The first step to your best test scores is, through deliberate practice and expert coaching, to prove once that you are capable of earning your target score. The next step is to prove that you can keep earning that score.
High stakes testing has much more to do with sports than with school when it comes to doing your best when it counts. While one coach has been credited with saying, “That’s why we play the game to see who’ll win,” everyone who has ever competed knows well that being favored to win means nothing once the whistle blows and every player strives to win.
Just like athletes, many test takers experience dramatic swings in performance from test to test. Since inconsistency stems from a variety of underlying problems, focus on fixing every aspect of your practice to unlock your best every time the moment matters:
1. Use real test material under real testing conditions.
Working with bad tests one section at a time at midnight tells you very little about how you’ll score on test day. Commit to simulating official test conditions as closely as possible, including start time, environment, and breaks. If you are prepping for college admissions, that means working with the most current editions of The Official ACT Prep Guide or The Official SAT Study Guide.
2. Pay attention to little things that mean a lot.
Peak performance often depends on access to the resources and supports we require to do our best. Consider, for example, how well the average test taker would score in ACT Math without a calculator. Make sure you collect everything you need on test day–from what you’ll eat to what you’ll work with to what you’ll wear–and use every bit of it during practice.
3. Manage your body and mind.
Before critical games, competitors focus relentlessly on resting, relaxing, and getting mentally ready for the challenge ahead. Why would you expect to do any less before chancy and consequential exams? Focus on getting enough sleep the full week before each important practice test. More important, manage your anxiety so that you are sufficiently excited to compete but not so nervous that you crumble.
Another quote coaches like to share is, “You play like you practice.” Focus on perfect practice for consistently perfect performance when it counts.