How To Maximize Standardized Test Scores

by Rick Nau

It’s no secret that if you want to do well on a standardized test, you’ve got to prepare for it. If you’re getting ready for the SAT, you might be using The Official SAT Study Guide. ACT fans often work with The Real ACT Prep Guide. For the ISEE, many students use The Princeton Review and/or Kaplan prep books. You might also be taking classes from one of the major test prep companies or working with a personal tutor. 

Standard procedure is to keep doing practice tests until you’ve maximized your score. Then, when you take the real test, the hope is that you’ll match or exceed this score. But there’s one additional factor that needs to be taken into account–the test environment. 

When you take practice tests, the environment is usually quite friendly. It might be your kitchen table or your desk or a classroom at a test prep company. But when you take the real test, it’s obviously different. Test anxiety, illness, distractions and other unforeseen events come into play that might cause your real score to be less than your practice score. This means that to do your very best on the day of the test, you’ve got to be mentally prepared–or, as some people say, you got to be in the zone. 

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to mentally prepare, one that might surprise you. The secret is to draw upon the concentration skills you use while engaging in some of your favorite activities. You might compete in sports or play a musical instrument or take part in dance or theater performances. You might like to solve rubik's cubes or play chess or win at video games. You might love to climb rocks or to surf or to fish for trout in a swift-flowing mountain stream. Whatever the activity, if you want to do well at it, then you’ve got to give it your full concentration.

Take acting, for example. Once the play begins, you can’t allow anything to break your concentration. If a sound cue fails, you keep going. If your fellow actor forgets a line, you cover for him. If someone in the audience has a sneezing fit, you put it out of your mind. Whatever happens, you don’t allow it to affect your performance. 
Or soccer. If someone trips you or elbows you in the ribs, you shake it off and keep on going. If you try for a goal and miss, you keep on trying. If some of the spectators are heckling you, you completely ignore them. Whatever happens, you won’t let it affect your game.

What can I say about rock climbing? You’ve got to stay completely focused on what you’re doing or the consequences might be painful.

You can see where I’m going with this. If you stay completely focused during the test, in the same way that you stay focused while you’re doing the things you love, you’ll maximize your score. The trick is to think of a way to shift this focus to the test. This will require some creativity on your part. For instance, if you play sports, you might see each question as part of the game. If it’s baseball, then transform each question into a pitch. If it’s soccer, the question is the opposing player, the one you want to beat. If you’re a performer, you might imagine yourself as a participant in a quiz show or in a movie about a math genius (remember Good Will Hunting, or the television series Numb3rs?). If you’re a video gamer, then you might imagine the questions as obstacles you’ve got to overcome. Yes, it will take a bit of creativity on your part to make the connection–but make it. Only you can do it.

I can’t stress enough the importance of this technique. I know that it works because I’ve seen the results. I can’t tell you what’s going on in the students’ minds when they use it, but their scores go up, sometimes dramatically. They’re in the zone, and nothing’s going to take them out of it, including, but not limited to, some of the annoyances they’ve reported popping up during the test. Just for fun, I’ll list a few. 

1) A car alarm that keeps going off in the parking lot.
2) A nearby street crew fixing the street with a jackhammer.
3) A room that’s freezing cold.
4) A room that’s boiling hot.
5) A desk with a top that keeps rocking back and forth.
6) A proctor who keeps clicking away on her computer keyboard.
7) A test taker who keeps clicking away on his pencil.
8) A test taker that keeps sneezing and coughing.
9) A golden retriever that wanders into the room (just kidding–I made this one up). 
10) And on and on . . . 

As one student said, it’s all about attitude. If you bring a winning attitude with you to the test, then you’ll do your best.

Rick NauComment