How Habit-Forming Routines Can Train Your ACT, SAT Test-Taking Brain

To do well on the ACT or SAT, you must know the content and format of the exam. It can also boost your performance to apply test- and section-specific strategies.

However, the ingredients for successful test prep do not end there. In addition to acquiring knowledge, students should work on enhancing three cognitive functions that are indispensable yet often overlooked in the test prep process — endurance, resilience and focus.

Luckily, these areas can be strengthened through simple daily regimens. Even better news: The exercises do not require test prep books!

Here are some outside-the-box routines to get yourself ready for the length and rigor of college admissions exams:

Training for Endurance

Both the ACT and the SAT last roughly three hours, so they certainly put a person’s mental stamina to the test. Those who are unaccustomed to taking lengthy, high-pressure exams tend to run out of steam before reaching the finish line of either assessment. They may even report feeling tired and overwhelmed around the halfway mark.

[READ: 3 Ways to Strengthen Your ACT, SAT Time Management Skills.]

There is good reason that instructors compare taking these tests to running a marathon. But what if there was more to this metaphor? Would you believe that the ACT and SAT can be prepared for through the same outlet — exercise?

A 2010 publication developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sources for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health noted, “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.”

Even 30 minutes of exercise per day is enough to boost short-term memory, a key skill for reading comprehension in particular. Exercise can also lead to increased energy levels, which is of obvious importance when working through long exams.

To galvanize your academic performance, do some light exercise of your liking — perhaps running or walking — before your test prep sessions.

Training for Resilience

Our emotions are always at play, and important exams like the ACT and SAT are sometimes known to worsen negative ones. Knowing that a test score may determine whether you receive a scholarship or an admissions offer to a top-choice college is enough to send anyone into a state of worry.

[Find 5 ways to reduce anxiety on test day.]

To reroute counterproductive thought patterns, especially those involving fear and worry, students can engage in therapeutic storytelling. Therapeutic storytelling can take many different forms, but high schoolers can try one or both of these approaches:

— Write down an uncomfortable situation you have lived through, but create a completely new and positive ending for it.

— Write down an uncomfortable situation you have lived through and the good that came out of it — for instance, a lesson you learned or a friend you made.

As one writer told The Resilience Project — an Oregon-based initiative that helps people turn personal experiences into stories of strength — therapeutic storytelling has been a means for battling insecurities, anxiety and depression and “has totally changed my world view and opened up sunlight where there was none to be had.”

Training for Focus

Smartphones are wonderful tools that can help us do just about anything. However, when your goal is to improve your focus, smartphones can be your biggest enemy.

[Read: College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies.]

According to a 2019 study by Asurion, a global tech care company, Americans are in the habit of checking their phones once every 10 minutes on average, or approximately 96 times a day. And contrary to popular belief, people are terrible multitaskers. Science says you simply cannot fully concentrate on a task if you are simultaneously wondering whether you have new emails, texts or social media notifications.

To sharpen your focus, shy away from technology for a few hours a day and rely on your own mental resources. For instance, instead of pulling up your calculator app, compute taxes and tips in your head. Allow yourself to think of a synonym rather than going to right away. Try giving someone directions without looking at Google Maps.

Also, ensure you put your phone away during your test prep sessions. If you need to time yourself on an activity, use a traditional timer or the one built into your stove or microwave oven.

At first, the temptation to constantly grab your phone may be strong, but you will eventually get used to unplugging and perhaps even come to welcome it. In addition, you may be surprised at how much you can do without the help of a machine.

More from U.S. News

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