Test Prep

How to Beat Procrastination When You Should Be Studying for the SAT/ACT

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If you ever studied for a test, you're probably encountered that good old frenemy, procrastination. It comes and goes, makes you feel lazy and only gets worse when the stakes are higher.


Meaghan McNamee, an independent college counselor at Clear Directions in Bergen County, N.J., believes that it's completely natural for students "to procrastinate out of fear. If they can put it off, they just don't have to deal with all the pressure and stress that surround the SAT and ACT. I think it's worse than class tests, just for the sheer magnitude of what they think the results of these tests mean for them and their chances for their dream schools, and, in their mind, their entire future."

Especially in the case of SAT and ACT test prep, procrastination is like a safety barrier. It acts as a cushion between you and the reality of what these standardized test scores will mean for your future. In the back of your mind, you've realized that once you start studying for the SAT or the ACT, all of the those things you were worried about become real, as McNamee puts it: The reality of "failing" or not meeting the high standards that are set by your parents, colleges, society and even yourself.

So how can you tackle this thorny beast? Here are some ideas to help.

Consider It A Marathon

Some students might thrive on pressure and the thrill of deadlines when pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper or project. But when you're talking about SAT or ACT test prep, McNamee points out that "there are no advantages to leaving studying to the last minute. This process is a marathon and not a sprint. You wouldn't start training for a marathon the week before the race – the same theory applies here."

Create A Realistic Timeline

If you want to study 40 hours before your first ACT/SAT, then choose which test date you are going to take, and figure out how many hours of test prep that would require on a weekly and daily basis. Don't forget to include longer sessions for taking practice tests.

Set A Time in Stone

Once you've determined how much you need to study, it's time to schedule those sessions into your busy week. Think about a moment in your week when you will have energy and no distractions or other urgent studying/homework to handle. Write it into your homework calendar, says McNamee, because you should consider test prep the same as homework, something that needs to be done on a regular basis.

Make It Manageable

Nobody wants to sit and study for hours at a time. By breaking it up into 30-minute increments, test prep becomes a lot less daunting. Of course, when it's time for a practice test, you'll need to set aside the full three or four hours (with essay) to get this done.

Going It Alone

While having your mom or dad encourage you and remind you to study can be helpful, it really depends on the relationship you have with your parents. "Sometimes parent involvement adds additional pressure on the student which could backfire," McNamee says. "It's also important that the student is in the driver's seat for the whole college process."

Get Outside Help

If you've tried everything and still find it difficult to motivate yourself to study, it's okay – at least you recognize this about yourself and know that you need to ask for help. It's better than trying to go it alone for too long, then ending up with no progress in your test prep efforts. For those who have the budget, there are test prep classes which have a set schedule. Or, for a more tailored experience, hire a tutor who can help you focus on your weaknesses, because "individualization is the key to successful tutoring," adds McNamee. Both of these options will force you to regularly add test prep time to your schedule. You could also try to form a test prep study group with classmates or friends to hold yourselves accountable.

As always, remember that the SAT and ACT don't define you or your future. "Many students are not good test-takers, period," says McNamee. "That does not mean they are not smart, worthy or won't be successful in life. These tests are just one aspect of your college application, and more and more colleges are dropping the requirement from their admissions requirements. There are plenty of test-optional schools, as well as smaller schools, that focus on the whole person and not just your stats."