The expression is you are what you eat, but I would say you are what you think holds as much truth. The idea of mindfulness and the power of thought have been everywhere lately—see here, here, and here. One of the things that I hear students doing as we work through SAT or ACT problems is telling me, by way of excuse when they’ve missed a problem, that they are just bad at imaginary numbers, they’ve always been bad at quadratic equations, they’ve always been bad at geometry, and so on. So they believe this about themselves—that they’re just bad at it with no hope of getting better. If we change our negative self-talk to say things like “I never really understood this concept” or “that’s something that I need to review”, that’s a subtle change in the wording that can make a big difference. That’s saying that I don’t completely get it yet, but I can. I can, if I work at it. I can, if I review. I can, if I ask questions.

Negative self-talk doesn’t just end with the ways that we tell ourselves that our weaknesses are unchangeable. It also includes the pressures that we put on ourselves to achieve and the messages we give ourselves when we don’t live up to our own expectations. How many times a day do you say to yourself “that was dumb” or “I’m an idiot” or “why would I do that?” or some other similar message. We berate ourselves over simple mistakes that are only human. Students and parents often put a tremendous amount of pressure on the scores for the SAT and ACT. Rather than staying in the present moment, students often go into the test with the mindset that this one test will determine the next four years of their lives. That pressure creates anxiety that can be self-defeating and undo all of the work that they did in preparing.

So how do we change those messages?

For one, stop constantly focusing on your weaknesses and look at your strengths as well. Be fair to yourself when evaluating your performance on a test like the SAT. What went well? Where can you still improve? How can you use your strengths to increase your score?

Keep perspective. This is just one test on one day. Prepare for the test and take the preparation seriously. Then, when it comes to test day, you can confidently say “I have prepared for this and I know that I can do well”. Write the message on your bathroom mirror a week or two in advance so that you can practice saying it to yourself each day until you really believe it.

Don’t compare. Every person has unique strengths and weaknesses. Some students can take a test with little preparation and get the score they are hoping for. Others need more time to practice to reach their goals. Try not to compare yourself to others as that only creates more stress.

Take the time to relax. Maybe exercise helps you de-stress. For others, it may be taking quiet time for reflection or meditation. Whatever helps you decompress and come back to the present moment, take the time out to do it.

Challenge your negative self-talk. When one of those messages pops into your head like “I’m never going to be able to do well on the SAT and not going to get into the college of my dreams”, stop for a moment. Do you know this to be true? Could there be another more positive outcome? Change your negative self-talk into something that you have control over. For example, the above statement would be more helpful if it said, “The SAT is intimidating but I have a plan in place to prepare.” This addresses the fear in the initial statement but gives you control over the outcome rather than letting the fear overwhelm you.

I know it is difficult to stay positive in the face of such a daunting task as the SAT or ACT, but it really can make a big difference on test day. Be aware of the messages you tell yourself so you are better equipped to face the test with confidence!