Big tests challenge us on levels that extend far beyond sheer knowledge or academic prowess. Marathon exams like the SAT and ACT also test endurance, commitment, and focus. How we score, then, reflects how carefully we cultivate the physical and psychological drivers of peak performance.
Focus matters as much as any other attribute. If you cannot focus, you cannot bring your best; if you cannot bring your best, you cannot do your best. Simple, really, but focus tends to fall by the wayside in deference to more concrete skills.
Focus can be divided into two different yet equally important traits: mindfulness and concentration. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana elucidates the essential distinctions in the book Mindfulness in Plain English:
Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point. Please note the word force. Concentration is pretty much a forced type of activity. It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower. And once developed, it retains some of that forced flavor. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. It notices things. Concentration provides the power. It keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object.
How does this apply to peak performance on tests like the SAT and ACT?
Concentration allows us to focus on specific questions.
Mindfulness allows us to maintain focus across each section and the test as a whole.
When you want to do your best, do not forget focus.