Your brain may not be a muscle, but it certainly behaves like one. Did you know that your brain can grow stronger and faster with exercise? Mental exercise, that is. Research has also proven that even physical activity can improve brain function.
When it’s time to take your test—whether it's the ACT, the SAT, or even that gnarly Physics midterm—make sure to do everything you possibly can to ensure the best outcome. That includes studying ahead of time (which is a given), hiring a tutor to help you become a more effective test taker, and training your brain to maximize what you know while minimizing self-doubt and anxiety.
I’m sharing some of my favorite mental exercises—I refer to them as "mental mastery techniques"— that you should consider incorporating come test time. Don’t worry-- they’re all pretty simple to grasp, and they’re all definitely worth trying!
Be a Superhero
You may or may not be a superhero in real life, but you can at least stand like one. I know this probably sounds a little silly, but if you strike a superhero stance right before your exam, you may get the mental edge to crush your arch nemesis—in this case, the standardized test.
So what is the superhero pose? Stand with your legs spread apart and your hands on your hips with your elbows outwardly bent. Kinda like Wonder Woman. Hold this pose for 2 full minutes.
Research shows that this type of open body language can stimulate the production of testosterone and decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which can help you manage or completely obliterate any stress you may have about taking your test.
Yes, I’m advising you to study without breaks. Here’s the catch: Only study for short bursts of time. Devoting two or three hours a day everyday to studying will cause you to burn out! (You can tell your parents I said so.)
Try this: study intensely for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. Then repeat. You can do this for two hours and have a nice four-session study period.
This type of study method is known as the Pomodoro technique. It’s a work-reward system. You work hard for a short time and then you reward yourself with a break where you do something completely different (check Snapchat, grab a snack, do 25 squats—the sky’s the limit on how you spend that time).
Here’s why it works: Breaking your learning up into more manageable blocks can feel a lot less intimidating. It’s easier to say to yourself, “I’m going to study as hard as I can for 25 minutes” over “I’m going to study for two long hours. It’ll probably be dark outside when I finish.”
Even better, short bursts of learning are better for memory retention. Even though technically, you’re only studying for an hour and 40 minutes (when you consider the breaks) and not two hours, those short study sessions will be much more effective. You’re more focused during those sessions and less likely to give in to distractions.
Of course, you can go longer than two hours with the Pomodoro method, but if you do, be sure to take a longer break after four Pomodoros (20 minutes is good).
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep is when your brain exercises. Your brain does some of its best work at night time, when outside stimuli is at a minimum and the brain can finally start reorganizing and restoring.
The night before your exam is no time to cram. You’ll be better served by getting some serious shuteye.
Research shows that students who slept at least seven hours before taking an exam scored 10% higher than those students who received much less sleep.
While sleep helps regulate cortisol (that pesky stress hormone), it also allows your brain to process the information you’ve taken in during the day (i.e. what you’ve studied) and turn short-term information into long-term memory.
It may sound weird, but reading your study material out loud can actually improve your memory retention! You’ll fare even better if you study aloud to another person.
Researchers suggest that the conversational component of speaking to another person helps you remember more of what you’re saying. But, even if no one’s around, it’s still beneficial to read your study notes out loud. The sensorimotor aspect of verbal expression makes it so much easier for the brain to associate random facts with a meaningful interaction.
So, while it does take longer to read aloud than to do it silently, remember that you’re actually training your brain to remember.
Visualize Yourself Winning
One of the best ways to alleviate anxiety is to visualize yourself past the finish line. Close your eyes and imagine your life after successfully acing your test. You have a big smile on your face, sure, but what else are you doing?
Perhaps you’re holding your SAT score report, or you're entering those top-notch scores in your Common App account, or you’re celebrating with your parents at a luxe dinner. Imagine it in vivid detail and full color. Hold on to that feeling of pure bliss.
In the moments before taking your test, focus on that visualization of you after acing your testing. It feels like sunshine, but, believe it or not, it’s more than just wishful thinking:
Visualization shows your brain what success looks like to you. Once you have a clear focus, your brain will be better equipped to make the connection from where you are to where you want to be.
Visualization also motivates you to do whatever’s needed to make your vision a reality.
And last, but not least, visualization works behind the scenes in your subconscious mind to help you attain your goal—in this case, passing the test with flying colors.
My Parting Advice
Whatever you do, don’t cram the night before! Instead, incorporate these tried-and-true mental mastery techniques. Good luck and remember, I’m here when you need me.