How to Concentrate When You’ve Got a Big Test Ahead of You

is one of the most important skills anyone needs throughout their life. As students, it has understandable importance concerning the amount of information that must be consumed and recalled. However, even beyond the student days, it’s necessary to have the skills involved in concentration to healthily and adequately perform any skills or responsibility. With its importance, it also seems to be most elusive. Regardless of how far-fetched it seems to acquire, concentration is a skill that is manageable by everyone.

Irrespective to the task that is before us, the ability to properly concentrate on is an imperative in many ways. By aptly concentrating on what we are working on, it automatically lowers stress and frustration levels as we note that we are making progress and take pride in a job well done. Beyond this, there is a level of safety considerations to respect. Certainly homework isn’t a dangerous event; however carpentry, driving or many other tasks do require steady concentration to avoid serious injury.

There are varying contributors to the struggles we have with concentrating. One of the largest is the amount of stress and anxiety that everyone tends to carry around with them. This can come in several forms including, being anxious with the task at hand or by its looming deadline and evaluation. Or perhaps we have procrastinated thus raising the mental stakes of getting everything done in an overly compressed period of time. If the tasks itself is boring or perceived as being overly difficult, we may find ourselves mental cluttered and frustrated. It can also be from other stressors in the rest of our lives that bring distraction and worry, clouding our ability to think. Whatever the reason, the solutions are standard for everyone. With appropriate practice it will become easier to manage and become integrated as an everyday skill.  Stress Management for Students

If you are preparing an entrance test such as a Nursing Entrance Test, or Armed Services Entrance Exams like the AFQT, or a certification like Nursing Certification, you are going to be stressed because so much depends on your grade on this one shot.  More on Test Anxiety.

The primary key to obtaining the appropriate levels of concentration is the ability to settle our minds in general. As mentioned, the various forms of stress that we encounter throughout life or have associated with the current task create heightened barriers to clarity and our ability to perform. It’s an overarching truth that the best way to prepare for moments of intense concentration is to take care ourselves during the other moments of our lives. We must find opportunities to relieve our stress and tension. Whether it’s through exercise, reading, mediation or any other favored fashion, it must become a central priority in our lives. Living with ongoing tensions have a degradating effect on every aspect of our lives; physically and mentally. Taking these breaks are no-more key than immediately prior to study or work sessions. Similar to muscle performance, our minds must have a period of rest in order to perform at their best and reach their peak achievements. It’s vital to take mental rests between tasks and especially prior to important periods. It’s equally important to take such breaks during these times to grant mental endurance and health.

Other areas to consider, which assist with mental clarity, are the environments used to work. It should be free of clutter and as much distraction as possible. Clutter lends itself to be an unconscious distraction as the visual “noise” is still processed by our brains taking up needed resources. It also creates barriers to effectiveness, if we have to constantly step around articles on the floor or have limited surface space due to artifact in our way. The noise level should also be as controlled as possible. It is true that some perform better with some background music; however, this should be kept low and only be used if silence is a greater distraction than music. If your typical study space tends to be open to frequent disruptions or is noisy then it’s important to find another location to work. These moments are critical and should be created and protected with a level of zeal. Creating a Productive Study Space

SCHEDULING: Scheduling is also important to healthy concentration. This should be done at two different levels. In the first place, the entire day should be scheduled adequately including the time needed to study or work. With the day’s obligations laid out, this frees the mind to not have to constantly worry about when something is going to get done, or find itself in confusion about what task should be completed next. In fact, in terms of scheduling out the day, it is highly recommended to incorporate a to-do list that has been appropriately prioritized. Setting a daily schedule also helps remove some anxiety by setting this specific time to study. Nothing else is due to get done at this time and we are free to concentrate without worry or guilt over other needs of the day.

Scheduling should also be done for the time needed to concentrate. When we sit down to begin work, there should be a few moments of laying out exactly what we desire to get accomplished and what steps must be taken to achieve those goals. These too should be prioritized to focus on the more difficult tasks first. This allows us to avoid wasting mental resources on materials that don’t need them as much as others. Our break periods, mentioned earlier, should also be well scheduled during these times. During these breaks, make sure to get up and move around. This will give a fuller mental recess and also encourage blood flow thus increasing mental ability. Make this plan and be determined to stick to it. Giving ourselves too much freedom for variation will invite distraction and the temptation to think on other things.  Tips for preparing a study schedule and How to Get Organized.

These and other tactics, including a pneumonic system can be found HERE.

A growing trend among college students is the use of prescription stimulants, typical prescribed to individuals with ADHD, such as Adderall and Vyvanse. In fact, some statistics place the percentage of students, who have used them, as high as 70% with regular users being between 25-30%. The reason these so-called “Study Drugs” are so popular is because they tend to work by increasing clarity, concentration and energy, but it does so chemically. However, this shortcut ability comes at a price that is often ignored.   The risks associated with this drug abuse are many. To start, it is simply an illegal process. To buy or use drugs that have not been prescribed or in a fashion other than prescribed is a crime that come with jail time and still fines. More info on prescription drug abuse and addiction.

Beyond the legal ramification there are many health concerns. These include anxiety and nervousness, heightened blood pressure, changes in blood sugar, shakiness, disorientation, jitters and more. However, the issues just continue from there. With their abuse, there are also increased risks for heart attack, stroke and even instances of sudden death. In the midst of these, it should also be understood that they possess an inherent risk of producing physical addiction.  And if one is already hooked to “study drugs,” physical addiction can be strong and tough to overcome.

In the long run, there is greater productivity to be gained by learning how to properly concentrate and working steadily and diligently over time to accomplish our needed tasks. In fact, by simply chemically boosting one’s ability to focus during study time doesn’t provide a guarantee for a clear ability to recall the information during performance time. However, legitimate study offers itself to strong recall ability. It may appear to be a simple and effective alternate to be able to concentrate, however in reality, nothing compensates like appropriate, steady work.

seems illusive to many, however, it can be effectively developed with the right steps, mindset and environment. Like any other skill or habit, it must be worked at and repeated with consistency. With time and usage, it will become easier and more natural; providing us with valuable abilities towards a life of success.

Concentration Issues and Solutions

Things that interfere with Concentration:

Clutter, noise, interruptions, phone, chat, people, etc.

Common concentration issues:

  • Your mind wanders from one thing to another
  • Your worries distract you
  • Outside distractions take you away before you know it
  • The material is boring, difficult, and/or not interesting


Concentration Tips

  • Turn off cell phone, TV, radio etc.
  • Background music is ok as long as it doesn’t distract.
  • Put up a sign
  • Set goals and reward yourself.
  • Take frequent short breaks.
  • Set a timer for 15, 20, 30, 45 minutes and work until the timer goes off then do something you like doing.


Problem/Issue Solution
Distractions/Interruptions – improve study location
– get a sign
– turn off cell phone
– collect all the material you will need (i.e. textbooks, notebook) BEFORE you begin.
Boring/Difficult – Create rewards for successfully completing a task, such as calling a friend, a food treat, a walk, etc.
-”If I study for 1 hour then I get a reward”
– Changing the subject you study every one to two hours for variety
– take regular breaks
Not Enough Time

– Schedule your time
– Make a Weekly Schedule that includes studying

My mind wanders – take regular breaks
– before you begin set a goal (i.e. 30 minutes of study and then a break)

Resources and Other Links:

Learn to Concentrate at MIT
Discussion of Adderall at College Network
The Other Side of Adderall

See our Ultimate Guide to Test Preparation

Written by: Brian Stocker MA, Complete Test Preparation Inc.
Modified: October 30th, 2018 October 30th, 2018
Published: June 2nd, 2011

7 thoughts on “How to Concentrate When You’ve Got a Big Test Ahead of You”

  1. i have an exam in a few days and so i did enjoy reading your article. i need to ease off and relax. the exams means a lot but a worried mind wont help. thanks for the article

  2. Yes, i need to concentrate, but it is not always easy when one is a working mom with two kids. I am however determined to ace my next management exam.

  3. The best way is to start small – even if you study for 15 minutes then do something else – next time do 20 or 25 minutes – keep increasing the time and you will be surprised.

  4. There was alot of good information in this post. In particular, the section on abuse of prescription drugs. For people with ADHD or without, you should definitely take a look at the supplement piracetam. It is one of the most under utilized supplements, that can have a huge impact on sustained focus, concentration, and information retention.

  5. Lack of concentration has been a major problem for me for at least two decades. Right now I am studying for a brutal exam. If someone put a gun to my head I would sincerely want them to pull the trigger.

    Great article BTW.

  6. Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to check out your website on my iphone during lunch break. I really like the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m shocked at how fast your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, good blog!

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