The last thing you need is a broken thermostat standing in the way of your ideal score; chances are it will be too hot in the classroom when it’s cold outside, and too cold inside when the weather is hot!
8. Bring your Talisman: Do you have special pajama pants that make you feel happy? Wear them! Do you have a lucky tie that makes you feel like a pro? Put it on! A secret stuffed animal that still sleeps in your bed (we won’t tell)? Throw Mister Snuggles in your backpack, and give him a squeeze for good luck during the break. Small comforts can really improve your focus and lower your stress levels throughout the day.
9. Count to Three: The day of the test moves fast; this can be very overwhelming. Even if you feel short on time, it can be worth sparing three seconds to take a quick break and rejuvenate. If you sense yourself panicking, put down your pencil, look up at the ceiling or out the window, take a deep breath, count to three, breathe out slowly, and get back to the test.
10. Relax on the Break: The break is the one time on test day that you should not think about the test at all. Take a walk, stretch your legs, have some water and a snack, and make sure you go to the bathroom. If you feel like having a conversation, try to have it — but on anything other than the test. There will always be a cluster of kids whispering about what they did on question 5, or how to find the area on question 7. Those kids either want to prove that what they did was right, or that everyone else missed the hard problems too. Why waste your one moment of test-free time thinking about questions that you already answered, and which you can’t change?
11. Use Meditation: If you ever feel truly overwhelmed and need to find a way to calm yourself down and quickly refocus, try this simple (and highly effective) meditative breathing exercise. Close your eyes, touch your middle fingers to your thumbs, and breathe deeply through your nose. Split your focus between the feeling of your fingers touching, the feeling of your chest rising, and the feeling of air going in and out of your nostrils. Try to hold all three things in your mind simultaneously. As other thoughts enter your brain, acknowledge them and let them go. Once you feel a little calmer, open your eyes and return to the test. This exercise can also be useful as you go to bed the night before your exam, in the morning before the test starts, and during the break. Give it a try!
12. Be Selfish: Make sure you are looking out for your own best interests the night before and the day of the test. Don’t help someone move the day before, or talk your friend through a break up all night instead of sleeping. If you happen to be taking your test in a room with other students whom you know, don’t feel the need to socialize. Politely tell them that you have to focus for the test; they will understand! Also, don’t feel the need to take other students’ advice, or to listen to what they think or believe to be the best strategy. Most of the time they have no idea what they’re talking about, and it’s best to trust your own instincts and preparation.
13. Practice Makes Perfect: The day of the test is just another opportunity to successfully deploy the strategies you have been working on throughout your preparation process. Many students feel as if they have to bring some sort of extra magic on the morning of the real test in order to get their ideal score; in reality, you should approach all practice tests and official tests the same way. Serena Williams doesn’t get to the finals of the U.S. Open and decide to try a brand-new, “magic” serve; she uses the same serve she has practiced hundreds of times before. Remember, muscle memory is your friend. Part of the reason you practice all of these strategies is so that your muscle memory can guide you through a high-stress situation.
14. Let Yourself Be Nervous: Even if you follow all of these steps, chances are you will still feel nervous. That’s totally natural! A standardized test is a high-stress situation, and your body will naturally be producing adrenaline and increasing your heart rate. Give yourself permission to be nervous instead of trying to stifle the feeling. You may even be able to use that adrenaline to your benefit.
It’s worth the extra effort to develop mindfulness and to make some practical preparations, so that you can enter your exam in the best state of mind to succeed. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time of time and effort getting ready for the test; you deserve to hit your goals and feel happy with your performance!