The reason I write this is to discuss what it really means to be calm and collected before you go for an examination, in this case, my focus is on the SAT and TOEFL exams. A lot of the time, the College Board in its bulletin or website admonishes that the candidate not fret unnecessarily, that they should take a good night’s rest and arrive early on the day of the examination. These are valid suggestions anyone wanting to write the TOEFL or SAT particularly must heed. At the same time however, it is important that we clarify what we mean when we tell our candidates to be ‘calm’ before a near syllabus-less exam like the SAT or TOEFL.
What does it really mean to be calm before an examination like the SAT or TOEFL? I concede this is a difficult question to tackle exhaustively mostly because there are several ways a candidate could maintain the sort of stability and composure that is necessary to carry him through the exam. While some are involved in breathing exercises that ordinarily should bring down and regulate their blood pressure on account of their ‘anxiety quotient’ (Fry, 1996), others do a one-minute prayer or recite some religious mantra or chant. All of these and the many more that will not be mentioned here could just make up that one-percent that may contribute to your state of collectedness in the course of that exam. But that is not what this essay is about. Doing your breathing exercises or reciting from religious books cannot be substitute for the sort of calmness you exude from being prepared for the exam.
Let me say it quickly that being calm before your SAT exam or any other exam for that matter is another way of asking you to go there prepared. I do not know what to say to anyone who would encourage our kids to go up there with a laissez-faire attitude mostly because of the fact that the exam is a test of the totality of your personality and that it is no big deal if they work hard at it or not, or to those who would tell the kids that they may not bother to engage tutors, counselors as guides and academic chaperons and that they should embark on a do-it-yourself plan. For instance, I have written a couple of essays on how a candidate could tackle the SAT essay. Now a candidate who decides to apply some of the suggestions I put forward in my essay would still need a tutor or a counselor to look at those essays that the candidate has written on a regular basis to smoothen the rough edges of his essay.
Now what does it mean to be prepared for the SAT or TOEFL? It could mean a couple of things. It could mean knowing exactly what you want with the SAT; knowing what it is you are up against and knowing exactly what to study and giving it your best shot. By that I mean that you must have the right mental and psychological and sometimes spiritual frame and disposition for the exam. Some of the students that I came across did not really know what the SAT exam is and or what the acronym, ‘SAT’ stood for. Some were in the classes because their friends were taking SAT classes and they had to take the classes too. While some were not sure if they should write the SAT or TOEFL, others just took both exams and took the whole exercise for granted.
Perhaps I should tell you my cousin’s story, which actually may be a good example of how being prepared and being calm before an exam are related. The whole thing began when he was in secondary school, what Americans and some of you elsewhere in Europe may refer to as ‘high school’. He didn’t have any elder brothers or sisters who had gone to school before him to act as guides, neither were there friends in his neighbourhood who had passed through the educational system. But because he was a little sharp-witted, he got to senior grade without even knowing that he had gotten there. When it was time to decide on a choice of science or Arts-related subjects, he had no idea what to do. At the end, he found himself taking classes both in the Sciences and Arts. He told me that he remembered quite vividly the day he wrote a practical Chemistry paper. He said that he had no idea what the whole exam was about and he merely wrote down a fellow candidate’s answers. Of course, he failed all of the science subjects. By the time he got home and the results were out, he found himself in a fix because it was either he passed a paper here and a paper there, without the required combination of subjects to get into university, or do something else with his life.
Quite by chance, he began studying for his ‘A’ level. The kid upstairs who was attending classes in a prep school for his Higher School Certificate exams always won all the arguments that had to do with politics and because he was stuck at home on account of his haphazard kind of result, he pressured his Dad into enrolling him for the HSC. He did. This time however, he told me he knew what he was up against because: one, he made friends who guided him at specific points. Two, there were subjects that he didn’t take at O level classes that he had to grapple with at Advanced level. Three, instead of the normal two years that he should study for the advanced level programme, he opted to do a one-year crash programme because of the time he had wasted at home.
At last, we both got into university to study English. According to him, he said he assumed that a course in English at University may not be much more than the writing of essays, compositions, reading of novels. And that was mostly because he did not do his own research to find out what he was up against. And then the surprises came in rapid succession – there was phonetics, there was grammar, there was drama, there was poetry, there was syntax, there was morphology, there was semantics, there was etymology, there was linguistics and there was a deluge of courses he’d never before heard about. And then when it was time for the exams, you needed to have seen him on that day: I was sitting at the back of the class and I guess that was why I could see him thrashing about, looking helplessly to my course mates for help but none came. He sat in front, right in front of the exam supervisor and she kept glaring at him, warning him to behave. That seemed to have done it for my cousin. After the whole of the exams, I didn’t see him at all during the holidays. Worried somewhat, I visited his home and what I saw was amazing. Ono was researching: he was digging and diving very deep. He researched, he scratched, and he spoke to some of our seniors living in my neighbourhood, and most of the time he was hardly home: if he was not in the local library, he was in the primary school close by or you find him playing football or soccer in the evenings.
For me, however, I made sure that I studied by day, at least three hours and slept at night. I hung out whenever I wanted to but I never forgot to put in my mandatory three hours daily, no matter what happened. I spent time at the library also and played football with Ono sometimes. And when it was time for the second semester exams, I didn’t need to stress myself unnecessarily because I had covered enough grounds and I took care not to be bored. Throughout the entire exam from that second semester until we both graduated, we always took a walk in the large exam hall, the rule being that we were not expected to leave until it was thirty minutes before the end of each exam. We took a walk not because we wanted to show off but we both began to find out that the exams were not that much of a bother if we prepared well. See, preparing well has a certain symbiotic relationship with your being calm in an examination: you will be calm if you prepare well and you may not be calm if you are not prepared. I do not see how a candidate could be calm if he or she is not ready. I guess taking a walk in an exam hall merely shows that I may have been calm and collected before, during and after the exams and I want to suggest that same formulae for preparation for the SAT.
Let me summarize by summarizing Ron Fry’s book, Pass Any Test: Focus on the exam. Have some perspective. Study smart: at home, at the lib, and mix with friends who are writing the same exam. Create time for your own study. Plan. Sleep. Don’t cram much. Put in at least three hours daily. For the essays, think before you ink. These are sensible suggestions and I should add that it is only after you have done all of these that you could calm the butterflies in your tummy by either doing a breathing exercise or saying a prayer to God.