Zen and the Art of Test Prep

Imagine this: you’ve spent the greater part of your junior year prepping for the SAT or ACT. In addition to your honors- and AP-filled course load, and your leadership positions in your extracurriculars and passion projects, you’ve also invested your time (and parents’ money!) in weekly tutoring sessions and SAT or ACT-geared homework.

You’ve reviewed your Math Etiquette, Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2, buffed up on your grammar acumen, learned to pace the Reading and Science sections, possibly drilled Evidence or Vocab in Context questions—heck, even learned to write an essay about 3 opposing viewpoints that you’ll never need in real life.

You slowly put all of these disparate pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, took practice tests, then took mock tests, and finally on test day…you bombed.

Perhaps you were taking the ACT. Everything was going as planned until you opened up the Reading section and COULD NOT for the life of you comprehend the double passage about Native American totem poles and their significance—at least, it seemed like that’s what it was about. This Social Science passage took more than your allotted 8:45 and you had to guess on the last 5 questions of the section. Your confidence blown, you entered the Science section with a state of panic (forgot to do Page Turn Zen to calm down?) and couldn’t stay focused here, either. Your mind half here, half there, you practically gave up towards the end, guessing on several questions in this section as well.

Or perhaps you were taking the SAT. You had an awful feeling in your gut—your breakfast, for whatever reason (nerves? undetected food allergy?), needed to free itself from your body. You left in the middle of the No-Calculator Math section, raced to the bathroom, and spent 10 minutes there. There goes your section! And unfortunately, there goes your Math score.

While both of these seem like test nightmares—and they are—catastrophes, alas, do sometimes happen. Grandparents pass away the night before the test (true story, unfortunately). Gallstones start to “pass through” in the middle of the ACT Science section (this actually happened to one of my students—poor thing!). You wake up with the flu.

Or, you’re fine, but you just get a “bad test”—you get a Reading or Science or Writing section that just doesn’t click for you. One single passage ruins the whole thing for you, and your low score in the section gets averaged with your other amazing scores…leaving you with the exact same composite score as last time. (Boo, hiss.)

In short, despite the absolute best efforts and intentions, sometimes stuff happens.

While the thought of a random curveball is enough to make some students say, “Then what’s the point, anyway?” and throw in the towel, YOU, my friend, are NOT like those students. You understand two important things that they do not:

1) Though there are some things you just can’t control on Test Day, there are PLENTY of things you can.

You can control how much effort you put in. If you know the test inside out and get a curveball thrown to you, imagine how much worse it would have been if you DIDN’T know the concepts and THEN had an emergency? Make sure you’ve fully prepared.

You can control (most of) your well-being and mindset. Did you get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast? Did you leave yourself enough time to shower, do a warm-up question set, and get to the testing center with plenty of time to spare, or were you scrambling and racing (and putting yourself into a crappy headspace as a result)? Did you strike a Power Pose? Did you indulge thoughts of doomsday and “what’s the point?” or optimistic thoughts like “I can do this! I’ve learned everything I need to know for this test”? A good mindset goes a very long way, even under bad conditions.

2) Bombing one test is NOT the end of the world.

Not only do both the ACT and the SAT allow for Score Choice (meaning you get to pick which test sitting to send colleges, so they never see that one crappy score you got), but there are many, many colleges that even Super Score—meaning they consider your highest test sections as your composite score, even if you earned them on different test dates.

These days, most students take the SAT or ACT two or three times. Because we factor that into your Testing Timeline, you’re allowed to have a gallstone one of those dates. 

But wait! What if I have an emergency EVERY SINGLE TIME I take the test?

I actually had one student like this: it was one medical emergency after the other for her. In the end, she still improved several ACT points, because no medical emergency could undo the amazing work she had put in throughout the year. And with Super Scoring, she got her 32. While she had the capability of easily attaining a 34—and had done so in several mock tests—that was just not in the cards with her physical health. In the end, she still locked in about 70% of the gains she had made—which we were all quite proud of.

If this is you, remember that you did the very best you could, given the circumstances. That’s all you CAN do, anyway, right? Emergencies of this type strike very, very rarely—but learning stress management and perspective are forever!