Test taking is a skill, and its one you can practice and improve at. A big part of that has to do with your ability to focus, and for many people, your ability to tamp down on those knee bouncing, ear buzzing nerves! Easier said than done, right? But with the right strategies, planning, and a little bit of work ahead of the big test day, taking the ACT doesn’t have to be a traumatizing experience.
Many pre-college educational institutions require or at least encourage students to complete a practice ACT. It familiarizes you with testing style and it accustoms students to the length and overall sensation of sitting for a long formal test like the ACT or SAT. This practice-testing scenario can also be very helpful for dealing with nerves. Anything can begin to feel commonplace if repeated often enough, even the ACT. While it can be difficult to make yourself take more than one practice ACT, if you struggle with nerves this can be the best cure.
Beyond practice and preparation, remember that your thought process and mental acuity is very much tied to how you’re feeling physically. We are quite literally smarter people when we’ve slept, and there’s a good body of research to back this up. Caffeine isn’t a fix for getting a bad night of sleep or staying up late studying the night before. Moreover, if you’re already nervous, it can artificially elevate your heart rate, making you feel shaky and sweaty. Sometimes that’s enough to push you into feeling far more nervous than you truly are.
Getting enough sleep and taking it easy on energy drinks, soda, and coffee, are a good start. In addition, try to make yourself eat breakfast and drink a large glass of water – nerves can sometimes tempt one into skipping that morning meal but having your blood sugar bottom out halfway through a test is only going to adversely affect your focus. Just like running a marathon, you want to be physically fit for the day ahead, and all that buzz about breakfast being the most important meal isn’t a joke. Sitting down and having a quiet moment to yourself the morning of your test can be a good time to get centered and calm instead of running out the door in a rush to get to your testing location on time.
So, say it’s the day of the test. You’ve practiced test-taking strategies, you know what to expect, and you’ve made sure you’re physically fit for the day ahead. But you’re still nervous. This is where contingency planning and perspective come in. First, know your retake options and timeline. It’s very likely that with six test dates a year you’ll be able to retake the ACT at least once, if not more, depending on college application deadlines. That means that while you want to do your best, you can look at each test as a practice test that might end up being your final score if you’re pleased with the results. This takes some of the pressure off, and acts as a reminder that you aren’t stuck with whatever score you get the first, second, or even third time you sit for the ACT (you can take it up to twelve times total).
Now is also a good time to remember that many universities look at far more than your test scores when they consider your application. Yes, test scores matter, but so do grades, extra-curricular activities, personal essays, and life experience. The ACT isn’t going to be the sole numerical value that will determine your opportunities – it’s just one of many different factors that will be taken into account.
Finally, take a deep breath! This may sound corny, but try it just the same. I was once told by a fire chief that during every emergency he would make his firefighters participate in a breathing exercise on the ride over. He said he felt it was the best way to calm nerves and bring every man and woman on his team into a place of mental readiness. The ACT is no fire, but it can feel like one if you let it – so don’t forget to breathe! A little extra oxygen to the brain doesn’t hurt either!
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