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10 Expert Test-Taking Hacks for High School Students

10 Expert Test-Taking Hacks for High School Students

Throughout their academic career, high school students take a lot of tests. Not counting final exams and in-class tests and quizzes, the average student in America’s public school system takes about 112 mandatory standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade. That’s a lot of study time, and a lot of stress.

While pre-test nerves and jitters are normal, some students experience more text anxiety than others. Effective study and test-taking strategies can help students feel more at ease, and also boost their performance. So whether you are preparing for finals, the SATs, or another standardized test, here are 10 test-taking hacks from academic experts.

1. Get to Class Early

Make sure you get to class early the day of your test. You don’t want to lose any precious test-taking time, but also, you don’t want to feel rushed or stressed. According to findings from scientists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, the Yerkes-Dodson law shows that when your stress level is too high or too low, your performance suffers.

Also, keep in mind that some teachers won’t let you take the test if you show up late to class. Do yourself a favor and get there early.

2. Pack a Bag of Essentials

You may find yourself scrambling to do some last-minute studying, or get some food before your test. When this happens, you’re more likely to forget important materials like pencils or pens, a calculator, or books (for an open-book exam).

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Lindsay Bressman from Privateprep, a private tutoring company, recommends packing a bag of essentials that includes snacks, a bottle of water, a test-approved calculator (with fresh batteries), and #2 pencils (and erasers).

Consider packing your bag the night before your test so you can feel confident that you have everything you need when it’s time to leave in the morning.

3. Don’t Cram

It can be easy to lose track of time in the days leading up to a test, and as a result, a lot of students resort to cramming the night before a test; but this isn’t the most effective way to study.

Discipline yourself to spread out your study time. Parenting expert and children’s book author Julia Cook says, “Don’t cram…It’s hard on your brain! Instead, spread out your studying time over a few days or weeks. Practice doing sample problems and look over your class material every day until you take the test.”

4. Create a Test-Like Study Environment

Students often make the mistake of studying in a relaxed, comfortable environment. While you want to de-stress before a test, being too relaxed while studying can actually hinder your performance. Try to time yourself when you study and keep study aids (notes, books, etc.) to a minimum while attempting actual problems or questions.

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According to USA Test Prep, “Students often practice with far more assistance than they will have on the test. Stress to them that EVERY problem should be attempted – at least to begin with – as though it were being done on a test.” The more you can simulate a test-taking environment, the better you will do when it comes to the real thing.

5. Create a Routine

Having a routine or some sort of familiarity prior to a test can help ease stress and anxiety. “I have seen that test anxiety can be managed by having a plan in place that you follow every time you have to take a test,” says parenting expert Varda Epstein from Kars4Kids. “Just having that plan and sticking to it makes you feel calmer and like you’re more in control of the situation.”

Epstein recommends the following tips for your pre-test routine:

  • Eat a good dinner the night before that includes complex carbohydrates.
  • The morning of the test, eat breakfast to improve your memory, mood, and concentration. Whole grains will give you energy and keep you satisfied for a longer period of time.
  • Give yourself a pep talk before the test. Research proves kids who do this perform better on their tests than kids who don’t.

6. Read and Re-Read ALL directions

Students have a tendency to skip over test directions, either because they feel they’re unnecessary, or because they think it will save time. If you skip the directions, you may not be answering questions in the correct way, or you may miss out on important clues that could help you on the test.

According to TestingMom, “Many kids skip directions and go right to the questions, which may lead to them answering every question in a set wrong.” Don’t skip the directions, and if you’re unsure about something, ask the teacher.

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7. Focus on the Fundamentals

Tests are made up of a lot of different types of questions, and some are more challenging than others. When students approach a test, they need to control the things they can control, like understanding the basics.

“Many students stress about all of the things they may not know, but the reality is there will be less of those concepts – likely the harder problems – on the test,” says Ralston Medouze, a private tutor from Strive Academics. “For this reason, it’s important that students focus on the basics. Thoroughly understanding the basics of any subject does not only mean that they will get more questions right, but it will allow students to get through the easier problems faster, meaning they can spend more time working on the truly difficult problems.”

8. When in Doubt, Choose “None of the Above” or “All of the Above”

Multiple choice questions can be very confusing, but you can usually rule out certain outliers and narrow down your choices. Turns out, if you’re unsure, your best bet may be selecting “none of the above” or “all of the above.”

According to Business Insider, William Poundstone, author of Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody, says, “‘none of the above’ or ‘all of the above’ were correct 52% of the time. Choosing one of these answers gives you a 90% improvement over random guessing.”

9. Take the Test Backward

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a logical method to this madness. “Take the test/exam backward,” says Sarah Tippett, Homeschool Base editor. “If you work backward, your brain has to think a bit more. The more thinking it does, the better recall you should have. Lots of the hardest questions are at the end of the exam and it’s best to tackle these when your brain is fresh.”

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Plus, questions toward the end of the test can often give you clues or hints for previous questions; go ahead and give it a try and see how it influences your performance.

10. Write Down the Important Stuff First

On test day, you most likely have lots of facts and figures or formulas (i.e. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally) swirling around in your brain. Former teacher and counselor Julia Cook says, “Write down the important stuff that you need to memorize (formulas, facts, definitions, etc.) at the top or on the side of your test paper so they don’t clog up your brain and you don’t forget to use them.” These are important and you want to remember them, but it may help to write them down before you start your test.

Try these test-taking hacks to ease your anxiety and boost your performance. Which test-taking hacks have you found are successful? Let us know in the comments below!

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Maile Proctor

Freelance Writer

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Published on August 15, 2019

15 Tips for an Overwhelmed Working Mom to Feel Better

15 Tips for an Overwhelmed Working Mom to Feel Better

As an overwhelmed working mom, you get a lot of intelligent ideas from magazines, friends and the internet about how to manage work, children, and a household.

Unfortunately, you may still feel exhausted and insufficient at work and home despite the advice to organize, cook efficiently and pamper yourself .

How great would it be to wake up tomorrow knowing that you can begin to feel better without all of those overwhelmed feelings?

The sensation of feeling overwhelmed when you wear a lot of hats: mom, professional, household manager, partner, friend, etc. has its roots in reality. You are absolutely doing a lot of important jobs. But here’s the thing:

If feeling overwhelmed has become your knee-jerk or chronic reaction, this emotion is now literally a part of you that needs your attention so that you can move forward more confidently.

If helping yourself sounds too difficult, never fear. These tips come straight from therapy and neuroscience to hack into your nervous system. You will learn deeper ways to calm down and feel more confident about yourself, your life and your choices.

1. Breathe and Notice What Your Body Feels like Inside and Out

By using body-centered therapy techniques, you can better understand your overwhelmed feelings and offer accurate and practical help.

As you’ll learn, when you feel stressed out, your thinking brain is not your best resource. In fact, simply thinking about and bolstering your efforts to “get rid” of overwhelmed feelings might actually make them worse.

The first step to help when you feel overwhelmed is to simply slow down and breathe. This does not mean that you should suddenly take in huge gulps of air or breathe rapidly. That will send you into panic!

Breathe normally and naturally. Make your breath comfortably slow, extending the exhale. Count 5 to 10 breaths.

2. Get a Little Curious

Ask yourself: How do I know I’m overwhelmed? Close your eyes or soften your gaze if you are able. Imagine shifting your awareness from your outside world and sending it into your body along with your breath.

You might notice the signals right away. For example: My chest is tight, my heart is beating rapidly and there’s a sense of frustrated energy in my legs and arms. Or you might just hear some words like: I’m freaking out, failing or cannot do it!

If it’s possible, get a little curious about this sensation. Consider that while it may be a big feeling, you probably have other parts of you that feel differently.

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3. Offer Some Loving Care to Stressed-Out Parts of You

Richard Schwartz, developer of Internal Family Systems Therapy defines our personalities as made up of sub-parts that interact within us. This explains why a “part” of you can feel one way and yet, you have another part that feels differently.[1]

Gently acknowledging the part of you that feels overwhelmed and offering it some support and compassion (as you would a frightened child) can soothe your body and mind. “I’ve got you,” is a great mantra to breathe in when you’re overwhelmed.

4. Get Smart About Your Wise Nervous System

You may have heard of the “gut” brain or “body” brain. The science of Polyvagal Theory shows that the entire nervous system impacts how you think and feel – not just your thinking mind.

In fact, did you know that your wise nervous system generally picks up information from your environment before your brain can interpret it?[2]

When you feel overwhelmed, just one tiny cue of “danger” felt in your nervous system is often the unconscious trigger that tips you from busy but competent to feeling freaked out and exhausted.

This cue could be as simple as a song on the radio that feels overly-stimulating, a child’s bad mood (even if it has nothing to do with you) or your spouse forgetting an unimportant errand.

5. Remind Yourself That a Feeling Can Just Be a Feeling

When you’re feeling agitated, your physical body is naturally on high alert. Any information or stimulation you receive at these times will feel overwhelming.

This is not your fault, but it is helpful to understand that usually, when you feel like you’re not good enough, it is not objectively true. Your mind may just be creating a reason for the signals of danger coming from your body.

Allow your body to feel without making a negative judgement about yourself or your life. This technique will help you break the cycle of feeling overwhelmed, then creating negative thought about the feeling resulting in overwhelming yourself even more.

6. Learn Your Most Common Unconscious Responses to Stress

Why is this important? When you feel stressed, you probably respond unconsciously in the same ways throughout your life.

For some, too much stress will quickly create a numb, hopeless sensation. For others, the thought that life is just “too much” leads to bouts of panic or anger. Still, others might freeze completely, feeling highly anxious but not able to do much at all.

From a biological perspective, all of these experiences are pretty normal. When you recognize that your body’s reactions are not faulty or foolish, it’s much easier to reassure yourself and move forward confidently.

7. Exercise the Part of Your Nervous System That Provides Wellbeing and Social Connection

Did you know that you can actually tone your ventral vagal nerve, the nerve responsible for feelings of safety and social connection?[3]

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As often as you are able, allow yourself to linger on your favorite memories that invoke feelings of wellbeing, connection to loved ones, times of beauty in nature or your favorite memories of pets or places. Use all of your sense to really feel the experience in your body.

By doing this, you’re activating and toning your ventral vagus nerve as you might tone your muscles. Make a kind of “body bookmark” of these purely content sensations to which you can return when stressed.

This practice may feel silly, like an indulgence or even a fantasy. But it is supported by science and is important for you to create a strong and healthy response to stressors.

8. Give Baby Parts a Break

No part of you is trying to hurt you. But parts of us do feel extreme feelings and carry burdens from our past.

For example, if you are feeling overworked in the present, it may activate parts of your personality that felt similarly earlier in life. Deep anger, fear, resentment or sadness provide a signal to you that something from your past could benefit from your attention.

I know this may sound strange, but the next time you feel very overwhelmed, take a breath and notice if you feel like a child trying to do an adult’s job. If so, spend a moment calmly and compassionately reminding all of your inner child parts that you are indeed grown, capable and doing something appropriate.

9. Address Critical Messages You Give Yourself

What do you hear yourself saying to yourself when you feel overwhelmed? You may notice parts of you that sound critical or even cruel.

Statements like “I’ll never catch up,” “Why do I try,” or “I can’t do anything right,” are very common to hear when you’re under stress. Believe it or not, these inner messages are likely misguided protective parts of your personality.

These parts are normal and try to help you by “whipping you into shape” so you won’t fail, alerting you about scared feelings inside, or avoiding shock or disappointment by anticipating how others might criticize you.

If it’s possible, acknowledge these parts as protective. Maybe express a bit of gratitude. Notice how the critical voices inside you, even though they likely mean well, cause exhaustion and even more stress.

When you acknowledge these messages inside, letting them know they are part of you and you see their positive intention, the critical messages calm.

10. Take Small Moments to Express Gratitude

Everyone is talking about gratitude, I know. But there are good reasons for this trend.

More and more studies about gratitude show valid connections between gratitude and lowered stress and mental health. A 2018 multi-university research study concluded that gratitude not only has direct effects on quality of life, but also has indirect effects through perceived stress and mental health.[4]

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There are many reasons that gratitude impacts our nervous systems in positive ways, but the best way to discover this impact is to simply try it yourself.

Take a minute each day to write down one to three things for which you feel grateful. These can be large or small, important or trivial, but they must be true. Make this a habit and watch your stress-relief grow.

Or you can try some of these 40 Simple Ways To Practice Gratitude.

11. Play with Time

In Gay Hendrick’s 2010 book The Big Leap, he talks about the concept of Einstein time vs. Newtonian time.

Newtonian time is the clock time we all watch all day. Einstein time is more about what you make with your moments, realizing that your perception can slow or speed time up.

For example, if you are spending time with someone you love and doing something you enjoy, time moves very quickly. Conversely, if you are doing a miserable job in uncomfortable weather, each second can feel like an eternity.

The next time you feel stressed for time, take a slow breath and remind yourself that you make time. Time belongs to you. Then, enjoy the pace and do what you need to do. With practice, this little tool will become valuable for overcoming the mental pressure of time.

12. Don’t Be Tricked by Perfection

When you’re in the thick of raising children and working, sometimes nervous energy presents as perfectionism. In an effort to feel in control, you may make arbitrary but unreasonable goals for yourself that feel like they are necessary or true.

Make a quick inventory of every job you are expecting of yourself and your family. Now question it all. What is really important and what is just preferable? What jobs can be left to someone else’s discretion, done well-enough by the children or dropped completely?

Keep any jobs that give you joy and do them joyfully. Let go of jobs that feel like standards or expectations with little or no payoff. Save them for retirement if you like.

13. Give Yourself Credit for Quality Time with Your Kids

Think of the time you spend relaxing with and enjoying your children as a $100,000 per hour job. Very small amounts are still incredibly valuable.

Showing your children that they are important is just as likely to happen in a ten-minute game of catch as in a whole day at the water park. A shared snack time, a book before bed, a half hour away from your phone to allow loving eye contact with your babes adds up to a lifetime of security and wonderful memories.

Imagine your child someday saying, “Mom worked hard, but she always had time to hug me, to hear about my day, and to offer me guidance. I always knew that I mattered to her.”

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14. Meditate for One Minute a Day

Yes, you may do more. But if you can’t afford any more than one minute, go ahead and sit comfortably, breathe and be in your body for this time. It’s such a simple but powerful exercise and the kids can do it too.

While you meditate, notice your loving heart. What does it need from you today — patience, compassion, creativity, caring, play? Remember to show up for yourself and you will show up for your work and your family as well.

15. Guard and Celebrate Sleep

From tinies to teens, there are many unavoidable reasons that kids interrupt your sleep.

Here’s the thing: Unexpected sleeplessness due to childhood growth or illness is normal and not easy to control. If you are feeling overwhelmed, though, sleep is crucial.

There are two things you can do to improve your mindset toward sleep so that you set yourself up for confidence rather than collapse.

One, prioritize and protect your sleep time. If you tend to wait until the kids go to sleep to complete work or finally relax, that’s okay. But don’t let these activities cut into your sleep time.

Given the choice between another load of laundry, Words With Friends, binge watching Game of Thrones or eight hours of sleep, consistently choose sleep.

Two, appreciate and express gratitude for any sleep you get. Sometimes, it’s impossible to get seven or eight hours of sleep. However, allow yourself to enjoy any time when you are laying in a comfy space allowing your body to rest and repair.

When you wake up saying “I didn’t get enough sleep last night,” you put your mind on alert that there is something lacking. This thinking alone can trigger feelings of overwhelm.

Set your nervous system up for success by appreciating any amount of rest.

Final Thoughts

Life as a working mom is not an easy one. Overwhelmed feelings are natural and normal but, they can take over and cause chronic stress and dissatisfaction.

Allow yourself just a few moments a day to reorganize your thoughts and feelings using the steps above. You’ll soon discover your calm and capable self.

Take a lesson from your growing children: small changes create big results now and in the future.

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Featured photo credit: Bruno Nascimento via unsplash.com

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