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You Start Studying Too Late.
Whether or not you want to hear it, it takes months to prepare adequately and score really well on a test like the ACT, SAT, GRE and other standardized, high-stakes test. Why? They do not simply test your content knowledge, which could theoretically be crammed into your head a week before the test. (i.e. Who was Ronald Reagan's press secretary? How do you say the word, "eradicate" in French?) Standardized tests often measure your ability to reason. Predict. Infer. Draw conclusions. And in your everyday, regular school life, you may not be practicing those skills. So, in order to get better at them, you need to brush up on them early and often. Repetition is key and cannot be mimicked the week prior to the test.
Fix It: Get a study schedule put together several months before your exam. Write down study times into your calendar and commit yourself to them firmly. Let go of the idea that you can "wing it" and get the score you'd like. I promise you'll be grateful for prepping early for your major test!
You Don't Prepare in a Way That Suits Your Learning Style
This may be news to you, but everyone learns in different ways. Some people learn material really well sitting at a desk in a quiet corner, rehashing all their notes with headphones set to white noise. Other people learn best in a group! They want to be quizzed by friends, laughing and joking along the way. Still others prefer to type all their notes over again while they play a recorded lecture of the class review. If you're trying to force yourself to learn in a way that doesn't suit your learning style, you'll doom yourself to fail your exams.
Fix It: Take the learning styles quiz. Sure, it's anecdotal and not 100% scientific, but it may help give you an idea about how you learn best. Find out if you're a visual, kinesthetic or auditory learner and prepare in a way that can actually help you learn.
You Don't Learn the Ins and Outs of Your Exam
Did you know that the ACT is very different from the SAT? Your vocabulary quiz is going to be an incredibly different type of test than your midterm exam. Perhaps you're failing your exams because you haven't quite caught on that you need to prepare in different ways for different kinds of tests.
Fix It: If you're taking a test in school, find out from your teacher the type of exam it will be - multiple choice? Essay? You'll prepare differently if so. Get a test prep book for the ACT or SAT and learn the strategies for each test. You'll save time (which leads to earning more points) by familiarizing yourself with the test content prior to testing.
You Pressure Yourself.
Nothing is worse than test anxiety. Well, maybe childbirth. Or being eaten by sharks. But mostly, nothing is worse than test anxiety. For days before the test you can think of nothing else. You pressure yourself straight into hives. You've decided that nothing - NOTHING - matters except a perfect score and you've sweated and cursed and hoped and despaired over your upcoming exam. And after having taken the exam, you realize that your score was absolutely awful and you wonder what you could've done differently.
Fix It: Practice steps to overcome test anxiety from your desk right before the exam. If that doesn't help, draw a timeline of your imagined life. (Birth - Death at 115 years old.) Place major events on it: first learned to walk; lost a grandparent; got married; the births of your 17 children; won the Nobel prize. Now, place a tiny dot of your test date on your timeline. Doesn't seem so enormous, now does it? Although a test can make you fraught with nerves, it helps to put it into perspective. Will you remember it on your deathbed? Highly unlikely.
You've Labeled Yourself a Bad Test-Taker
Right now - this minute - stop calling yourself a poor test-taker. That label, called a cognitive distortion, does more harm than you know! Whatever you believe yourself to be you will become. Even if you've taken and failed tests in the past, your future testing self is not a guaranteed failure. Figure out the mistakes you made on those tests in the past (Maybe you didn't study? Perhaps you didn't sleep enough? Maybe you didn't learn the test strategy?) and give yourself the chance to rock this test by preparing.
Fix It: At least 30 days prior to the exam, write the words, "I'm a great test-taker!" on post-its and stick them everywhere - your bathroom mirror, the dashboard of your car, the inside of your binder for school. Nerdy, but totally worth it. Write it on the back of your hand. Make it your screensaver and your computer password. Live it for the next month and watch your brain slowly begin to overcome the label you've given yourself in the past.