A new student of mine came to me with a difficult problem: “how can I go from an ‘A’ to an ‘A+?’”  Now, I know what you’re thinking… she needs to get a grip.  An “A” is an excellent grade, right?  Certainly.  But my student yearns to jump to the honors mathematics section, which is only reachable via an “A+.”  So now that I’ve established that this is a totally valid request, how do I make it happen?  How can someone, who is already achieving a high level of success, bridge that final gap to test taking perfection?  Here are six ways an “A” student can modify their routine to grab the highly coveted and often elusive “A+.”

  1. Master Mental Math – yes indeed, mental math will come in handy here. For most students struggling to nab that 100%, speed (or lack thereof) is often the culprit.  One of the key reasons why students can’t get through an exam quickly is because their mental arithmetic is lagging.  They spend an unnecessary amount of time either writing out arithmetic longhand or plugging numbers into a calculator.  Once you can fast track your brain to process the calculations on its own, you can shave a substantial amount of minutes off of each exam.  Translation: you will have more time to check through your exam once you are finished.
  2. Highlight Answers That You Are Less Than 80% Sure Of – once you finish your exam, you will need to double-check your work.  This is absolutely imperative.   But even if you don’t have time to review every single question and calculation, you can maximize your odds of a perfect score with a focused review.  For example, if you keep track of the problems that cause you a greater degree of difficulty and check those first, you will increase your chances of a flawless performance.  I advise my students to place a star next to any problem where their certainty is less than 80%.
  3.  Write Clearly And Neatly – silly mistakes are a huge reason for point losses on math exams.  Whether someone incorrectly copies the exam question or inadvertently mixes up the order of two variables, a simple and quick mental oversight can cost a student valuable points.  Unfortunately, these losses are not indicative of any lack of understanding.  Almost all students who fall victim to these errors have an excellent comprehension of the material.  Nonetheless, they are penalized for mental blips.  To avoid this pitfall, write neatly and clearly.  This will reduce your silly mistakes and allow your grasp of the material to shine through on test day.
  4. Take Several Timed Practice Exams Before The Real Deal – the key to solid exam preparation is mimicking the actual exam atmosphere during practice tests.  That means eliminating all distractions, sitting up straight in a chair, and working under a time constraint.  The more dedicated you are to this type of practice, the less intimidating the actual exam will feel.  As your nerves calm, your chances of nailing every question will go up.
  5. Stop Using Calculators On Homework And Exams – once your mental math is up to par, put your calculator away when it comes to basic arithmetic.  Not just on homework, but on exams as well.  Go through all the questions with just your mental calculations.  Your speed will increase, and with practice, so will your accuracy.  Then, after every answer has been completed, feel free to whip out your calculator to double-check your work. Now remember, I am not suggesting this strategy for those with weak mental math skills.  You must first exercise those mental muscles before doing away with your calculator.
  6. Pump Up Your Mental State Before An Exam Or Quiz – are you ready for some psychological pointers?  Look, I know you might be sneering at this tip, but I’m serious about this.  How you feel when you go into a test can adversely affect your performance.  Here is a quick list of pointers to make sure your mental state is steady and ready:
  • Arrive early to your exam so that you don’t spike your adrenaline levels.  If you rush into the exam with a great deal of stress, you could experience a crash in energy midway through the exam.
  • Take on a “Power Pose” for at least 2 minutes before the exam begins. “Power Poses” are stances that powerful or confident people often take. Believe it or not, striking a strong pose before an exam can lower your anxiety levels and boost your confidence.  For more information on “Power Poses,” check out the following article: How “Power Poses” Can Help Your Career.
  • Make sure to eat brain-boosting foods on test day.  Good food choices include protein rich items such as eggs, nuts, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Stay away from simple carbohydrates and sugars.

Getting an A+ is tough.  Not only does it require an excellent grasp of the material, but it also mandates a high level of discipline.  If you are truly dedicated to achieving this ultra high mark, then internalize these tips and study hard.  Good luck!