Test-Taking Tips From A Pro

Tutor Pat Cunningham offers advice about taking standardized tests.

Who blinked?!  Somehow, someway, the SAT snuck up on us once again and now the May administration is this Saturday – and AP exams are upon us too.  After 10 years of guiding students through the SAT, ACT and numerous AP exams, I have picked up a few insights into last-minute prepping.  To help you stay frosty, I have organized my tips into three crucial categories: Sleeping, Eating and Keeping Calm.


  • The Body Remembers.  Teenagers need 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep a night, anything less than this minimum contributes to a deficit that carries over to the next night, etc. Scientists call this sleep debt.  And like credit card debt, sleep debt can be fiendishly difficult to “pay off.”
  • Friday Night is Not Enough.  Many students tally up staggering sleep debts during the school week, often tallying 10 hours or more of missed sleep by Friday.  That’s why “getting to bed early the night before the test” is not very effective.  Even if achieved, it’s simply not enough sleep to regain what’s already been lost.
  • Play the Long Game.  The best solution is to make sure you accrue no debt in the first place during the week before to the test.  9.25 hours a night is goal.  If that is unrealistic, then resting well (9+ hours) on *both* Thursday and Friday gives the body a bit more time to catch up.


  • Cut as Much Sugar as Possible Ideally, the entire week up to the test, most definitely breakfast before the test on Saturday.  Think lean meats, whole grains, eggs.  We want to avoid spikes in blood sugar during the tests … spikes that inevitably bring on a mid-test crash (which, oddly enough, usually happen around Q. 30 in the Writing and Language Test).
  • Make Sure You Pack a Snack on Saturday.  Suggestions:  Jerky, nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts), apples, cheese sticks and water.  Things to avoid:  Sugar bombs disguised as energy / cereal / granola bars, dried fruit, candy, energy drinks, Go-gurt, etc.

KEEPING CALM (Looks weird in all caps, right?)

  • The Hard Part is Over.  Effective prep takes place over weeks as students complete tests, analyze their errors and then repeat the process.  For most students, the work that will determine their success has already happened.  So if you have been studying consistently, you needn’t ‘ramp up’ this week.
  • OK, if you simply *MUST* study.  Just can’t let a perfectly good opportunity to cram slip by?  Put doing new practice tests on hold and instead focus on reviewing old practice tests, paying special attention to the questions you got wrong.  Identifying consistent weaknesses — and being subtly reminded of progress made — is a powerful use of your time.
  • A Treat Always Helps.  Oftentimes what makes the test especially stressful is the and-then factor, as in “I have to take the SAT and then go to water polo practice and then head to a basketball banquet dinner and then –”  Keep your schedule as open as possible on Saturday … with one exception. I have found that planning something fun after the test has an almost talisman-like effect in focusing and calming a student.  There was a period of my life when I took a multi-hour standardized test every Saturday (don’t ask!) and I’m convinced what got me through each test was the prospect of a big cheeseburger, fries, shake and a nap afterwards!
  • Process vs. Product.  Finally, it’s critical to remember that your ultimate goal should be summoning the attention necessary to appreciate every word of every question on test day. In other words:  Awareness, awareness, awareness.  Worrying about a score or striving to “hit a number” — ironically, all of that takes you out of the total focus necessary for upper level scores.
    • So don’t worry about product, emphasize process.  Forget the hype (both good and bad, the motivational and the stressful).  Instead, come to the testing center ready to lose yourself in the total taking of the test, i.e. reading the questions, analyzing the answer choices and managing your time.  If you can do this successfully, you will achieve a high SAT score … and maybe even enlightenment!

Pat Cunningham, aka “TutorPat,” is an SAT / ACT instructor located in Studio City.  To contact him about prepping for your next standardized test, drop him an email at pat@tutorpat.net.

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