12 Intelligent Testing Tips: Achieve Optimal Performance in Exams
More often than not on midterms and finals in my three years at an Ivy League school, I have set the curve. I received a 35 on the ACT and over 2300 on the SAT. Though I have certainly been lucky in my innate abilities, I also know many people who are smarter, harder working, or both than I am who do not perform nearly as well as I do. The following is my guidance on how I take tests, and I firmly believe that my approach is what allows me to do so well, so consistently in a variety of subjects.
Why Use Test Taking Approaches
There are lots of obvious things that must be present for a student to do well on a test. Understanding of the material, preparedness, and so on. But when test day comes around, the only thing that determines your score, is how well you do on the exam. It seems obvious, but grasping and capitalizing on this concept can help you score highly on exams, and even do surprisingly well on exams even when you probably should not have. On the other hand, failing to adequately mentally prepare on test day can lead to performance below your preparation levels. This approach to tests has led me to achieve great results, and I guarantee that those who are serious about adopting it will be glad they did.
For us students, we do not have games. We have exams. Though taking a test and taking the field for a soccer game is of course not a direct analogy, I am emphasizing the very important principle that does apply to both: hard work prepares you, but when the moment comes your state and mentality play a huge part in how you perform. As a student, approaching tests with intelligent test preparation and test taking techniques will help you vastly improve your scores without even increasing your studying.
Test Day Tips
Here are the ways that I do this, before the test and during. Each helps you to test well and puts you in the optimal mindset for the challenge. Furthermore, just knowing that you took steps that others did not on test day gives you confidence that you have a leg up.
Before the Test
1. No studying an hour before. I won’t preach to you about how cramming is bad. But in the very last hour before the exam, you will get more out of taking the steps below to prepare your mind and body for the test. Studying right before the test creates too frantic of an atmosphere, not conducive to the nervous but confident approach you want.
2. 15 Minute Nap. A short nap acts as a way to reset your brain. Studies have found there to be a boost in cognitive function, memory, and focus after napping. And believe or not, you can actually get a significant energy boost just from a 15 minute nap. I never miss my nap before an exam.
3. Exercise. Dr. John Ratey of Harvard medical school is one of many researchers to find that for several hours after exercise, one’s mental focus is enhanced. Since I was in high school, I have always gone for a short run before exams. I highly recommend this step. Exercising on test day clears you of stress and gets blood flowing to your brain.
4. Cold shower for a couple minutes. Nothing says intensity like a cold shower. Cold showers give you a shot of adrenaline that yanks you awake and makes you fully alert. They also increase circulation, helping more blood flow to your brain in the same way exercise does.
5. Look good, do good (though don’t bring this kind of grammar to your test). "Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state." So says Adam D. Galinsky, professor at Northwestern University, who found that just wearing lab coats belonging to doctors increased focus and improved test scores for college students. I’m not saying put on a suit and tie for the exam. But I always try to wear some of my favorite clothes. Scientific backing for it aside, you also just feel good about yourself as you walk to the test.
6. Supplements. There are supplements you can take to ensure your brain has the necessary nutrients to function optimally, and safe supplements that can give a short term boost in sharpness, recollection, and problem solving. The first type, like Omega-3, I take every day, and I always take the second type, usually Clarity by Neovicta, on test days. There is an article here on the site on how important supplements can be to cognitive function here that I recommend reading. We also have a whole page of great recommendations here on the Supplements Page.
7. Caffeine. In addition to the supplements above, incorporating caffeine into what you eat and drink before an exam has huge benefits. Caffeine is not only a strong stimulant, but you can read here on the Harvard Medical School website about how it blocks certain chemicals and promotes others in ways that boost mental performance. Studies consistently find that people who consume caffeine before mental tasks perform better, and you should absolutely take advantage of this. I have my own single serve coffee machine in my dorm so I can get cheap coffee and drink as much as I want (I got a super cheap one here that works as well as a fancy Keurig), and I also take caffeine pills when I am going into a very long exam.
During the Test
1. Take a Break and Reset When Needed. If you are starting to lose focus or get stuck, go splash cold water on your face, pace a bit in the hallway, then come back recharged. It can be tough to do this when you are cramped for time, but if you are going slower than you could be then you will more than make up for the couple minutes you spend resetting in the increased focus you’ll see.
2. Use a nice pen or pencil. I guarantee you will feel more sharp and confident when your writing is crisp. Furthermore, nicer pens allow for faster and cleaner writing, helping you avoid running out of time or overly messy work. I always use Pilot Gel Roller Pens, but if you prefer pencils make sure to bring lots of sharp ones.
3. Skip and Come Back to Difficult Ones. I do not necessarily always do the easiest first and then work my way up, but I certainly do always make sure I have confidence and momentum built up before tackling a question I know is difficult. If I reach such a question but am not feeling on a roll, I will usually save it for later.
4. Use All of the Time. You will never see me leaving an exam early, no matter how long before the end I finish. Before going into an exam, you allocated the full scheduled time to take the exam. Use it. Check your answers as thoroughly as possible. If you have lots of time, take a long break and reset. Then look over your answers with fresh eyes.
Treat test day like a game day. Don’t stress yourself out about it, but make the test important. Incorporating the suggestions above will help to do this, but just also approaching it like you would expect an athlete to approach a game will help you perform better. You can be nervous. Things could go wrong, sure. But you should feel some excitement too. Things could go well. You have a chance to show yourself, your professor, and whoever that you know the material. Do not dread the exam. It may be hard to view an upcoming exam as “exciting” at first, but this is a situation where it pays to fake it till you make it. Just pretending you are excited will make studying and incorporating smart techniques easier, and eventually I guarantee you will be genuinely excited if you stick with it. And this is what will lead you to becoming a great test taker.
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