So you’ve been studying for the SAT for what feels now like your whole life… You are now officially in the home stretch, and you’re ready for it to be over – and believe me, I’m ready for it to be over for you. But this also happens to be the week in which I get the most questions about strategy: what, exactly, should you be doing in those final days? The answers are in ways very similar – and in other ways very dissimilar – to what you’ve been doing so far. Below is my list of top dos and don’ts in those final hours. You might notice, here, a general shift in focus from mind to body – on the actual physical/physiological event of testing day. Of course, you’ve hopefully been taking care of your body this whole time – getting up from the desk and taking walks or runs between study sessions, for one. But after all that mental exertion, the last thing you need is for your body to rebel on you at the last minute. And paying attention to your body is one of the best ways – always, but especially in that last week – to maximize your score.
1) Cram. (Forgive me for starting with the obvious one). At a certain point in time you’re simply going to max out. You’re human, after all. And as the countdown goes from weeks to days to hours, you’ll find studying under stress is less studying than it is… well, just stressing. Which, as surely you know, is more a hindrance than it is a help to any experience. Save yourself some anxiety and recognize that there are actual physical limitations to your study schedule: a human being simply cannot sit at a desk for sixteen consecutive hours. Nor can we absorb that kind of sustained information input. So play your favorite cooking soundtrack and make yourself some dinner. Then sit down and review some math for 45 minutes. Then take a walk around the block. Then repeat.
2) Make any major changes in your life. I mean this. Don’t go on a crash diet. Don’t decide to tell your boy/girlfriend, the night before the big day, that maybe you two aren’t right for each other after all. Any additional physiological or emotional baggage you’re carrying around with you that day is really going to weigh heavily, even if you don’t think you’re feeling it. This also goes for exam day itself: don’t change your morning routine. If you’ve always eaten oatmeal for breakfast, don’t decide you deserve to have steak and eggs (although of course you do deserve it!). If you tend to wake up at seven, don’t get up at four to study more vocabulary (refer back to #1 if need be). Our bodies tend to get thrown off by these changes – this is why habits are so hard to break (and often take years to form). So do your usual. Your body will thank you.
3) Eat and run. You know that feeling after a monumental Thanksgiving meal when all you want to do is crawl into the nearest hollow and fall into a coma for three consecutive days? That’s not just the tryptophan talking (don’t worry, ‘tryptophan’ is not a word you’ll need to know for the SAT). Digestion is an interesting process, in that it actually causes the blood in your body to divert to your digestive system – after all, blood is what absorbs the nutrients your system breaks down and carries them back to other parts of your body. What this means is that, for a period of time after you eat, your blood is not circulating the way it normally would because it’s busy hanging out near your intestines. This is why you might experience ‘the chills’ after a meal (and believe me, you don’t want to be shivering your way through the exam). But what this also means is that, after a meal, blood is not circulating to your brain the way it generally does. And blood circulating to your brain is what helps your brain to function (you’re catching my drift here, right?). Suggestion: allow yourself ample time to eat breakfast and to digest it before the exam (at least an hour). I know this can be tough, especially as most of these exams are scheduled for the early morning. Perhaps make breakfast the very first thing you do that morning – before you shower, pack your bags, and thank your brother on your way out the door for making it for you. Just don’t eat in the car on the way to the testing site. You’ll be too busy hearing your stomach digest breakfast to focus on the exam in front of you.
4) Have much else going on that day. A little celebration in the evening, of course, is expected – in fact I highly recommend it. But don’t schedule your exam on a day you’ve also got a wedding to attend later in the afternoon. Whether you’ll have time to pick up your tux at the tailor’s might become more important during the exam than concentrating on determining the circumference of that circle. In any case, you’re likely to be a little sleepless (no matter how many suggestions you’ve received that you rest before the exam!) and want a little congratulatory down-time afterwards. Which leads me to:
1) Congratulate yourself. (This is an obvious thing to do after the exam, but I’d like to suggest you do it beforehand too. It’s good for the soul). Keep in mind that this whole experience is really a process, and that each time you learn something new (the difference between effect and affect, how to parse a word problem) you have every right to high-five yourself. Allowing yourself the space and time to pat yourself on the back is really akin to gifting yourself – and it is an act that also functions as a great confidence-infusion. Remember, too, that even when it feels like the information you are studying in preparation for the SAT is irrelevant to your regular life – and admittedly in many ways it is – there are many other ways in which the labor of SAT preparation is advantageous: in instilling a strong work ethic, for one (and I’m sure, having been through it all these weeks and months, you are even more aware of the others than I am).
2) Choose your battles. It’s probably not news to you by now that there is no final trick that you will be able to pull out of your sleeve in the days before the exam. This is likely to be the time to start attending to the little glitches you’ve hit along the way – ironing out the creases, if you will. If you’ve really struggled with timing on the critical reading section, for example, spend some time these last few days securing your strategy (I’m talking small shifts here, not an overhaul): these would be the moments to really determine if you have time to skim the questions before you begin on the reading, for example. Now would also be the time, by the way, for a little battle with your calculator – make sure you’ve got fresh batteries!
3) If your exam is scheduled to take place at a testing site you are not familiar with, take the drive there ahead of time. Going a few days before the exam will significantly lower your chances of arriving late on test day because you simply couldn’t locate the site. If it’s nearby, you might even consider taking the drive a few days in a row. We are creatures of habit, after all, and passing through the same intersections on exam day that you’ve been passing through all week might be a good way to alleviate those jitters. And of course, plan to get there early. Not only will this prevent you from keeping your eye on the clock instead of on the road on exam morning, it will simply give you the time to get comfortable inside the testing site – to acclimate to the room temperature, to make sure your chair feels comfortable, and so on.
4) Use the test breaks to your advantage. I know how easy it is to get “in the mode;” sometimes your instinct is to stay in your chair, and sometimes that feels like the best preparation for the next section. But one of the best ways to maximize your test score during the test is simply to step away from it for a minute. Have a small snack. Breathe. Stretch. I would even suggest a walk around the room, as this will serve to increase your blood circulation (see #3 in the “don’t” section). And remember those self-high-fives. With each section you complete, you’re that much closer to being done.