Test Prep/taking the ACT and SAT

I’m going to level with you – there’s nothing fun about taking a 4+ hour test on a Saturday morning. Even if you score off the charts and earn a huge scholarship, you still probably won’t enjoy taking the ACT or SAT. But by employing a few simple strategies, you can make sure your standardized test experience is as productive as possible.

Answer the easy questions first. Every question is worth the same amount of points, so don’t waste your time on a hard question that you might not even get correct. Instead, clean up all the easy questions first and collect the points you know you can get. Then move on to the tougher questions if you have left over time.

Know when to guess. While the SAT and ACT share many similarities, they are two separate beasts so it’s best to tackle them using different strategies.* The ACT does not penalize you for wrong answers; the SAT does. Therefore, guess away on the ACT. When the proctor gives you the five-minute warning on the ACT, make sure you bubble in an answer for every question. The SAT will deduct ¼ of a point for every incorrect answer, so don’t guess blindly. Only guess on the SAT if you can eliminate at least one answer choice first.

Pace yourself. Standardized test are a marathon, not a sprint. Train yourself to stay focused and on your “A game” for the full duration of the test. If you find yourself rushing through every question and then having leftover time at the end of a section; work on spending a little more time with each question, reading it carefully to make sure you don’t miss important details. Conversely, if you run out of time on each section, prioritize how you spend the time you have. Make sure you are using it to answer the questions you are most likely to get right. Review your test results in detail to look for patterns in the types of questions you miss and where they fall within the section.

Practice. “You can’t study for standardized tests” is an all too-common myth. Imagine if you told your basketball coach it is impossible to improve your free throw. Would he or she believe that, pat you on your head, and tell you good try? Or, would your coach tell you to get to the free throw line and start practicing? (For those of you who are not so athletically inclined, the correct answer is “B” start practicing – and that’s the only answer I am going to give you).  Endurance and pacing are as vital to getting the best score possible as knowing the material, and those skills can only be gained through practice and experience with the test.

Study. Practice only goes so far though. Ever heard the saying, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?” This applies to standardized tests too. If you find your scores plateauing, don’t put yourself through another 4-hour test on a Saturday morning without changing something. Freshen up on skills and terms that you might not have used in a couple of years. Review basic grammar and punctuation rules, go over geometry terms, study algebra 1 principles, make some vocabulary flash cards. Find your biggest weakness and attack it; it’s also your biggest opportunity to improve.

Get your head in the game. I’ll let a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, make this point for me:

Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer 42 fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The “professor” group didn’t know any more than the “soccer hooligan” group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind, and, clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier – in that stressful instant after a trivia question was asked – to blurt out the right answer. The difference between 55.6 and 42.6 percent, it should be pointed out, is enormous. That can be the difference between passing and failing.

Does this mean you should write an essay about being a professor before each standardized test? No. But do what you need to psych yourself up and get into a “smart” mindset before the test. It could improve your score by 13%.

*This is in no way meant to imply that you should tackle actual beasts. Stay safe out there!

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