How to Get the Most out of your Test Prep

So, you’re a junior in high school and you’re starting into or mid-way through the test prep process. You might be doing your prep through a class, with a tutor, or even independently. What really matters is how to get the most out of this process.

I’d like to share a really fabulous post that a student (Spuding102) recently put up on – now a Featured Post under SAT prep. Spuding102 raised his SAT score 790 points from a baseline of 1420 to a Duke admission. As he admits, others have gamed the SAT before him, but this level of score improvement is somewhat unusual. Spuding102 shares his story on this link: Yes, some of you may roll your eyes at the fact that he actually worked through 65 practice tests in one year! But realize that this is your competition. Hopefully, you will not be starting from as low a baseline score, but know that if you are, great scores are still possible in the end. Pay attention to his summary advice: “Finally, realize that motivation is the most important aspect to all of this. No one will hold your hand. It needs to come from deep within you.”

In the details of his post, Spuding102 shares some resources that I also recommend – Erica Meltzer’s “Grammar Guide” and “The Critical Reader”. Erica (Harvard grad) helps students understand patterns and begin to think more like the test-maker in these verbal sections. Spuding102 also recommends the Direct Hits vocabulary books. A student can either complete the Direct Hits Chapter-end Sentence Completions or buy his books. Spuding102 emphasizes the importance of reviewing misses and rationalizing why the correct answer is correct. Find explanations – Spuding102 gives you several ways to find these -- if you can’t solve the math problem or don’t understand the subtleties between CR answers. Another great resource for math is the website, with video explanations for all of the SAT blue book tests, free released tests, and QAS tests.

Additional tips for getting the most out of the test prep process:

1. Take advantage of resources like! One of my current students was able to find a posting on this site that showed him a way to score his PSAT and review all of his misses a week before he actually received the paper copy of the test and report from his Guidance Counselor. After you take a real SAT or ACT, there will be streams of posts about questions on the test and student reactions. It’s interesting to learn what others thought of the test right after you leave! I’ve even enjoyed skimming through some of these posts after I took my tests. There are entire sections devoted to colleges as well; this site is not just about test prep!

2. ORGANIZE! If you are part of a class or working with a tutor, you likely will have printed strategies, worksheets, packets, and a number of practice tests and sections of practice tests. Keep this material organized. Consider using a 3-ring binder with tabs, or use folders for strategies and homework along with a portfolio to store practice tests/sections. Keep all of your work together, including the answer keys to the sections/tests with those sections.

3. Take NOTES during class or with your tutor! Don’t think that you’re going to remember everything later….Take notes about strategies, techniques, and traps as you move through new material together or review your independent practice and misses. After your tutor leaves, write down the TOP 3 tips you learned from your session.

4. Set Goals for Consistent Practice and schedule this into your week! Your class or tutor will typically assign at least 1-1/2 to 2 hours of work per week, but sometimes you may be able to do even more practice. Make sure that you are practicing consistently at least 3 days per week. Treat this like swim team or squash practice -- you wouldn’t swim or play squash just once a week for 2 hours, would you?

5. If you’re taking the SAT, build in consistent vocabulary-boosting exercises. I recommend using some of the Quizlets to continually test your knowledge of the roots and top vocabulary words. Every time you practice from Quizlets or Sentence Completions, you should maintain a running list of missed vocabulary words. Look up the definition and determine an association for the word: this could be a rhyming mnemonic, a breakdown of Greek/Latin roots, a paired word, or a play on letters. You need an association for every new word that you are trying to memorize!

6. Always immediately correct practice, sections or tests and then immediately review your misses. This is critical so that you remember how you came to the answer that you chose. Or you remember your logic with the math. You want to be able to “correct” your logic immediately so that you don’t hardwire your faulty logic that got you to the incorrect answer into your brain. Also, take the time to determine pro-forma scores for individual sections or parts of tests. Compare to your goals. Know whether you are improving and begin to see the patterns of the types of questions that remain challenging. Come to your tutoring session with these patterns identified for your tutor or come with your top questions. A coach, tutor or teacher will be able to help you much more when you are invested in your practice and you share insights and questions.

Remember that these tests are not IQ tests. It is, just as Spuding102 says, all about the practice.

Good luck!

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