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A common concern that students have when they take a major test, like the SAT, ACT or GED is being unable to maintain focus.  Here are 15 things that can help you improve your mental focus when you are taking a test.

  1. Get Plenty of Sleep.  If you are cramming for a major memorization test, sacrificing a bit of sleep can make sense.  If you are studying for a major conceptual and problem-solving test, however, adequate sleep is essential.  The SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, GED and most other major standardized tests are conceptual, problem-solving tests.  As such, be certain that you are well-rested for test day.  If you are thinking about staying up late to study the night before the SAT or ACT, please don’t! Get a good night’s sleep instead.
  2. Caffeine Can Backfire.  Caffeine can be a helpful supplement for students who have attention deficit issues (please talk to your doctor about your personal situation).  Most students, though, find that caffeine can make them jumpy and jittery on test day.  The adrenaline you have pumping through your veins will more than be sufficient to make you alert.  You want to make sure you are not accelerating your thinking to the point where you make lots of careless errors.
  3. Don’t Ask Too Much of Yourself. If you only scored in the 50th percentile on practice tests, do not expect that you will score in the 99th on the actual test!  You will have significant focus issues if you attempt to do more problems than you should or if you try to read faster than what is comfortable.  If you give your mind a reasonable task to do, it will comply.  If you don’t, your mind will shut down and think about other things.
  4. Get Medical Help if Needed.  If you notice that you have quite a bit more difficulty focusing on tests than your friends do, it couldn’t hurt to have a doctor or psychologist evaluate you.  I once had a student who told me that every time he took a test, he struggled to focus.  I suggested that he see a doctor since he had never been evaluated for attention issues.  He was able to get ADHD medicine for his test.  He took the test with his prescription, and did well enough to get into the college of his choice.  It doesn’t hurt to look into this if you never have.  If paying for a medical evaluation is a concern, your school psychologist may be able to do an evaluation free of charge.
  5. Control Where You Take the Test.  Don’t just sign up for any old test-center.  Try to take it at a school or facility where distractions will be kept to a minimum.  If you are distracted by large rooms and lots of noise, take the test at a school with small classrooms.  If you are distracted by having lots of people you know at a test center, sign up to take the test on the other side of town.  In any event, think about where you should do it.  As long as you plan far enough in advance, you should be able to have plenty of control over where you take your test.
  6. Declare a Drama Moratorium Leading Up to the Test.  You don’t need to be as extreme as one of my students was – he broke up with his girlfriend a week before the ACT so she wouldn’t be a distraction to him!  You may want to isolate yourself a bit more leading up to a test so that you don’t have the “drama” that your “friends” may often cause.  Plan on going out for a fun evening with everyone after the test is over!
  7. Practice Without Social Media Distractions.  Nowadays, we are almost like cyborgs in how we are constantly connected to our phones, computers and tablets.  If you are practicing a standardized test with the test in one hand and your phone in the other, you are setting yourself up for failure.  Get used to practicing without having the constant interaction of social media so that you don’t experience internet deprivation when you are stuck taking a test for five hours.
  8. Have a Snack During Breaks.  This is one of the easiest yet most helpful things you can do to stay focused during tests.  Almost every major test will give you some sort of a break.  Use this time to get your blood sugar up to where it should be by having a healthy snack:  almonds, banana, jerky etc. Stay away from processed carbs and sugars though as they can make you sleepy!
  9. Wear Earplugs. I have never come across anything saying you can’t use earplugs during major tests.  If you are distracted by the smallest of noises, go ahead and bring earplugs (they only cost a few dollars) and tune out your fellow test-takers.   Just be sure that you are aware of when the test proctor is calling time so that you aren’t ejected from the testing site for continuing work when you shouldn’t.
  10. Eat Peppermint When Studying and When Test-Taking.  I have heard and read from various sources that eating peppermint while you study and then having peppermint while taking memorization-based tests can help you remember things because you are connecting key concepts to your primitive sense of smell.  I have not tried this personally, but I have had students do this and say that it is helpful.  If nothing else, it will have a placebo effect, giving you more confidence in your ability to remember things.
  11. Do Relaxation and Hypnosis Exercises.    Athletes do mental conditioning.  Musical and dramatic performers do too.  Performing well on a standardized test is a major undertaking – why not do some relaxation or hypnosis exercises to help you focus?  If your situation is really bad, you may even consider hiring a professional hypnotist to help you learn to subconsciously tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand while taking a test.  If your lack of focus is more mild, you can do any number of relaxation exercises available in books or online to help you channel your energy when test-taking.
  12. Get Test Anxiety Under Control if Needed.  If you are always distracted by serious worries about your performance when taking a test, address these concerns ahead of time by thinking through how you will handle your test anxiety.  Having a plan in place will actually help to reduce anxiety!
  13. Get Motivated if Needed.  If you are distracted when test-taking because you just don’t care, find motivation.  The best way to do this is to talk to your parents, teachers, or older friends who can tell you why doing well on the test is indeed very important. I can assure you that their advice will ring true for you.
  14. Accept That There is Nothing Else You Can Do During Test Time.  When I go on an airplane ride, I accept that I will not be able to call anyone or use the internet.  I embrace this quiet time and spend it reading or talking with family members.  Use the same mindset when you take a major test.  Let go of any of the other things that could be bugging you during this time because there is absolutely nothing you can do about them during the test.  Given the ever-present media distractions we face, taking a standardized test can be, in a way, a bit liberating!  (I know that’s a stretch, but some of you may be able to look at it that way. . . )
  15. Your Mental Endurance.  If you are about to run a marathon and you haven’t even gone for a run around your neighborhood, you will completely fall apart.  Similarly, if you are going to take a 4 or 5 hour test, it is unlikely that you will be able to focus for this long if you have done nothing to build your test-taking stamina.  If you know you have issues with mental focus, be sure to do some full-length tests leading up to the actual thing.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart