But it isn’t.
If you’ve been practicing the right way, you’ve been using official practice tests and you’ve analyzed them… a lot. The GRE, ACT, and SAT are standardized. They're gonna test the same things 99% of the time and use the same tricks.
The trouble is, taking a test for real feels scarier. After all, the score counts! When we’re scared, we something do things that aren’t effective (or that are straight-up dumb).
Before my students take a real test, I find myself repeating certain pieces of advice I’ve come up with over the years. Here are my five favorites, along with why I say them.
It can be hard to remember even one thing to do per section, let alone more than one. Pick one thing to execute for each part of the test.
For example, before the test, you might say to yourself, “for each reading question, I will make sure I play devil’s advocate with my answer to make sure it’s defendable.”
The idea is that if you pick too many things to focus on, you might forget to do them all. Pick one.
Trying to power through a problem when you’re stuck isn’t a good idea, especially since you probably don’t know WHY you’re stuck.
It doesn’t matter if you “should” know how to do the problem. What matters is that you don’t waste any more time on it, since there are other problems you can do.
The beauty of this strategy is that if you DO move on and if you have time to come back to the question, you may understand it once you've done a few other questions and have looked at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps you misread it the first time, or perhaps your brain just needed a few minutes to ponder it subconsciously.
Guess on it. Move on.
If you haven't noticed, the GRE, SAT, and ACT are not just content tests, they're reasoning tests. Noticing opportunities to use logical reasoning will perhaps give you a better way to do a problem than if you had just rushed to start it.
Even if you don’t notice a reasoning opportunity, READING THE QUESTION CAREFULLY is more likely to happen if you cultivate a deliberate way of beginning questions.
At the end of a question, make sure your answer makes sense. Pausing to think for a few seconds (as opposing to bubbling in your answer as quickly as possible) lets you consider the logic of your choice. Again, coming back to a question a few minutes later can almost magically produce new insight.
Put your pencil down. Give yourself a few seconds to read and notice.
Ever try to put on your seatbelt too quickly and have it catch? If you try to do something too fast, you’re more likely to make a mistake.
Yes, the test is timed, and that clock is always ticking. But confident people don’t rush. They know, from practice and experience, that they’ll get the test (or enough of it) done in time.
You’ll naturally work as fast as you’re capable of working. Don’t force a quicker pace. This will help you avoid errors that might require you to redo a step. It’s just like putting on that seatbelt.
Just like life, the real test won’t go 100% smoothly. So don't expect perfection. And just like in life, if you pour too much time and energy into the trouble spot, it may become even worse.
But unlike life, all questions on the test have the same value. It makes no sense to burn energy on one thing that isn’t going well – even if you’re trying for a very high score.
As the Beatles said, let it be. Save your energy for the many, many other questions you’ll have to do.
Taking a 3 - 4 hour test can be draining. In addition to going outside during any scheduled breaks to move around and stretch, build in mini-breaks during sections. Every time you're about to move on a new reading passage, for example, close your eyes and take a huge breath - in through your nose... slowly breathe out through your mouth. Not only will this relax you a little bit, but it will conserve your mental energy. (Credit for this tip goes to The Critical Reader)
The Bottom Line
It can be easy to get flustered and frustrated in the high-pressure situation of taking a test that plays a significant part in determining whether you'll get into the school you want. Make sure you practice the above techniques EVERY TIME YOU TAKE A TIMED PRACTICE TEST so you'll have them in your repertoire on test day.