Mindfulness: A Missing Link in Test Prep

Jan 29, 2021

Mindfulness: A Missing Link in Test Prep

Wherever you are as you’re reading this article, I have a request: before you read any further, place your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and take a long, slow deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. 

Notice how the simple act of taking a deep, deliberate breath brings a sense of calm, release, and pause. What would happen if you were to extend that one deliberate breath into several cycles of deliberate breathing? What might the impact be of learning to direct your attention and awareness where you want them to go–whether to the breath, to the body, to the environment around you, or even to that math problem set you’ve been putting off?

Mindfulness–the act of directing your attention to the present moment–is a powerful tool to ease stress, enhance calm and clarity, and train your ability to focus. You may have heard of mindfulness in the context of yoga, or an app like Headspace, or the Netflix documentary series The Mind, Explained. What you may not know is that mindfulness has the potential to improve not only your well-being, but also your test-taking experience and test results. For this reason, I would argue that mindfulness is the missing link in traditional test prep. 

This article discusses what mindfulness is, what research has shown about the connection between mindfulness and test-taking, and how Onsen’s mindfulness program can help you achieve your fullest score potential. 

The connection between your nerves and test scores

In order to excel on an exam – especially a high-stakes exam such as the SAT or ACT – you need to possess more than mastery of content; you also need to know how to manage the inevitable flood of pre-test jitters, stress, and sometimes debilitating nerves that test day brings. 

Picture it: you’ve studied for months, diligently completing grammar drills and geometry problems, learning new math concepts and vocabulary, memorizing formulas, and practicing strategies for reading comprehension. You’re consistently hitting your target score on practice tests. You’ve got this!

And then Test Day arrives. Your stomach is doing somersaults. Your palms are sweaty; your mind is racing. What was that formula again? I wonder what the reading passages will be about. Will I run out of time? What will happen if this goes badly? You feel distracted. And stressed.

Your nerves can become overwhelming and have a very real, negative impact on your test performance, preventing you from reaching your highest potential. You’ve worked SO hard to knock the exam out of the park–but you forgot the missing link in your test prep. 

Test stress is very common and can have a range of effects. This type of performance-based stress can affect self-confidence, memory, and attention, which can ultimately lead to a decrease in academic outcomes (Cunha & Paiva, 2012). Further, high levels of cognitive test stress are correlated with lower test scores on both in-class exams and the SAT (Cassady & Johnson, 2001).

Luckily, there are strategies to help manage test day jitters. One of these is to practice mindfulness.

What is mindfulness, and how does it relate to test prep?

The Oxford Dictionary defines mindfulness as: 

  1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment—while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations—used as a therapeutic technique.

Mindfulness is a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, a way for the body and mind to reconnect. It can be practiced in many different ways, all of which help you focus on what you’re sensing, feeling, or thinking in the moment. You can practice mindfulness while sitting, standing, lying down, or moving. You can be anywhere, and you can practice mindfulness for any length of time. If you took that deep, deliberate breath at the start of this article, you’ve already gotten a quick taste of mindfulness!

How can mindfulness improve test scores?

A wide body of research supports the correlation between mindfulness and stress relief . The practice of being in the moment can decrease overall emotional stress and worry, and can also be applied in independent situations, such as during study sessions and on test day. By helping diminish test stress or anxiety, mindfulness is linked to higher test scores and academic performance.

Mindfulness is also correlated with improved concentration, fewer intrusive and distracting thoughts, and higher levels of focus—all of which can lead to more effective study sessions and better performance on tests. Mindfulness can help people focus their attention and sustain it, yielding substantial gains in concentration. The exciting part? Every little bit of mindfulness helps.

Some studies show that practicing mindfulness for even just a few minutes on a regular basis or immediately before taking tests can decrease your stress level, increase your focus, and improve your performance.

How can you practice mindfulness?

As mentioned above, practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere, for any length of time, and in many, many different ways. A simple google search will give you ideas and examples.

Want to give it a try? One common way to practice mindfulness is to focus on your breath—try it for five minutes. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus your attention on nothing but the breath—there is no need to control it; just notice how it feels. Notice the sensation in your nose as you breathe in, and notice how the breath fills different parts of your body. Notice the breath as it leaves your body and where you feel different muscles respond. If other thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them and set them aside for a few minutes, refocusing on your breath. Inhale for a slow count of four; exhale for a slow count of four. Spending five minutes like this can’t hurt, and will probably help you feel a bit calmer.

We encourage you to explore different ways to practice mindfulness—e.g. noticing sounds, or doing a scan of your body noticing sensations from head to toe. Try incorporating five minutes of mindfulness into a regular routine—perhaps even as you begin studying or before you take tests.

What now?

Here at Onsen, we weave mindfulness into our tutoring program—students will learn about mindfulness and its benefits, and they will have the opportunity to practice with a Mindfulness Coach. A certified Coach can also develop a personalized Mindfulness Program to support a student’s practice, supplementing and integrating with the work they’ll be doing with their math and verbal tutor(s) on test content and strategy.

Everyone is different, so we encourage you to explore mindfulness in whatever way works for you, keeping in mind that practicing mindfulness may just be the missing link in your test prep—the key to managing your test stress and reaching your highest potential.

Written by

Katie Dunn
Author Image Katie graduated cum laude from Duke University with a degree in Mathematics and has been tutoring math for nearly two decades, at all levels up to and including calculus. Most recently, she has several years’ experience tutoring SAT Math and ACT Math & Science. She has a passion for teaching others and has worked in the education non-profit sector for over 10 years.

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Onsen offers private, personlized test preparation with master tutors for the U.S admissions tests. Our SAT tutoring methods alleviate stress so students can achieve their highest scores.

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