Bring Poise Along With No. 2 Pencil When Taking the SAT

When I first met one of my favorite SAT students two years ago, she was a straight-A student at a prestigious high school. She was active in drama, captain of the field hockey team, and fluent in German and French. Yet her performance on practice SATs was remarkably unimpressive.

It wasn't the difficulty of the work. She had an extensive vocabulary, good reading-comprehension skills, and the math questions involved topics much less advanced than the calculus she was currently taking. She said she did poorly on standardized tests because the moment the booklet was handed to her, she "couldn't breathe."

Such is the plight of many high school juniors. Junior year is fraught with enough pressure anyway, because it's the last chance for students to impress college admissions committees by maintaining their grades and participating in extracurricular activities. At the center of all this hysteria is the SAT, which has loomed on each student's horizon for years and is wrongly considered the make-or-break element of a college application.

Taking any standardized test requires two mutually exclusive skills. On the one hand, you have to know your stuff. You have to learn new vocabulary words and know how to calculate percents. But all the preparation in the world isn't much good if a time-pressured environment turns you into mush. The other skill you need is poise.

There are two sure-fire ways to lose your equilibrium during the SAT. The first is to assume that the test will go smoothly. One big mistake that many students make is to head into the test center hoping that everything proceeds without a hitch. The moment they see a problem that they can't figure out, what little poise they had is gone and the downward spiral begins.

It's like heading onto the baseball diamond and hoping that no one hits the ball to you. Well, the best baseball players expect the ball to come their way, and the best test-takers anticipate moments when a question will flummox them. In each case, an error does not signal the end of the world.

Another way to lose focus is to indulge in the "what ifs." What if I bomb the test? What if no school accepts me? Sure, there's a lot riding on your SAT score. But thinking about the test's ramifications has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Too many students let these thoughts monopolize their minds while they're trying to work. Why let what may happen in the next few months distract you now?

The key to minimizing this kind of worry is to realize that all anyone - your parents, friends, guidance counselor, and even yourself - can expect is that you give it your best shot. Once you commit yourself to that, there's a whole lot less to worry about.

When you prepare for the SAT, you get a good idea of what types of questions you'll see. You practice a lot and learn a few groovy techniques that will make your life easier. But most important, you develop a faith in yourself and your instincts, so that when the test throws you a curve ball (and it will), you know you'll be able to handle it.

Once she learned to take it all in stride, my student got the score she wanted and got into her top-choice college, where she's thriving. As many high school students have done before and will do in the future, she's breathing easy.

* Doug French, an instructor and course developer with The Princeton Review in New York, is the author of "Cracking the Math II Regents Exam" and the "High School Review Guide to Math II."

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