Four Steps to Getting More Out of Test Prep with a Mindful Approach

By Erika Oppenheimer, SAT/ACT Prep Coach and author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test

When it comes to SAT and ACT prep, there’s a lot of information available. Some of it is useful. Some of it is not. When you want to separate the signal from the noise, there are certainly experts to whom you can turn. But there’s someone else with whom you should become acquainted. This person is wise, supportive, and wants the best for you. And, if you can become friends with this person, I have no doubt that this maestro will help you to get the most out of your test prep process.

Hey, Reader, meet yourself!

Embarking on a mindful approach to the test prep process might sound hokey, or perhaps like a way of complicating a process that is pretty straightforward: study the material, take practice tests, get results. But what happens when you know you should spend time prepping, but your homework is taking too long (or social media is too tempting). What happens when you should spend time reviewing wrong answers from a practice test, but you did so badly that you would just as soon forget that you ever took it in the first place? What happens when you should feel confident and focused on test day, but the pressures of college admissions and test taking are so overwhelming that you feel anxious, stressed, and distracted?

A mindful approach isn’t just a nice idea. It is hugely practical. And it is the difference between your earning your best results and settling for less.

When I first began helping students prep for the SAT and ACT, I had many of the same assumptions that you probably do because most test prep organizations and “experts” focus solely on test content, basic test-taking strategies, and scores. But then I was in the room with a junior from a top New York City high school who had attention issues but no extended time and test-taking anxiety that exacerbated her attention issues. I knew that she understood the test content from having worked with her, but something was missing. There was a gap between her capability and her performance.

I realized that the upper limit to my student’s test day performance wasn’t set by how much material she knew or how well she understood test-taking techniques. Rather, her performance was limited by how she was thinking about and experiencing the test. So that’s where we put our attention.

And that’s where I suggest you put your attention: allow yourself to become aware of your thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs and how they impact your experience. You are then empowered to choose thoughts and behaviors that create a better experience.

While there are many ideas that can support you in taking a mindful approach to test prep, here are four steps that will give you a great head start. Become aware of your thoughts. There's a little voice in your head that's talking to you constantly. What is it saying? How do your thoughts make you feel?

  1. Become aware of your thoughts. There’s a little voice in your head that’s talking to you constantly. What is it saying? How do the thoughts make you feel?
  2. Take a breath. When you become aware of a thought (any thought, positive or negative) take a breath. What happens to the thought when you take a conscious breath? What happens to the feeling?
  3. Question the thought. If the thought is one of self-doubt or self-criticism, ask yourself, “What if that isn’t true? What if I’m good enough? What if I’m smart enough? What if I have what it takes?” Feel free to replace the latter part of the “What if” proposition with a quality that relates to the specific situation or preceding thought.
  4. Be willing to see the situation differently. There are objective facts about the college admissions process. There are tests (the SAT and ACT) for which you can prepare. College admissions officers will consider your test scores when evaluating your application. How you relate to these objective facts is up to you. When you feel stressed out, anxious, or scared, tell yourself “I am willing to see this situation differently.”

Then see what happens! Perhaps a new idea will occur to you. Perhaps some of the tension will leave your shoulders. Keep an open mind, and stay willing. The test prep process is a process, but when you bring your whole self to the experience, amazing things can happen.

Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test. Using her unique “Test Prep for the Whole Person” methodology, she helps students from across the country perform and feel their best in the test room and beyond.

Learn more about Erika’s SAT and ACT coaching programs here

Download a free PDF of the first chapter of Acing It! here