30 May 2011

Why it pays to be happy when you take the SAT or the ACT

I understand that for most high school juniors and (especially) seniors, the words “SAT” (or “ACT”) and “happy” have absolutely no business appearing in the same sentence. But please hear me out. I recognize that I’m speaking strictly anecdotally and from limited personal experience, but I seriously think this idea has some merit.

Two quick stories: one of my students who had already taken the SAT twice — and not scored as well as he could have because of serious anxiety — took his third test as a last-ditch effort the day after he was accepted early evaluation (non-binding) to his backup school. He was unbelievably relieved that he had actually managed to get into college somewhere, and when he took the test, he was practically walking on air. With zero studying between that test and the previous one, he went up 130 points.

Another one of my students whose practice-exam scores had been all over the place took the SAT for real the day of a championship soccer game. He was so excited to go play that he didn’t give himself the chance to get nervous about the test — and ended up with his best score ever.

To be sure, my students would not have been able to raise their scores by so many points had they not had the necessary skills to begin with; however, their experiences taught me a major lesson about test psychology. The more stressed out you are about a test going into it, the more likely you’ll start to panic and second-guess yourself, and the less likely you’ll be able to focus and work through things slowly and calmly — which is what prevents you from making the kinds of careless, panicky mistakes that can drag your score down. In retrospect that’s seems obvious, but it’s very easy to get caught up in “omigod I have to improve my score or I’ll never get into xyz college” mentality and lose sight of everything else.


So the day you take the exam, try to plan something fun for afterward. Give yourself something to look forward to so that not everything is about the test. You’ll thank yourself later.

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