'Tis the season for taking the SATs. Many nervous high school students will shuffle into empty classrooms March 10 and May 5—No. 2 pencils in hand—to answer up to 3 hours and 45 minutes worth of math, reading, and writing questions. Students have likely prepared for the test content by studying sample test questions and perhaps taking the practice exam (the PSAT).
"Familiarity with the test is important because it's like knowing the game, or knowing the ball field," says psychologist Ben Bernstein, author of Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test. However, he notes that knowing the game—or in this case, understanding the test—isn't enough. Test-takers must also be able to perform under pressure when they prepare for and actually take the test, he says.
Parents can help their children build these test-taking skills of staying calm, confident, and focused with Bernstein's tips below.
[Check out the U.S. News College Test Prep center.]
1. Remain calm: SATs and other standardized tests often brew anxiety for students and parents, because they play a significant role in the college admissions process. And often, there's a phenomenon that Bernstein refers to as an "induced reaction," when a parent gets "roped into" their child's anxiety, and vice versa.
Parents can help curb this cycle by staying calm themselves, and noting signs of anxiety in their kids. Jittery students, or those who can't seem to sit still, are likely stressed, says Bernstein. And if they're jittery at home, they'll likely act the same way when they're trying to sit at a desk for three hours on test day. Parents should remind their child to breathe, says Bernstein, who also suggests that students write "breathe" as a reminder on their test booklet.
Exercising, getting plenty of sleep, and eating healthy foods are also important ways to ease anxiety, says Bernstein.
2. Be confident: Parents should listen for negative statements from their child, such as "I can't handle this," or "I'm not smart enough," says Bernstein, who suggests parents accept their kid's feelings.
Bernstein suggests saying something along the lines of, "'I know you feel that way right now, but I remember when you handled a really difficult situation. Do you remember that?'" In turn, he notes, "Of course the kid will remember that. They're forgetting that part of themselves, which has been successful."
When a student feels defeated by the test, or by a specific study question, Bernstein suggests parents help break the problem into small, manageable steps.
"When a kid starts to feel like they can't handle something, usually it's because they're looking at it in a very global way," Bernstein says. "Once they see that it's actually a series of small steps that can be taken successively, that confidence issue starts to clear up."
If the parent's AP Calculus knowledge is a little rusty, he or she can use free online resources such as Khan Academy, or enlist an older student or tutor to help, Bernstein says.
3. Stay focused: Many students today simply have shorter attention spans than they did in previous generations, because they've become accustomed to the instant gratification of sending a text message or beating a video game level, says Bernstein. Parents can help their students focus by having them study continuously, without interruption, for several minutes at a time. The students should do this in intervals, says Bernstein, perhaps by starting with 5 minutes at a time and progressing to 10- and then 15-minute study sessions.
[Read how SAT cheating is rare, but usually high profile.]
Although Bernstein points out that parents shouldn't hover over their child with a stopwatch, they should approach the technique as if they're training their child to focus.
"Think about a basketball player who has to take a free-throw shot," he says. "The people in the stands are screaming [and] carrying on, but that player has learned how to stay focused."