Finals, standardized tests, and other long exams require sustained attention and task focus that can be difficult to maintain. A combination of the right preparation and techniques can help prevent you from getting bogged down on a question or running out of time.
Ensure physical comfort
One of the simplest techniques to prepare for a long period of sustained concentration is making sure you’ve taken care of your body. Make sure to get a full night’s sleep, eat an adequate breakfast, maintain good posture, wear layers, and bring a water bottle along. This way, you’ll have enough energy for the test and you’re less likely to be distracted by hunger pangs or uncomfortable temperatures in the test room.
Take the first two minutes to look through the test completely. Notice which topics are covered, what kind of questions you’ll need to answer, and how the test is structured—is it broken into sections? Is there an essay? This step will tell you what to expect and help you manage your time wisely.
Divide and conquer
No matter how the test is structured, find a way to break the test into sections. For example, you might break a test with 50 multiple-choice questions into five parts of 10 questions each, or an essay test into paragraphs. Then, estimate how much time each section will take, and plan for a one-minute break in between each section. Tackle each section one at a time and try to think about it in terms of the smaller segments rather than the whole thing.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but planning the aforementioned one-minute breaks in between sections of a test can help you finish the test faster. Studies show that regular breaks help people work more effectively. Once you complete a pre-established section of the test, give yourself a full minute to think about something else, drink some water, take deep breaths, and generally relax.
Solely focus on one question or task at a time
One of the easiest ways to lose focus is to worry about how much you still have to do. Make an effort to concentrate on one question at a time, and avoid second-guessing completed questions or looking ahead. If you’re really having trouble understanding or approaching a question, it’s okay to skip it and come back to it later. Sometimes, other questions in the test can jog your memory and help you solve a problem or add a point to an essay.
Have a system
It can be very helpful to create a method for yourself that’s the same for every test you take. Create a “test kit” with an extra calculator, pencils, a timer, and other useful things that you take to every test; then, make a personalized plan for how you’ll mark questions you need to revisit, how you’ll outline or solve answers or fill in your scantron, and how you’ll handle it if you lose focus. Having a reliable system will help take some of the pressure off and create a built-in structure that reminds you what comes next.
With the right approach and useful techniques, maintaining focus during lengthy exams can become second nature. Remember to both pace yourself and take moments to relax—exams are marathons, not sprints. Approaching your task strategically will help you make the most effective use of your time and keep your mind sharp.
Hilary Gan is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.