Mental Mastery Techniques

Math Etiquette I for Easy SAT No-Calculator Math (What's Math Etiquette and Why Should You Care?)

What's math etiquette? Well, like social etiquette, it helps you navigate problems confidently and gracefully...except these problems are math problems! It's also a crucial part of getting prepared for the new SAT No-Calculator Math section. Here's the run-down.

Stepping Up Your Math Confidence: The Girls' Guide to Fearless SAT & ACT Math

High school girls often lack confidence in their math abilities, and that can do serious damage. Here are my top tips for firing yourself up for fearless math!

Page Turn Zen: My Favorite Secret to Overcoming Test Anxiety (that can instantly increase your score by hundreds of points)



In all the testing frenzy that goes on Junior and Senior years, there is a lot of attention that goes intolearning vocab, grammar rules, and math concepts.  There is a lot of attention paid to testing strategy, when to guess, how many questions to attempt in order to earn a certain score, and the like.

However, even after mastering all of these topics and strategies, some of you may still struggle to increase your SAT or ACT score.  What gives?!

It’s called test anxiety. And nobody talks about it.

It’s not your fault that you might be struggling with this problem.  Most test prep programs and tutoring companies use what I like the call the “brute force” method: throw more practice problems and work-for-work’s-sake your way in hopes that you will eventually improve your score.

They don’t realize that psychology is half the battle.  And no matter how well you know your stuff, if you are one of the many students affected by test anxiety, then you know first-hand how all the new material you learned just seems to fly out the window the moment the timer starts and the proctor says, “You may begin.”

I see this all the time, and it can take many forms:

  • Bright students who second- and third-guess themselves, often changing their correct answers to incorrect choices out of fear,
  • Juniors and Seniors feeling so much pressure that they over-analyze themselves to death during a test,
  • Students who exhaust so many of their mental resources worrying, that they don’t even finish the section at hand.  This happens especially with math-phobic students!

So what can you do if this is you?

Enter Mental Mastery Technique #2: “Page Turn Zen”

You probably agree that if you’re going to give an amazing SAT or ACT performance, you need to calm down.  You need to focus.  And the best way to do that is simply to be present. In the moment. In your body.

And here’s what you’re going to do to get there:

1)   At the beginning of each section of the test, and every time you are about to turn the page (hence the name), STOP.

2)   Close your eyes.

3)   Take 3 deep breaths.

4)   The entire time you are breathing, notice where you feel the breath in your body.

Let’s analyze this a moment, shall we?

1)   I like having my students begin each section with a clear head.  Thus, I think that starting each section (especially the essay section) with a few seconds of centering activity is ideal.

Sometimes, usually during a math section, students begin to tense up as the problems get increasingly harder.  This makes sense: there’s nothing like that very first problem you can’t solve to shake your confidence!  That’s why you are going to STOP and get back to reality at every page turn.

2)   You want to close your eyes to remind yourself that no one else in the testing room matters.  You are the master of your domain and of your trusty pink sweatpants.  For the 10 seconds when you do Page Turn Zen, not even the impending test question staring back at you from the page can bite.

3)   Taking three deep breaths is about the time it takes the average person to relax for 10 or 12 seconds.  If you feel nervous that three breaths will take too much time, then please time it with your iPhone stopwatch in advance of Test Day to assure yourself that you are not using up much more time than this.

You need to take slow breaths to slow down your heart rate, which might be out of control at the moment.  You need to take deep breaths to get oxygen to all the cells in your body – especially your brain cells!

4)   As you take your three breaths, you are going to focus on the physical sensations you actually feel in your body.  As in, do you feel sweat or warmth on your palms? A stretch in the back of your rib cage? A cold tingle on your upper lip as you exhale? A tickle in your nose as you inhale?  Try to pinpoint the actual, physical sensations as they occur.  Be the curious observer.  None of it is “right” or “wrong”, nor does it mean anything.

By keeping your attention singularly on your physical sensations for the 10+ seconds, you are getting back to the present moment, completely eradicating over-analysis and allowing yourself to get back to your natural state: smart, resourceful, quick, and clever.

To get the best results, you are going to want to start practicing this as soon as you can, in every situation that presents itself! Doing math homework? Practice Page Turn Zen before and during your page turns.  Doing history homework?  Stop and do Page Turn Zen whenever you are turning a page or writing onto the next page of your notebook.  Doing practice questions of any sort, for your SAT/ACT prep or even for your Driver’s Ed test? Do Page Turn Zen.

Soon, this practice will be so ingrained that you immediately do it and will not have to think about it.  And THAT’s how you end up increasing your score by leaps and bounds and utilizing all the knowledge you’ve collected in that pretty brain of yours. ;)

So, while people pay top dollar for my services, I’m giving you this advice for free, because I’m committed to seeing you get into the college of your dreams.  And while this test anxiety tip doesn’t cost you anything, if you found this helpful, please do me a favor and share it with 3 friends.

Nailing the SAT Essay Part I: Sloppy Success vs. Perfect Mediocrity

So many of us women – at any age – suffer from feelings of having to be “perfect”, whatever exactly that is. I, for one, started feeling this way in middle school – gotta love puberty! - but the quest to be perfect exploded in high school.  In the top-ranking public high school in the country – Talented and Gifted Magnet in Dallas, Texas – I was taking 8 (you read that right) concurrent AP classes my Junior year, and obsessing about getting 99’s across the board on my report card.  I was a little “cray”.

Luckily for me, my misplaced desire for perfection had definite endings – the end of the grading period, the end of the school year, etc.  Also, luckily for me, my course-load was math/science/computer-heavy, where there is an end to every problem and you just have to get there.

But what do you do when you’re writing an essay, and there are infinite ways you could craft your words, infinite examples you could utilize, infinite combinations of sentence structures and ways to weave your argument?

That, my friend, is when you need to chuck this need for perfection out the window…  ESPECIALLY if you are writing a timed essay on the SAT or ACT!!

See, even though you might not have experienced it yet, in the “real world” (outside of school), it’s fairly impossible to be “perfect”.  There will always be someone more skilled, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, more “successful”, and wealthier than you.

If you wait until you’re “perfect” before you submit that report/manuscript or audition for that part, you’ll be waiting a long time - possibly forever – before you follow your dreams.

And if you wait until you think you have the “perfect” essay written in your head before you put your pencil on the paper and start writing it, time will be called before you finish your introduction!!!

In my experience tutoring and coaching countless high-schoolers for the SAT and ACT, the biggest essay obstacle I’ve seen is when the student just wasn’t able to finish her essay in the designated time: 25 minutes for the SAT and 30 minutes for the ACT.  (Or more, if you have extended or double time.)  That’s when you see essay scores of 2 or 4 out of 12 possible points.

Sadly, the test-graders only see what’s on the page.  They will NEVER see the beautiful thoughts in your head, or your gripping stance on how history repeats itself unless we can innovate as a society.  Therefore, your job is to get your thoughts on that page so that they can be graded.  And whatever will be, will be.

In general, if you can just write and finish the 2 pages you’re allotted on the SAT (or get 2 pages written on the ACT), you’re looking at a safe score of 8+ out of 12.  While not phenomenal, this is waaaaay better than a 2, and could mean the difference of 100+ points on the SAT Writing section!

So, if this is you, and you are paralyzed by a need to be perfect, you may be wondering how you can go from never getting your thoughts on the page and scoring a 2 – to letting go and getting a solid 8 that can be built upon.

It’s easy: practice being sloppy!

For the next month, I want to you try the following exercise, which I learned from Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and adapted to get results for teenagers prepping for the SAT:

Mental Mastery Technique #1: Practice Sloppy Success

1)    Get a blank sheet of computer paper.

2)    Set the alarm on your phone for 5 minutes.

3)    Start writing!  Your goal is to completely fill up the page in the 5 minutes before your alarm goes off.

That’s it!  However, here are some helpful hints, as this seems way easier than it actually is:

  • Keep your pen moving and write whatever pops into your head. If you are blank, write “blank” until something pops into your head.
  • DO NOT erase or cross out anything! Not even a misspelled word.  You need to get used to not being perfect for the sake of this exercise.
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar, complete sentences, or “stupid” ideas.  This is an exercise in getting your thoughts on the page without censoring.
  • Don’t read what you wrote. You even have my permission to throw away the sheet of paper afterwards.

I’ve gotten amazing results for my students with this practice, sometimes in as little as a couple days.  Why?  For several reasons:

  • No more over-analysis-paralysis!  Something actually gets written!
  • By writing whatever comes up, you are releasing feelings of test anxiety and other emotions onto the page, so it no longer takes up your valuable head-space.
  • You are shifting the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish: finishing as opposed to being perfect.

Please help yourself and give this a try. Right now!  After all, it only takes 5 minutes.  Then post your comments below to share the results you get.

Very Important: Can you think of a friend/classmate who’s suffering from writer’s block on the SAT or ACT essay? Share this post with them – you might just save their score!