What are you doing this coming Saturday morning? If you’re reading this post, chances are that you, like hundreds of thousands of other high school students, will be taking the ACT. If you’re a human being (and we’re betting you are), it’s only natural to feel a little anxious. Or, okay, a lot. But fretting and sweating won’t do a thing to spike your ACT scores. Nor will a giant bout of last-minute studying. Here’s what to do instead so you sail into the test feeling confident and at the top of your game.

1. Put Your Mind at Rest Take a page from the playbook of champion athletes, who know they’ll perform better if they relax before a big competition. Last year, Diana Nyad became the first person to make the grueling 103-mile swim all the way from Cuba to Florida – without the protection of a shark cage! The night before, she ate an early dinner (pasta with garlic and olive oil), then she put on her pajamas and did crossword puzzles. Likewise, right before snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg won gold in the 2014 Olympic Games, he “was chilling really hard,” he told The Boston Globe. “I was eating mad snacks. Chocolate. Onion rings. Chips.” As a grand finale, he “fell asleep watching ‘Fight Club.’” The takeaway here? In order to do your best, walk into the ACT – which, let’s face it, is more or less the Olympics of high school – feeling relaxed and rested, not frantic from that last-minute cramsesh. Watch TV. Listen to music. Hang out (but not too late) with friends. Boosting your mood is the best way to boost your scores.

Sage Kotsenburg 2014 US snowboarding gold medal winner

Sage enjoys pretzels, candy, and gold medals

2. Plan Your Saturday Morning… Before Saturday Morning The devil is in the details, they say. For a smooth, non-Satanic start to test day, figure this stuff out by Friday night at the latest.

  • What time does the ACT begin?
  • How will you get there?
  • What time will you leave home? Add half an hour to your estimated travel time in case of unexpected delays.
  • Is someone giving you a ride? If so, make sure they are on board for this trip, and know when you need to leave.

3. Schedule a Three-Alarm Morning Set your alarm clock for a time that allows you to get dressed and eat breakfast without rushing. Set a back-up alarm as well, just in case. Also, have someone else in your house set their alarm, too. Make them promise they’ll jump on your bed yelling “Time to rise and shine, you fabulous love lump!” – or whatever it takes to get you going.

4. Get Your Wardrobe in Gear Set out each and every item you will wear to the ACT. Hey, this is the perfect day for your lucky underpants.

Calvin's lucky underwear gives him some serious strength

Lucky Rocketship Underwear FTW!

5. Prep Your Take-to-ACT Kit The three essentials:

  • Photo ID.
  • Your printed ACT ticket.
  • Two or more sharpened, soft-lead No. 2 pencils with good erasers.

And three optional items:

  • Calculator. ACT math problems are designed so that you can solve them without a calculator. If you plan to use one, check http://www.actstudent.org/faq/calculator.html to find out which models are allowed.
  • Watch.
  • Water and snacks for quick energy during breaks.

6. Do NOT Pack Any other time, you can stash a dozen dictionaries in your backpack if you like. But the ACT folks have super strict rules related to stuff, so do it their way just for today. You have the rest of your life to rebel.

  • Any electronic device other than a permitted calculator (i.e. no cell phones, headphones, timers, tablets, cameras, computers, media players, recording devices, etc.).
  • Books, dictionaries, notes, scratch paper.
  • Highlighters, colored pens or pencils, whiteout (does that even exist anymore?).
  • Tobacco.
  • Reading material (!!!)
  • Also, obviously, no weapons (except, perhaps, your razor-sharp mind).

7. Get Enough Sleep A rested brain is an alert brain. Enough said.

8. Breakfast of Champions The theme of your Saturday morning nosh: normal, normal, normal. Eat whatever you usually eat. Maybe add something high-protein for endurance. Coffee drinkers, don’t skip the java – your brain is counting on that caffeine. On the other hand, if you’ve never sipped anything more stimulating than OJ, today is not the day to guzzle that king-size energy drink – you’ll be way too wired during the test.

This guy enjoys coffee a little too much

Coffee: he’s doing it wrong

9. Rev Up By Reading You can’t actually bring a book to the ACT, but a few minutes of pre-test reading at home or in the car will get your brain ready to roll. No need to knock yourself out with Moby Dick or War and Peace – anything with sentences will do.

10. Reframe Last-Minute Jitters Being nervous is all about the fear that things will go badly. Excitement is a response to the belief that things will go well. Weirdly enough, we experience both states in a similar way: butterflies in the stomach, rapid heartbeat, a sense of distraction, and so on. If our own bodies don’t know the difference, why should our minds? Try telling yourself how “excited” you are, and reinforce a sense of positive anticipation rather than one of dread.

11. Put the Test in Perspective A student who scores high on standardized tests, sociologist William Julius Wilson has noted, “will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman. These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.” Honestly, it’s true: your entire future does not actually depend on your performance on one short test on one brief Saturday morning of your hopefully extremely long, happy, and successful life. Don’t let it weigh you down.

12. Do Not Skip This Important Final Step Finally, once you’ve finished the test, you are 100 percent entitled to celebrate. Maybe even 101 percent. See? There really is something to be excited about.


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