SAT and ACT Mental Strategies

In general, there are two mental traps you can fall into with the SAT and ACT. One is to think too much, and other is to think too little. I call these “Overthinking” and “Underthinking.” One major cause of both problems is ANXIETY. When anxiety arises, some students find their brains spinning out of control, which causes them to OVERTHINK certain problems. For other students, anxiety makes them rush frantically through the test, which causes them to UNDERTHINK some problems. In many cases, students experience BOTH PROBLEMS as they waste time overthinking a handful of problems early on, and then rush to finish the test, underthinking on the rest of the questions. The worst of both worlds! Is there any cure for these twin maladies? The short answer is YES. You can easily sidestep these two traps by staying in the middle between these extremes. In order do this, remember the simple sentence: Stay Relaxed But Alert!

Another word for "Alertness" is AWARENESS, which is very different from THINKING. Awareness means having a simple clear perception of reality, whereas thinking means actively moving from point to point in your mind. In many cases of daily life, we overthink to the point that we lose awareness of our surroundings. For example, have you ever found yourself driving home thinking about something obsessively and then arriving at home only to realize you have no memory of the journey? This classic scenario illustrates how overthinking destroys awareness. So how can we overcome overthinking? We do this NOT by repressing our thinking, but by raising our awareness. Cultivating awareness will not only dissolve overthinking and bring us back to reality; it will also dissolve anxiety... especially on high stakes tests such as the SAT or ACT.

Here's a simple exercise to help you cultivate awareness and bring your thinking back into line:

1. Sit upright in your chair with your back straight but relaxed.

2. Close your eyes.

3. Ground your feet and feel the pressure of the floor under them. Focus on the firm secure feeling of your feet on the floor.

4. Take 10 slow deep breaths, keeping your attention on your feet.

5. If another sound, sensation, or thought arises, don't fight it. Simply be aware of it for a second or two. Then release it and return your awareness to the sensation of your feet on the floor.

6. After ten breaths, open your eyes slowly.

7. Take one more deep breath, bringing your attention back to your eyes and the page in front of you. Appreciate how clear and bright everything is.

Given that you are now Relaxed and Alert, pay attention to the words or numbers in front of your nose and don’t think so hard! Do these Ten Breaths + Foot Grounding before EACH section of the SAT (Reading, Writing/Language, Math). In addition, if you start to get anxious during the test, simply stop and take ONE DEEP BREATH while grounding your feet. Over time, this simple practice will become your automatic "reset" button for dissolving anxiety and thinking clearly, calmly, and accurately.

Present Focus

Another corollary to staying relaxed but alert is to keep a Present Focus…as opposed to obsessing on the past or the future. Many students tend to dwell on past failures (“I hated my freshman Math teacher!”) or successes (“I’ve always been brilliant at English!”). In the same way, they obsess over future results and scenarios (“What will my SAT/ACT score be…? Will I get into the college of my choice…? What will my parents think if I bomb the test…?”). These obsessive thought patterns distract you from the present moment, and prevent you from laser-focusing your energy on the SAT/ACT problem right in front if you. So remember, avoid Past Distraction and Future Distraction and keep a strong Present Focus. The grounding and breathing exercise described above will not only make you Relaxed but Alert; it will also bring your awareness back into Present Focus.