Alan Schwarz’s recent article in the New York Times, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill,” highlights the pressures to succeed on SAT and standardized tests, pressures that lead some students to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in an effort to boost their scores and enhance their positions in the university admissions process. As the CEO and founder of CATES Tutoring in New York City with offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, and abroad in cities such as London, I personally have worked with hundreds of students – and CATES as a company with thousands – from elite private schools in the New York area and all over the world. Our clients run the gamut: regular time, extended time, double time, 2400 caliber on the SAT test, and students hoping to simply break 21 on the ACT test. Some of our students, particularly those enrolled in Envision Test Prep, our specialized division for students with learning differences, receive prescriptions for Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, et al and use them to great benefit in their work. However, we have been asked about the use of PEDs for students who do not clinically require them. These questions actually highlight a core issue in the testing process: The need to develop coping techniques that allow students to perform at peak levels despite the stress of the exams.
Coping techniques for the stress of exams
The three basic elements of a successful coping strategy for taking standardized tests are nutrition, exercise, and something we all take for granted: breathing. In our SAT coaching binder we address this last element directly: “Many students forget to breathe during the exam, and as a result, do not think as clearly. Take three deep breaths at the beginning and end of each section to focus and center yourself. Take another breath at the middle of each section to re-focus for the second half of it. If you need to “reboot” your brain, take a breath, or do some yoga or jumping jacks during the test to refresh your mind, either during a section (if you’re taking the test in a room alone) or during the break (outside the room). Go for it.”
Nutrition is also important. No one thinks clearly on an empty stomach. Eat a full breakfast and eat a snack at the first break. A snack allows you to maintain focus throughout the last hours of the SAT, as your breakfast energy usually peters out half-way through the exam.
A technique we recommend for students with learning differences or ADHD can help almost anyone improve their test performance: Circle 3 things in the question. We find this to be the single most useful strategy on any and every (paper-based) standardized test. For students with focus issues, regardless of whether or not they have learning differences, if they circle no less than 3 details in each question – the key facts, facts that imply other facts, what the question is asking, etc. – scores rise. Circling – and NOT underlining, which doesn’t highlight the info as well – helps you pull out the key info and cut out the distracting, non-essential wording around the key facts. Circling helped one of our students, John, stay focused through the SAT and brought him 30 points in the Reading and 60 points in the Math overnight. The difference in his scores helped him gain entrance to Georgetown. Circling helped our student Victoria gain 110 points in Reading, 90 points in Math, and 90 points in Writing. The difference in her scores helped her earn admission to a number of Ivy League universities.
Students who have been prescribed PEDs to cope with learning challenges need to understand how to best – and when to – take the medication within the course of the exam to maximize their focus and test scores. For slow release medications like Adderall and Concerta, take them before the exam and at the second break of the exam. Quick release medications like Ritalin should be taken right before the exam starts and at each break.
For tips on exercise that can help students perform their best, we have a blog on nutrition and exercise (http://www.catestutoring.com/blog/healthy-study-tips/) with great information. We invite you to speak to one of our learning specialists at Envision – whether you have a learning difference or not – to learn more about the techniques our tutors use to help their students focus better during the exam.