Right now many college-bound students are in the midst of taking the SAT, ACT and other standardized “college prep” tests. As their tutor, over the past weeks and months you’ve done all you can to help them prepare.

Now it’s up to them. With “the big test” just days away there’s not much more you can do to improve their performance.

Or is there?

Performing well on the day of the test can be almost as important as preparing well in advance for helping students achieve their maximum score. Many students perform significantly better on practice tests than in actual testing situations.

Recently the Learning Analytics blog featured 5 Clever SAT Preparation Videos. Echoing this theme, here are five common-sense tips you can give your students to help them maximize their standardized test scores and perform as well on test day as they have in practice.

Tip #1: Compete against yourself – not against the world

These first three tips come from YouTube videos featuring ePrep’s Karl Schellscheidt. The video “Living up to Your Potential” seems especially relevant for those about to take a college prep test. The key message here is simply that students will perform better (and be happier in their lives overall) if they avoid comparing themselves with others, and instead compete only with themselves.

If we compare ourselves to others we inevitably lose. There’s always somebody smarter, faster or cooler out there. By focusing on what’s right for us and what we’re capable of doing, we can avoid undermining ourselves and maximize our potential on standardized tests.

Tip #2: Don’t go on “autopilot” during the test

There’s more good eve-of-the-exam advice from ePrep in the video Autopilot – Don’t Set a Course for a Lower SAT Score. The “autopilot” problem is most likely to plague well-prepared, confident students. Because they’re cruising through the exam, they may not be alert for subtly tricky questions. It’s important to pay close attention when reading each question, even when you think you know the answer.

Remind your students to stay off autopilot. Encourage them to remain alert and read and answer each question carefully before proceeding to the next one.

Tip #3: Avoid making mistakes when filling out the answer key

The ePrep video “Bubbling: Avoid Mistakes in Your Answer Key” alerts test-takers to the trap of working out the correct answer to a test question – and then inexplicably filling in the wrong “bubble” on the answer key.

This kind of careless error is among the most frustrating ways to lose points on an important test. If you’ve been doing practice tests with your students, you probably know which kids are prone to making this kind of mistake.

To help test-takers avoid mis-recording their answers, ePrep’s Karl Schellscheidt suggests beginning the test by working through a page of questions in the test booklet, and then moving to the answer key and “bubbling in” those answers. Then move to the next page in the test booklet, answer all the questions on that page, then bubble in those answers, and so on.

To avoid running out of time before you’ve recorded your answers, it’s best to use this approach only to get a rhythm going at the start of the test or the start of a test section.

Tip #4: Eat for success

Taking a grueling SAT, ACT, PSAT, SSAT or other standardized test is like running a mental marathon. Eating right on test day is important because the human brain needs a steady supply of energy to function at its best.

Encourage test-takers to eat a decent breakfast on test day even if they’re not very hungry due to anxiety. Choosing appropriate snacks to eat during breaks is also important. Hunger is distracting, as well as a sign that the brain is running on empty and mental stamina is low.

Everyone’s body is different so one food does not fit all. It’s helpful if students can experiment before and during practice tests and at other times to identify what kinds of food help them stay alert. Here are some basic suggestions:

  • Most people function best mentally when they eat a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein. Too much fat can cause drowsiness because it takes more physical energy to digest.
  • Likewise, too much sugar or sugary snacks often cause a “sugar spike” – you feel ungrounded and spacey followed by a crash and low alertness.
  • Healthy snacks like trail mix or fruits with a low glycemic index are a good general recommendation.
  • Remind kids not to drink too much caffeine – especially if they’re not used to it. Likewise, energy drinks tend to hype you up and can reduce concentration and increase fidgeting.

Tip #5: Make practice tests feel like the real thing

Golf coaches are known to advise their performance-oriented clients to “play every shot like it’s the most important shot of your life” – even in practice sessions. In this way you can get used to the pressure, and your performance on the course will be as good as your performance in practice.

This strategy is applicable to standardized testing also. While it’s certainly appropriate to encourage students to relax during testing, it can also be beneficial to simulate the anticipation and excitement of actual test environments during practice.

Suggesting that students visualize the exam environment, as well as simulating exam pressure by timing tasks, are some ways to do this. Likewise, you can simulate unexpected exam distractions like the sound of typing and writing or sounds of traffic.

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