Anyone who has ever sat down to take a four-hour standardized exam knows all too well that testing is not just an intellectual exercise. Exams like the SAT and ACT are grueling physical and psychological ordeals. If you want your best test scores, you can’t just focus on learning test content: you must also strengthen your body and mind.
Any process that demands commitment over time for true improvement runs on willpower. When your will is strong, you make time to meet with your tutor, to improve your vocabulary every day, and to sit for high-quality practice tests. When your will is strong, you can focus on the task in front of you to derive the most experiential value. And, of course, when your will is strong, you can bring your best to every question on a standardized test, no matter how bored, distracted, or tired you are.
So how do you forge an iron will capable of carrying you through the most trying or tedious tasks? Willpower acts much like any muscle in that you can both improve it through special exercise and fatigue it through overuse. So consider these action steps for superior self-control:
1. Feed Your Will with Sugar
Humans are not so different from the technological tools we rely on in that we require more energy when functioning at higher levels. This analogy makes perfect sense when we think about sports and exercise, but rarely enters our minds when considering school and tests. Yet our greedy brains consume far more energy than any other organ. Researchers have found that even self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source. In essence, willpower runs on sugar, so keep your glucose levels up when testing for optimal performance… a little chocolate at the right moment can work wonders.
2. Manage your Cognitive Load
Students tend to struggle with math questions on the SAT and ACT not because of the math concepts, which are usually pretty simple, but because of the complexity of the problems. Inefficient testers ignore the problem-solving aspect of the task and focus instead on attempts to overpower problems with superior calculation skill. As a result, they waste both time and energy, guaranteeing a deficit of both essential resources as they get to the tougher questions at the end of a section. The SAT and ACT are marathons, not sprints. Maintain your peak willpower by seeking to answer the most questions in the least time with the least work.
3. Give In When You Can
Oscar Wilde famously advised, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” He had a point, as research suggests that self-control, like energy or strength, depends on a limited resource. Exerting too much willpower leads to decision fatigue. Conserve your precious willpower by avoiding temptations and only making necessary decisions before a challenging task. For example, decide the night before a big test exactly what you’re going to wear, eat, and bring to the test site. Also, set your alarm and stick to it. Making simple choices ahead of time keeps you fresh for more challenging ones down the line.
Want to score your best? Then bring your best to every question. Singular focus, the kind of total absorption in a task that elicits our very best work, requires a will strong enough to shut out distractions and maintain commitment no matter what. If you build up your willpower, you’ll build your best scores and so much more.