Rise Above

Real Talk: Test Preparation

I have been preparing students for standardized examinations for over a decade. In that time I have seen many succeed and many others fail to achieve their goals. The first and most important factors to remember are often glossed over or ignored by many test prep programs and teachers. This costs students and families precious time. Below, I have enumerated the notes I have been giving students and parents for years that have yielded results on multiple types of standard examinations, e.g. SAT, ACT, GED, and GRE.  

1. The Real Goal

Standardized examinations do not test ones aptitude or depth of knowledge on the content, rather they tests ones ability to put their knowledge to use within a specific period of time and along a specific train of thought. Thus, when studying or prepping for this, or any other, standardized exam, the first and best strategy is pacing

The goal is simple: to get as many answers correct as you can in the time provided. Thus, standardized tests are not gathering data on what information you can remember, but how you use it.

2. The Real Content

The entire examination is a reading test. Essentially: know the directions (what you are expected to do with the time) and examine the questions (what you are expected to think about). Thus, when studying, learn the language of the test. Here, the key to prepping is to answer exam questions, by taking timed practice tests, in a comparable environment in a diligent and deliberate manner.

Remember: It's not about what you know (unless your store of knowledge is well below baseline—reading and writing levels below 8th grade and math levels below basic Algebra 2), it's about what you do with the time that you are given.

Reading questions examine your ability to find answers in text, not pull them out of your head. Approach these with the idea that all of the answers are in the test. Because they are.

Writing questions examine a specific sub-set of common writing errors students make in college. Find out what they are (there's a list) and implement their counters in the multiple choice section and just don't make them in the essay section. 

Essay questions have directions—follow them to the letter. Also, don't be cute. Examiners have to read through thousands of these and they are following a rubric. Your goal is not to entertain, but to inform. Do that so you can get a high score and attain the other goal: scholarship money. Again, I reiterate: don't be cute, just answer the question.

Math questions are actually content specific, but only up through Algebra 2 (as it is the minimum standard required for college entry or high school diploma). This includes Geometry, which includes very basic trigonometry as the concepts easily build upon one another. The context the aforementioned provides is that the math questions are not difficult and they are all designed so that a CALCULATOR IS NOT NECESSARY. Remember, this a timed test and they are ultimately testing your ability to sustain in a stressful environment. Pace yourself. Math questions are rarely dependent on one another, and this is a test not a story—you can start from the middle and still finish the whole thing in time. Thus, the math questions expect you to know one concept, one formula, or one specific process in order to answer each question.

If you cannot identify one of these based on the language of the question, your logic will simply flap in the breeze and you leave your correctness to the probability that you will guess accurately (which is 1 out of 4 or 5, or 25% or 20%, respectively). Are you willing to accept those odds? If not, then simply practice them.

3. The Real Test

If you encounter questions to which you do not know the answer, move on. If you encounter sections or sub-sections that look as if you will need to use more time, move on. You are not skipping these questions or sections, you are pacing yourself through the exam. At the beginning of every sub-test, review the number of questions and time you have, then look through the section from beginning to end and figure out which portions you can do quickest. 

This is helpful for several reasons: (1) You will definitely answer as many questions correctly in the time as possible, and that is the goal; (2) You will experience success in the beginning, bolstering your confidence throughout the testing period and prompting your mind to logic through those questions where you are unsure; (3) You will not need to feel pressure regarding time because you will have padded the time you need to address the more difficult questions at a comfortable speed.

The number one reason students “choke” on these types of examinations is test anxiety. Thus, many find it difficult to take a non-linear approach. There will be groups of questions that rely on one another and it would be best to approach them in a linear fashion, but this does not hold true of the test as a whole. It helps to think of it as a puzzle—work with the pieces you already know will fit together and don’t waste time searching for the pieces to sections you would like to do in a preferred sequence.

4. The Real Study Strategy

Honestly, over-saturation is debilitating and sensory overload will cause one to forget, not recall, what they study because the process of lengthy study of one subject, repeatedly, is counterproductive. Studying academic material is like maintaining a healthy diet: eat small, regular, healthy meals throughout the day along a routine. Also, chew your food before you swallow—if you don't digest what you take in it is just going to come out un-processed and provide you with no nutrients, making the eating experience counterproductive.

When prepping for an exam like the SAT, I suggest the following process/routine: (1) Study one subject, one type of sub-test, per sitting or day in a cycle. Start by choosing your best subject and work your way down (e.g. Monday: Math, Tuesday: Writing (MC), Wednesday: Writing (Essay), and Thursday: Reading). (2) Study using practice tests. Practice tests simulate the academic content in the testing environment as well as provide key explanations on the metacognitive processes they expect the testers to implement and experience for every question. (3) Have a deliberate study routine that allows you to accomplish the goal—answering as many questions correctly as you can in the given amount of time. I suggest a three-step process: 

First, go over the questions without timing yourself and see what you know how to answer; remember: take all the time you need. Second, review the answers and explanations; however, don't correct your answer sheet and try to incorporate the approach, the thought process, the examiners want you to use. Second, take the test again and try to use their approach the exact way you would if the test was given in the testing environment: timed and new. This time, mark your answers right and wrong and note the number correct and the time given. Third, take the practice test once more in the same manner as before and note if you are able to answer more questions correctly in the same time. This redundancy reinforces not only the content of the questions but their context. The goal is to think like the examiner and use their approach—because that is the correct answer every time, in time.

Don't overdo it. This process should require no more attention than 3 hours per day, 4 days per week. (Once a weekend, practice by taking the entire exam in a timed environment but not more than 3 times a month.) By giving yourself substantial breaths in between study sessions, you allow your mind the time to process and evaluate the logic behind your strategy (metacognition), to improve upon it, and to rest. Nonetheless, it is important to lather, rinse, and repeat—don't slack off! 

5. The Real Purpose

If scores don’t measure academic prowess or potential, then what are they for and why do we take them?

Standardized exam scores are basically academic credit scores. The range or rank a student falls within is basically a general valuation of the amount an institution or organization would risk investing in them. There is no guarantee that a student is prepared for a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and will complete their degree or program of study. There is also no guarantee that previous academic success will translate to future success. These scores serve as a quick method to objectively thin the herd and provide a statistical basis for such decision-making.


©2017 Kevin J. Quail, II. All rights reserved


Kevin J. Quail, II is an experienced, certified Special Educator and Advocate. For over a decade, he has worked as a direct hire and independent contractor in public, private, and charter K-12 as well as college school environments in various capacities, including: Test Prep teacher, IB Librarian/Media Specialist, Tutor, Substitute, ESL teacher, Humanities/College Prep teacher, English, and GED prep teacher. He currently works as an independent research-practitioner and service provider serving in both the Honolulu and Washington, DC metropolitan areas to provide tutoring, homeschool support, test preparation, substitute teaching, special education services, curriculum design, advocacy, professional development and coaching for students, parents, schools, and other independent educators.