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Hyper-focusing for the SAT/ACT

In a recent tutoring session with one of the bright juniors I work with, we were discussing the following ACT problem:

The student had answered E. 2,700. Did you catch the student's mistake?

Presented in isolation, this problem may not seem too difficult. But imagine having to pay attention to the details in a problem like this when it's the 47th problem in the second section of a three-and-a-half-hour-long exam. Unsurprisingly, by the time my student got to this question, even the italicized yards wasn't enough to make her notice that there was a shift in the units of measurement here. She fell into an all-too-common trap of not really reading what the question is asking for.

Now let's put your focus to the test one more time. How many times does the letter “F” appear in the following sentence?

“Four freshmen taking French were offered the chance of a lifetime to study under esteemed writer Léon-Paul Fargue."

If you said seven, go back and try again – your attention to detail wasn't quite sharp enough. If you approach reading the sentence above the same as you would reading a novel or a homework assignment, there is a decent chance you missed the “f” in the word “of”. How did I predict that you would miss “of”? Any experienced tutor can reliably predict the types of mistakes that students will make on any given problem. But if I can predict this, so can the test makers!

To catch all 8 “f”s above, you need to focus intensely, paying close attention to the details - I call this the SAT/ACT hyper-focus mindset. (If you counted all 8 “f”s, kudos to you!). With practice, you can learn how to consistently tap into this mindset.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the hardest part of SAT/ACT prep for many students is not the content, but rather maintaining the right mindset throughout taking the test. The makers of the SAT/ACT designed these tests such that momentary lapses in focus – misreading an essential word, making an algebra mistake, or typing an incorrect number into calculators – dependably leads students to select the wrong answer. And on the SAT/ACT, there is no partial credit -- my student who correctly calculated the area in square feet instead of in square yards unfortunately gets 0 points, nada, zilch. Bottom line: Being tuned in to all the essential details and maintaining a deep level of focus on the SAT/ACT isn't easy, especially when students aren't accustomed to accessing this state of mind.

When students are doing homework, they are typically multitasking - texting friends, posting on social media, Facetiming, watching TV, listening to music or overhearing siblings and parents talking in the background – the potential distractions are endless. When doing a reading for a U.S. History class, students can often get away with skimming passages, but on the SAT/ACT students have to do a deep reading and absorb the words. A Precalculus homework might consist of problems that look familiar and are based on topics discussed in class recently, however on the SAT/ACT problems jump from one topic to another, and students have to parse small details hidden in word problems that they’re seeing for the first time.

It's tempting to think that, when the time comes to perform on the SAT/ACT, we will perfectly focused and ready. But optimal performance requires deliberate practice. Studies have shown that we do better in recalling information and demonstrating our knowledge when our physical and mental states are the same at the time of encoding (when we are practicing for the SAT/ACT) and at the time of recall (when we are taking the actual SAT/ACT). This means that, just as a dress rehearsal for a play involves getting into costume and walking onstage, the best preparation for the SAT or ACT will involve getting into the focused mindset needed to perform well on the test.

Therein lies the challenge: how can a student overcome a wandering mind as they prepare for the SAT or ACT at home, achieving the focus that they will need on test day?

Steps for practicing the SAT/ACT hyper-focus mindset:
1. Prep your environment. Turn your phone on silent, put it out of sight, and ask others in your household to not interrupt you during this time. After all, when you sit to take the SAT/ACT, the room is silent, phones are put away, and you are not being interrupted.
2. Set an intention. Decide how much time you have to dedicate to your practice. Recognize that you likely won’t be able to maintain hyper-focus for a whole test at first, so start off with partial sections or sets of targeted practice problems. One would not train for a marathon by running 26 miles on the first day.
3. Get your materials ready. Have a set of problems from your favorite prep book or print out problems from a practice test. Make sure you have sharpened pencils and a charged calculator.
4. Pay attention. As you work through problems, pay attention to each word, write out all your steps, highlight key words and keep your pencil on the page so that you stay engaged with the content.
5. Focus on recalibrating. At some point, you will probably notice your mind wandering to other things – your friends, this weekend, etc. When this happens, take a second to recalibrate. Look up from the page, assume an open body posture (stretch your shoulders back, for instance), take a deep breath, and then get back to the test.

At first, you may find yourself repeating step 5 consistently. With daily practice, achieving the hyper-focus mindset will become easier, and reining in a wandering mind will become second nature. You can then lengthen your practices to the point where you are maintaining hyper-focus throughout entire sections and eventually the entire test.

How do you know if you’re already hyper-focusing? If you’re making any of the following mistakes on practice problems/practice tests, your hyper-focus has room for improvement!

1. Missing an important detail in the wording of a problem, like units in a math problem or a “NOT” in a reading question
2. Not answering what the question itself was asking for (e.g. you solved for x but the problem asked for y)
3. Making a small algebraic or arithmetic mistake
4. Plugging in to calculator incorrectly

Practicing the hyper-focus mindset daily, if even only for 10 minutes, will improve your SAT/ACT score, and will also improve your ability to focus on other important tasks for school. If you master hyper-focusing, you will eventually be able to hyper-focus despite the distractions that are inevitably present in your environment. Start by paying more attention to your levels of focus when completing different tasks – you may realize how much of a role focus is playing in determining how long your assignments take to complete and how well you are completing them.

Alex is a professional tutor who loves teaching math and helping students unlock their potential on the SAT and ACT. He is the founder of Prime Academics.

1 Kommentar

11. Jan. 2022

Such a helpful and honed-in guide to hyper focus. These tips are as applicable to many of life’s “tests” and challenges as they are to the SATs and ACTs. Invaluable advice!

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