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4 tips to ace college admissions tests

Standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, play a crucial role in the college application and admission process. And while studying vocabulary words and formulas is important, students also must think about sleep and day-of-exam strategies as a part of their plans for success.

Lauren Hensley, senior associate director of Ohio State’s Walter E. Dennis Learning Center, offers up science-based, test-taking tips to help students master their upcoming standardized tests.

1. Don’t sacrifice sleep.

Forget the late-night study sessions and all-nighters. Make sure you’re getting those seven to nine hours of sleep at night. Cramming and sacrificing sleep are some of the most counterproductive behaviors you could engage in.

“Sleep is essential to learning. It allows for memory consolidation and storage of information that might have been in short-term memory to move into long-term memory. Without that processing period, information that a student was trying to frantically learn might not actually be learned effectively enough for a testing situation,” Hensley says.

Hensley suggests planning ahead: Think about what you need in order to get a full night’s sleep and also think about your wind-down plan. Avoid artificial light before bed, and do something relaxing that will help you get to sleep quickly.

“If they get a lack of sleep, not only is there that lack of learning, but it’s harder to process information — to read a test question, interpret it,” Hensley says. “It’s much more difficult to recall the things that a student may very well know and have learned with a lack of sleep.”

2. Don’t load up on caffeine; fuel your body through other sources.

Although lots of coffee, energy drinks or diet soda might sound like the best way to get your energy levels up the morning of your exam, Hensley says consuming more caffeine than usual can trick your body into thinking it’s actually nervousness and anxiety.

This could ultimately create a spiral of doubting oneself and creating testing anxiety in a situation where it wouldn’t otherwise exist.

“The best thing a person could do is not use any extra caffeine and instead think about getting fuel from natural sources: things that will keep the glucose level stable and a nice constant supply of energy for the mind and body,” Hensley says.

Hensley’s suggestions for test-day energy? Complex carbs, protein and water — a pack of nuts, string cheese, anything that travels easily.

3. Get familiar with what to expect with self-testing.

One of the mistakes students make is spending all their time on memorizing definitions, vocabulary words and formulas, but they don’t practice applying them and testing themselves to see how much they actually know. Hensley says one of the best approaches to studying involves self-testing.

“When you remove the external supports or information and force yourself to say, ‘Can I retrieve that from my memory?’ you get powerful benefits,” Hensley says. “In terms of memory, that form of active learning really creates stronger memory and greater flexibility with using the information.”

So, if you’re thinking of purchasing an ACT or SAT prep book, look for one that is going to come with at least two practice tests and be sure to use them.

And rather than just reading information, try to reword what you learned in your own words: Cover up the page and ask yourself, “What was the main point of this page?”

4. Prepare yourself emotionally on exam day with positive self-talk.

In the 15 minutes leading up to the test, there is a choice of what you can do with your time. The default option seems to be last-minute studying and cramming. But when students do that, they are essentially telling themselves they’re not prepared enough.

“One of the best things that a student can do is use that period right before the test as something that gets them into the state of mind they are confident,” Hensley says. “They can remind themselves that they are prepared because they’ve been studying, and they will do their best today. That self-talk can be really helpful.”