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Approach That Big Test With Confidence
Updated August 2, 2023
By Maria Harmon, Rachel Mead, Brenna Norris, Jean Hsu, Keith Brown, Chloe Miller, and John Bragelman

If you have a big test coming up, whether it’s a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT an AP test, or even just a big midterm, approaching that test feeling confident in your abilities can make all the difference. We’ve rounded up suggestions from some of our tutors for how to get your mind in the right place to successfully take on any test that comes your way. Below you’ll find tips and tricks from SAT tutors, ACT tutors, and tutors for just about everything who have been there themselves and helped thousands of students be ready to face down that big test and ace it.

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An MIT Student's 3 Favorite Brain Hacks

by Maria Harmon

I was always told as a child that the sky was the limit, that I could do or be anything I wanted to. The more I experience life, the more I discover what that really means.

I do have limits, but they can still be pushed. I can’t be both an astronaut and Demi Levato, but I can always start somewhere. Even when we’re dealing with the darker sides of life--test anxiety, high expectations, low expectations, bullying, uncertain times, etc.--we have ways to train our brain to better handle these difficulties.

Here are my 3 go-to brain hacks for navigating life’s challenges.

1. Redirect Nervous Energy

My primary coping mechanism has always been to shut down, to try to stop feeling stress when it hits. This is a common reaction that tanks productivity and maintains stress as the ultimate enemy.

Instead, I try to take any physical signs of stress--racing heart, shallow breathing, some degree of tunnel vision--and redirect my conscious thoughts away from considering these symptoms as bad things. I tell myself, for example: I can use this extra energy to get through my work; my brain is switched into high gear, and I DO need all the brain power I can get right now; I feel like I want to fight my way out to a better place, and that’s exactly what I’ll do, in my own way

2. Practice Responding Ahead of Time

When I am approaching a situation that is high stakes, or any time I want to have the right words to say, I imagine what the situation might be like. In my life, this typically involves social situations.

For example: How do I keep from offending my sensitive friend? Or how can I stand up for myself without tearing them down?

So I picture how they talk, and how that would make me feel. I picture feeling offended but taking a deep breath, thinking about how I will respond, and then filling my voice with compassion and moxy.

When there’s a big test on the horizon, I first visualize my stress reaction (freezing up). Then I picture preventing that reaction from happening through deep breathing and sensations of calm.

3. Visualize Your Burdens Falling Away

If you’ve watched the de-cluttering sensation Marie Kondo, you’ve noticed how she ‘says hello’ to the home, ‘thanks’ items to be discarded, and ‘wakes up’ stacks of books. This ‘humanization’ process can actually apply to stressful situations, similarly helping us transform feelings of overwhelm into mundane social or physical interactions.

In my life, I am my own biggest enemy, putting all sorts of limitations on myself and often feeling useless and worthless. My favorite technique to turn this around is visualization. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and take the time to picture the sense of worthlessness as a physical burden, usually either a rope around my wrist or literal weight on my shoulders. Whatever I need to do to release the weight, I do. Sometimes, that means just angling myself so the shoulder weights fall off. Other times, I have to be the one to cut the rope tying me back. I always try to end with looking back to where the weight/rope has fallen, only to realize it’s not even there anymore.

Maria is a math tutor for Enhanced Prep and has a BS in Environmental Engineering Science from MIT.

Test Taking Checklist for the SAT® and ACT®

By Rachel Mead

Rachel spent decades as a tutor before founding Enhanced Prep to help set students up for success and turn reach into reality.

Being a Brave Chicken: My Mantra for Getting Things Done

By Brenna Norris

A chicken on a bench

We all have major tasks that need to be completed, but somehow we always find ways to put them off--sometimes to the point of causing a tidal wave of stress.

There are countless YouTube videos and blog posts that swear by a certain process for beating procrastination. Yet in the past, I found that no amount of bullet journaling or visualization techniques would actually get me to finish the work if it was something that involved even mild discomfort (such as reviewing the events that led to the American Indian War).

So, one day, as I was trying to will myself to complete a project, I came up with the phrase “be a brave chicken.” To me, a brave chicken is still allowed to be a little, well, chicken, but it still has to don its helmet and shield and enter battle (even if that battle is calling the pizza place so I can have a lazy Wednesday dinner).

While I know phrases like “just do it” or “keep calm and carry on” have been around for ages, these don’t necessarily acknowledge one thing: that we all have those tasks that might seem simple to an outsider but might actually feel like scaling a mountain.

Once I started saying “be a brave chicken” to myself as I reviewed my daily to do list, I noticed that the stress of my less-exciting tasks started to diminish. I still wasn’t a fan of posting my garage sale items on Craigslist. But imagining a tiny chicken’s battle cry as I logged into my account allowed me a small laugh and helped me get my posts out onto the site that I had literally spent months avoiding.

Since then, I’ve also encouraged my more shy friends and students to try reciting this magic phrase when they need to reach out to a contact, teacher, or someone their parents want them to connect with, which can be downright daunting.

A few have told me it actually did help. What’s more, the brave chicken line gave them the chance to acknowledge whatever real or perceived fear they had about the task. They were then able to complete the task even though it still caused them anxiety. They didn’t have to “put on a brave face;” they just had to channel their inner chicken and stick it in a suit of armor.

I encourage anyone navigating difficult tasks - large or small - to call on this type of courage.

Brenna is an Enhanced Prep online tutor with a BA in Psychology from UC Irvine and an MA in Psychology from Cal State Fullerton

AP® Exam Top 3 Do’s and Don’t’s

By Jean Hsu

Jean has a BA in History from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Secondary Education and Teaching from USC. She has been an

Top 4 Tips for Student Success

By Keith Brown

We’re always looking for ways to help our students succeed, whether on standardized tests, in the classroom, or along their professional paths.

Here are four of our favorite tips for improving study habits and increasing success in academia and beyond. These are useful for students regardless of skill level or current academic pursuits.

Review new information on the same day

Studies have shown that people typically retain only 25% of new information they have been exposed to on a daily basis. Students spent a great deal of effort taking notes in class; it would be a shame if these were not used! Always review your notes from class on the same day you take them to reinforce the material learned.

It can also help to explain any key learning points out loud. This is a good way of self-checking for understanding and transferring new knowledge/skills from short-term to long-term memory.

Plan a weekly schedule

Creating a schedule is imperative for great time management. Students should learn to create a weekly schedule that can help them break up tasks, prioritize activities, and study effectively.

In addition, students can use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals to create tangible objectives.

In planning a schedule, consider how long it takes you to complete homework; school activities and extracurricular commitments; time for meals; and healthy sleep. It is just as important to schedule breaks and downtime as it is to schedule tasks.

Multitasking is a myth

While people might think that taking on multiple tasks at the same time increases productivity, research consistently indicates that multitasking (or switch tasking) only slows people down, increases stress, and induces more errors.

Students should avoid potential distractions and schedule out both their work time and distraction time to increase productivity. Start work off by focusing on the biggest tasks, and do your best to have a specific plan or objective for each study session.

Get at least 8 to 9 hours of sleep EVERY night

Lack of sleep is a huge detriment to student well-being. It also makes learning much more difficult. Many studies have shown how a lack of sleep severely impairs cognitive function and reduces information transfer from short term memory to long term memory. Essentially, staying up late to study will always backfire, since the information studied does not get stored in long term memory.

Also, getting an appropriate amount of sleep helps one feel better, minimize careless errors, and avoid illness.

Try to unwind before bed with a good book, music, or even meditation. Also, avoid staring at screens (i.e. TV, phones, tablets, etc.) just before bedtime.

If these four tips feel like too much to take on all at once, pick one item from the list and start with that. When that step feels comfortable, add another. Continuing in this fashion will allow you to build upon your successes over time.

Keith is an Enhanced Prep tutor with a BS in Biology from Grambling State and a Masters & PhD in Developmental Biology & Genetics from Caltech.

Manage Your Time Wisely

By Chloe Miller

It’s already 8 PM on Thursday evening. You had one of those weeks at school that has convinced you your teachers are secretly coordinating all of their project deadlines and test dates. You are already sleep-deprived from those early week quizzes and presentations, and losing a basketball game to your rivaling team is not helping you feel any better. You still have to study for two tests and a quiz and finish a paper. How are you possibly going to manage your time now, and also get some necessary sleep?

If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Time management is one of the most common challenges high school students consistently face, especially those navigating full schedules in the middle of a pandemic.

What’s more, managing your time wisely can be a key ingredient for academic success, staying competitive in the world of college admissions, and maintaining solid mental health.

If you struggle with time management, here are two excellent methods for staying on top of your tasks with focus and ease: the Pomodoro Method and the Pareto 80-20 Rule.

The Pomodoro Method

The Pomodoro Method is a fancy name for giving yourself a specific timeframe for deep focus and actual rest. Rather than taking the total amount of time spent at the desk as a measure of effectiveness, this helps students pay attention to efficiency.

It also stresses the importance of taking full mental and emotional recess during scheduled breaks.

To follow this method, begin by getting rid of all possible distractions: turn phone notifications and music off, set your phone to airplane mode, and create a clean desk space.

Grab a timer, and set it to the following increments:

25 minutes - STUDY

5 minutes - BREAK

25 minutes - STUDY

5 minutes - BREAK

25 minutes - STUDY

5 minutes - BREAK

25 minutes - STUDY

5 minutes – BREAK

(Total of 2 hours)

Once this cycle of two hours is done, take a longer (at least 30 minutes) and emotionally rewarding break. During this long break, leave your chair and desk and enjoy a healthy snack, do some stretching, and/or play with your dog!

The Pareto 80-20 Rule

This rule is named after economist Vilfredo Pareto. It hypothesizes that 80% of outcome and results comes from 20% of input and causes.

The core message is that just 20% of input, when leveraged in the right way, could be responsible for nearly all of the total productivity!

How can you apply this concept to studying?

First, be honest about your use of time.

Let’s say you spend 10 hours sitting at your desk over a typical weekend.

On a scale of 1-10, would you rank your level of focus, use of time, and effectiveness of task prioritization over these 10 hours (1 = not so excellent, 10 = superb)?

Analyze these rankings. Where do you see the need for the most improvement?

Here’s how you can improve each of these 3 things:

  • Prioritization: Rank your tasks by urgency and impact, and tackle tasks in this order
  • Level of focus: Create an environment most likely to promote focus (i.e., distraction-free, well-lit, clean)
  • Use of time: Utilize the Pomodoro Method (described above)

Reassess your efforts often until you feel you’ve come closer to maintaining an 80-20 Pareto balance.

Whenever trying new study methods and habits, we encourage students to start by just picking one – ideally, the most accessible and easy one! Also, create an emotionally satisfying reward for sticking to your study methods for one week. Finding your own rhythm and study environment that serve you best is a critical part of the process.

Chloe has been working in college admissions and tutoring for admissions tests for over 15 years. She has a BS in Biology with a Minors in both Psychology and Classical Civilization & Literature, as well as a Masters in Healthcare Administration, all from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Importance of Being Wrong

By John Bragelman

This may seem obvious, but math students always focus on getting the problem right.

Think about it – who comes to the board to show their solution to the class? A student with the right answer! When a teacher works through a problem for the class, they’ll work towards the right answer. When a student asks another student how to do a problem, they look for someone who knows how to get the right answer.

Solutions are important, but incorrect solutions are actually just as important.

Whether you are in math class or preparing for the SAT or ACT, your wrong answers are a huge resource. Wrong answers can provide profound insight into your learning trajectory. They can even guide you towards a higher grade or score!

The trick is to figure out what you did wrong, why you got the problem wrong, and how you can improve.

I’ll use the following problem to demonstrate this:

For  all  x,  (4x5)2=?For \; all \; x, \; (4x-5)^2=?

Here is the solution:

(4x5)2=(4x5)(4x5)=16x220x20x+25=16x240x+25(4x-5)^2 \newline = (4x-5)(4x-5) \newline =16x^2-20x-20x+25 \newline =16x^2-40x+25

This is a somewhat straightforward distribution or FOIL problem, but there are so many ways to get it wrong! I’ve seen students arrive at the incorrect answer on this question by skipping steps, making an error on one crucial step, or simply choosing the wrong process.

Yet as I’ve reiterated, such errors are still valuable for introspection and growth.

Skipping Steps

On timed tests like the SAT® or ACT®, you need to move quickly. Because of this, students have a tendency to skip steps, especially when they know how to solve the problem. It’s not uncommon for high-performing students to make many careless errors on low-difficulty questions.

Here’s what skipping steps looks like with this problem:

(4x5)216x2+25(4x-5)^2 \newline 16x^2+25

What was the error?

I’m missing the middle term.

Why did I make it?

I only squared the first and last term! I didn’t square the entire binomial 4x-5.

How do I improve?

SLOW DOWN! Especially on easy problems! Take your time, write out each line, and don’t be a step skipper!

An Error on One Step

Sometimes an error occurs when students follow the correct procedure but make a mistake on one step or part of one step. For example:

(4x5)2=(4x5)(4x5)=16x220x20x25=16x240x25(4x-5)^2 \newline =(4x-5)(4x-5) \newline =16x^2 - 20x - 20x - 25 \newline =16x^2 - 40x - 25

What was the error?

The sign of the last term is a negative instead of a positive. Specifically, on the third line, when I multiplied (-5)x(-5), I missed one of the negative signs.

Why did I make it?

This part is trickier. Did I make the error because I was working too fast, or did I make the error because I struggled with positive and negative numbers?

How do I improve?

If I made the error because I was careless, I need to slow down again. If I made the error because, well, I’m not the best at positive and negative numbers, then that’s exactly what I need to review. After reviewing those, then I may come back to try a few problems similar to this one.

A Process Error

The last type of error is related to the problem. I simply don’t know what to do. For example:

(4x5)2???(4x - 5)^2 \newline ???

What was the error?

I had no idea how to start the problem.

Why did I make it?

I couldn’t remember how to FOIL. I may not have been able to work through the problem because I haven’t learned FOIL yet, or I may not have been able to because my mind blanked.

(Again, it’s important to ask yourself why.)

How do I improve?

Out of all the errors I talked about today, this is the only one that suggests I need to spend time reviewing how to distribute binomials (i.e. FOIL).

Our impulse is to immediately perceive wrong answers in a negative light. But when you approach them in this fashion, asking what, why, and how, you’re well on your way to improving your understanding and performance!

John has been teaching for over a decade at high schools, colleges, and universities. He has a BS in Applied Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Masters in Mathematics Education from Georgia State, and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois, Chicago

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