The Psychology of Test-Taking
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By Rajiv Venkataramana, Veritas SAT Instructor, Emeritus

We’re not going to talk about vocabulary building, sentence corrections, essay writing, ratios, deviations, or the exponents just yet. Let’s step back for a minute: put down your pencil, close the test booklet, and turn over the answer sheet. Slouch back in your seat, sip on your Poland Spring, and just relax.

We are going to begin by thoroughly analyzing the psychology of test-taking. I can assure you that any other test taking service, company, or tutor will not take time to discuss and understand the psychology of test-taking. Why not? The reason is most probably that it is not something that can be expressed in formulas, processes of elimination, or grammatical rules. If a tutor spends enough time on cramming obscure words- like ennui and necromancy- into his student’s brain, he knows that he has a fairly high chance of seeing some concrete results.

Although the psychology of test-taking may seem “fluffy,” it is a quintessential factor in determining who will be a great test taker. All of you reading this know one person like this: He does not necessarily study a lot. He doesn’t know the most vocabulary, and definitely does not know the most Calculus formulas. However, he coolly walks into any standardized test and destroys it!

“How the #!CK did he do that?!?!!?” you probably ask yourself every time he gets his scores. Well, why don’t we attempt to get inside his mind, decipher his mental routine, and figure out what he is thinking- and not thinking- before and during the test? This will help us to understand what it means to be a test-taking beast.

WARNING: Be prepared for some seemingly weird, seemingly irrelevant advice. Bear with it and give it one good read. If you think its crap, then forget about it; if you think it’s valuable, use it as a supplement to everything else you have learned about test taking.

SECTION 1: You should practice for the test, not for sections of the test

A very common practice of many students is to take a few sections in a test like the SAT’s everyday. They do this starting a few weeks before the test, and do so until the day of the test. By taking a few practice sections everyday, they believe that they are significantly improving their test-taking ability.

This is where they are mistaken. Taking a few sections a day can never hurt, but without taking at least 2 or 3 FULL tests, without breaks, you are not properly preparing the test. You must remember that these standardized tests are loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggg……

Half the battle is being mentally prepared to sit in one place for three or four hours and staying focused and alert. By taking a few short sections everyday, you may increase your vocabulary by a few words. But you are NOT increasing your test-taking stamina.

How we suggest you practice for a test:

  • Four or five weeks before the test, begin to develop a serious plan for daily studying. Obviously, you should have been preparing before this time period as well. But these last weeks are the home stretch during which a more focused, disciplined schedule should be followed for test preparation.
  • Figure out which are your weakest sections. Take one section- writing, for example- and do two or three practice sections a day. The point is to think for extended periods of time about one subject. Taking one math, one writing, and one reading section every few days is not going to train your mind to think rigorously and persistently enough about each type of section. Just as an example: do 2-3 writing sections on Monday, 2-3 math sections on Wednesday, and 2-3 verbal sections on Friday.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: Set aside one day a week- four or five weeks before the test- during which you will take a full test as if you are taking it for real. Sit down with a bottle of water, a granola bar, and a bit of patience. Lock your door and turn of your damn cell phone! Seriously, though, just get through at least one full test a week. Why is this important? Just the prospect of sitting in one place for four hours freaks some people out. Now add to that thinking logically, analytically, and creatively for those four hours; this is a daunting task. By taking full tests, you basically acclimate your mind and body to sitting in one place and thinking sharply for long periods of time. If you have this experience around four or five times before the actual test, you will not squirm around in your chair, pay attention to a random spider climbing your desk, or space out in the middle of a ridiculously boring passage about protective aprons of blacksmiths in 1723 or something.

SECTION 2: Putting the Test in Perspective (it’s just a packet of ink and paper)

Students often stress over standardized tests. Yes, they are an important factor for college applications. Yes, you should be concerned with doing well on them. But the energy you expend on the test should not be in the form of stress, anxiety, or worry. Rather, your energy should be channeled towards positive, proactive activity.
Remember that monster of a test-taker we were talking about before? I bet you ten bucks that he does not concern himself with or stress over the implications of doing badly on the test- he concentrates on the test itself. This is the thought process of many high school students (often while taking the test): “Oh My God…I just f*#ked up that section…i have to bounce back…if I get below a 2000, I won’t be able to get into Georgetown…and damn, if that happens, then I can’t go to law school at Harvard…then my chances for the governorship of New York are finished…And then what??!? How will ever become president!??!!?!? AAAAHHH!!!”
Chill. Thinking about everything that the test could determine or affect prevents you from thinking about the test itself. Look at an SAT test, for example. What is the SAT? How would you describe it? Don’t say an important factor in college admissions or a major milestone of a high school student’s life. Pretend that the only thing that existed in the universe was the test. What would you say about it?

It is a thin packet of ink and paper.

Now some might say that this exercise is pointless, because standardized tests don’t exist in a vacuum, and are obviously not the only objects in the universe. But our point is this: looking at the test in such a light allows you to size it up, to increase your own confidence. Are you really going to be mentally defeated by a packet of paper? Are you really going to let some ink on paper write the story of your future? Remember, the test can’t think- you can. Each question will remain the same every time you look at it; your reasoning can change and attack each question from different angles each time you glance at it.

Try this method sometime. This may seem silly, but you’ll be blown away by how effective this can be:
Before flipping over that first page, before exercising that first brain cell, just chill. Breathe deeply and think about the here and now. Pretend that there is nothing in this universe- no college, no careers, no nagging parents, no obnoxiously competitive peers- except you and the test. Now that nothing exists, nothing can get in the way of your reason, logic, and creativity. Let these forces flow, undiluted by anxiety and stress, at the test. You’ll be shocked at what you can do.

SECTION 3: Divide and Conquer (you can lose battles and still win a war)

Think about this for a second: When a general is leading his troops into battle, is it right for him to worry about and be bogged down a previous lost battle? No. He must be courageous, strong, and firm if he expects his troops to have any morale for the next skirmish.

This applies, strangely enough, for standardized tests as well. You must employ a strategy we have entitled: “divide and conquer.” This is one of the hardest aspects of the psychology of test taking, but if understood properly and employed effectively, can make or break your test taking experience.
Often, you will have one section that obliterates you. You feel like closing the book and walking out of the room because you did so badly on the section. At this critical point, you must divide and conquer. Each standardized test is not simply one entity: it is made up of many different sections that have no bearing upon each other. Get through that really horrible section, turn the page, and begin the next section as if you’re starting a new test or entering a different battle. Don’t think to yourself: “Oh, because I missed 6 questions in the last section, I have to get every question in this section right.” All this thought process does is put more stress on the section you are working on, increasing the chances that you screw it up as well; the process has a snowballing effect. You must remember that the last section affects the present section only to the extent that you let it do so. Seriously attempt to shut out any thoughts that encourage you to think about each section in relation to one another. Just focus on the here and now.

This one mistake- thinking you have lost the war just because one small skirmish was lost- has caused major casualties for even the smartest high school students. The concept of divide and conquer is very difficult to employ, especially when you are most nervous and are making the most irrational extrapolations. But actively think about the concept, and try to incorporate it into your test taking routine. We assure you doing this alone can save many points on standardized tests.

SECTION 4: Never go Alone (flash cards don’t count as friends)

If you carry hundreds of flash cards with you the morning of the test, studying vocabulary until the proctor tells you to start, listen up.

If you wake up on Saturday morning in a somber mood, thinking that you are going to meet your Maker, listen up.

If you wake up and feel like you’re going to be attending your own funeral, listen up.

Stop. Don’t put yourself through any type of anguish or stress- especially not on the morning of the test. The worst thing you could do- other than to oversleep and miss the test- is to be a nervous wreck on the day of the test. So how exactly do you “stop?”

A few important suggestions:

  • Never go to the test alone. It is always much better to carpool with a few buddies, stop to get breakfast somewhere, and head to the test together. When you are with your friends, you will probably joke around and find comfort in their company; you are much less likely to stress about the test. You will be surprised how therapeutic it is to arrive at a test with friends. Furthermore, you will be blown away how beneficial this can actually be for the actual test. Going in with a clear and relaxed state of mind can make the difference between achieving your maximum potential and falling below that.
  • Flash cards do not count as friends. One of the worst things- we believe- that a student can do is to try and cram right before a standardized test. A standardized test is very different from a biology or a history test. In the latter cases, the tests are testing particular information that you have studied and memorized. On the contrary, standardized tests are testing your reason and your logic. You simply can not cram logic and reason into your head ten minutes before the test. What you can do is prevent logic and reason from being impeded. How? Don’t bring flash cards, and don’t attempt to study anything the morning of the test! By reviewing flash cards, you may divert too much energy and thought into retaining random information, which may decrease the strength of your ability to reason. And a large majority of standardized tests do not emphasize the retention of particular subject material. They rather emphasize the students’ ability to decipher, decode, and deduce any subject material.

« Back to Tips and ArticlesBy The Veritas Team | Mar 16, 2009