Test Prep is a Marathon: Self Care for the Long Haul

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Starting out your junior year and embarking on the test-prep and college process is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to have the most challenging course load to date, hopefully have increasing responsibilities with your extracurriculars, and maybe even a few jobs or internships in the mix—all while getting your SAT or ACT scores in order, creating and whittling down a college list, doing college visits, and starting to think about what you wish you express about yourself in your college application essays. Whew. That's quite a list.

It objectively IS a LOT more than what you’ve currently been doing! But that doesn’t mean you have to panic, stumble, or burn out. In fact, with a few mindset shifts, and a few changes to your daily habits, you can keep on striding smoothly through this jam-packed year (and a half!) of your life. These are some of the top themes I return to with my students, and I've seen them really pay off.


Mindset Shift #1) Add Test Prep and College Applications to Your Courseload

I tell my students to treat these extra responsibilities as if you signed up for 2 extra year-long classes: “Test Prep” and “College Applications.”

Now, you don’t get a “grade” per se in these classes, but each one will take the same amount of time and work as a regular class, like Pre-Calc or US History. No, you won’t have “homework” and “due dates” the same way you would for an actual class, but if you think about it, you kinda do… after all, you have content and practice problems and sections to do for “Test Prep” leading up to the actual SAT or ACT dates. For “College Applications,” you will have to manage your own mini-assignments of researching colleges, visiting them, and adding them or subtracting them to your list…before you put in actual time to write your applications and submit them for the deadlines.

Unlike actual classes you take in school, however, if you need help navigating these tasks before their respective deadlines, you can get help! A test prep expert can effectively take over managing what you need to do for your “Test Prep”—creating a timeline for you, giving you appropriate assignments along the way, and gearing you up for Test Day. In fact, that’s exactly what we do in an Ace the Test: Game Plan! A college counselor can do the same for “College Applications”—creating your initial college list FOR you, telling you when to visit them, give you mini-deadlines for writing your application essays before they’re actually due, and even helping you with financial aid applications and hunting down scholarships.



Mindset Shift #2) Now is NOT Forever

This one is difficult to really believe when you’re in the thick of it, so you’ll have to revisit my words often! Basically, as hard as you’re working on your two extra “classes” this year, know that this is a FINITE period of time. It’s strictly a junior and senior year of high school thing.

YES! Your time for just hanging out will be limited. YES! You will want to throw in the towel towards the end of junior year when your finals are coinciding with the ACT, SAT, APs, SAT II Subject Tests, and other exams (Regents, IB, etc.).

However, if you truly get that this is a special coming-of-age ritual that will happen only ONCE in your lifetime, you can plan for it instead of suffering about it—and planning for it helps you remember that it's going to end. One day you'll have time to hang out again, I promise. Trust me, the end of your senior year will be a cake walk in comparison! 


Mindset Shift #3) Plan Around Your Busy Periods

Do you know that you’ll be absolutely booked in November and December for the annual school musical, in which you always get a part? Or does your varsity baseball season really amp up after Spring Break at the beginning of April?

Don’t be surprised by busy seasons, which are often cyclical and predictable. Instead, know that you’re not going to do as much for your “Test Prep” and “College Applications” “classes” during those times, and strategize to do the necessary work for them in your lighter months and weeks.

In other words, instead of saying to yourself, “Phew! I don’t have as much to do for drama club or basketball right now—guess I’ll catch up on Netflix,” try this: “Phew! I don’t have as much to do for drama club or basketball right now—guess I’ll front-load the work I need to do for Test Prep and College Applications so I DON’T have to do so much when I’m super busy!”

You’ll thank me later.


Habit Shift #1) Make Exercise a Part of Your Schedule!

The benefits of even 10 minutes of cardio—like jogging, biking, swimming, or dancing like a crazy person to your favorite upbeat tunes—are so numerous, that I know I’ll forget something. But for you as a high school junior or senior, here are the ones that make the biggest impact:

  • Exercise is a huge stress buster! It literally lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body, making you feel less tense.
  • Exercise also releases feel-good hormones and endorphins in your body, meaning you get a HUGE mood boost.
  • Exercise is one of the most immediate “state changes” you can do. Feeling crappy? Lethargic? Unmotivated? You can do 10 minutes of jumping jacks or take a spin class and you won’t recognize the grumpy person you were before you put on your sneakers.
  • Exercise acts like meditation. It sweeps you out of your head—which might be buzzing with all sorts of “why bother?” and “this sucks!” thoughts—and puts you in your body. In other words, if you’re focusing on that next freestyle stroke or making it to the end of your 2nd mile before you quit running, you have no mental capacity for stressing about your SAT scores. Your brain gets a break, which means it can work more effectively when you sit down to use it.


Habit Shift #2) Athlete or Not, Treat Your Body Like a Temple

You need to monitor what goes in, so you can assure that only good things (like perhaps a 35 on the ACT or a 1550 on the SAT?) come out. That means that you need to actually consume fruits and vegetables to make sure you get the vitamins and micro-nutrients your brain needs to do its thing! Make sense? Whole foods actually make you feel better, too, unlike that candy bar you might reach for after 6th period.

A NOTE ABOUT DRUGS AND ALCOHOL: As a test prep expert, I’m here to encourage you to keep it clean during high school—not because you're a "bad" person if you don't, but because it interferes with your test prep timeline! It takes several hours for your body to process alcohol and drugs—sometimes even days!—so in essence, you just killed that amount of time. If you were busy before, you’ll really have to cram now. And your scores and grades will suffer as a result.

In addition, alcohol and drugs kill brain cells, impede your ability to focus, and slow the formation of synapses in your brain. It should seem obvious that it’s NOT a good idea to mess with your brain chemistry when you desperately need your brain in tip-top shape for the next couple years. You can do whatever you want when you’re in college, but please, get INTO college first!


Habit Shift #3) Actually Get Sleep

I know, this is soooo boring, and it might be one of the few times you'll confuse me with your mom, but you actually have to get sleep during your junior and senior years. Ideally 7-9 hours of it. Every night.

I know this, because I used to NOT get sleep during MY junior year of high school. I was so obsessed with school work and piano and flute and math competitions and side projects that I  remember saying it was a “waste of time." Then, with my newly-lowered immune system, I got mono and was out of school for TWO WEEKS! Talk about wasted time and having to play catch-up! Even after the mono, I started getting terrible migraines…almost every day.

My poor mother started freaking out. She was afraid I had a brain tumor and took me to a neurologist. After several tests, the good doctor finally asked me how much sleep I got. He almost fell over when I said, “8 hours on weekends, and between 2-3 hours on weekdays.” Turns out, that’s NOT a lot of sleep. And was the cause of the mono AND the migraines. Learn from me. GET SLEEP.


So hopefully, you now understand how to spread out your time and energy over the course of the next couple years AND understand how to properly take care of your mind and body so that it can perform for you! Let me know how it goes!