I have tutored hundreds of students over the years to help them maximize their scores on the SAT and ACT, and through all of this work with students, something has become clear to me: test preparation must include three pillars in order to be effective. All three pillars are critical and each must be strongly in place for students to succeed at scoring their best. Sadly, very few test prep tutors, classes, or books effectively cover all three pillars. This is the first blog post in a series of three in which I will discuss each of these three pillars. The first pillar that I'm going to discuss is the one that I consider to be by far the most important in determining students' scores and also the one that tends to be most neglected by most test prep tutors, classes, and books. This pillar is strategies. By strategies, I am referring to the ways students manage their time and what they do and are aware of as they take their tests. I'm not referring to “test-taking tricks”, which don't tend to be very effective on modern versions of the SAT and ACT, even though many books still focus on teaching such tricks. In order for students to maximize their scores on the SAT and ACT, mastering great test-taking strategies is critical. These are a few examples of what I mean by strategies: - how to manage time in each section
- how to avoid making silly mistakes on questions that the student knows how to do
- the order in which it makes sense to do the questions, which is individual to each person
- the ways to identify and approach different question types
- pacing, with a balance between accuracy and speed, especially at the end of sections when time is short
- how well students notice when they're not making good progress toward finding answers to questions and what they do when they notice that
- what to write down versus what to do mentally while working through questions, in order to balance between accuracy and speed
- how students relate to their own emotions and the stories that they tell themselves as they take the test
Most students find standardized tests to be quite different from the tests that they take in school. There really is a skill set for taking standardized tests that is very learnable and that most students haven't learned when they begin studying for the SAT or ACT. Students who are trying to do well on standardized tests without learning the skill set for doing so could be compared to people trying to pitch in baseball with their legs tied together: they'll probably manage to throw the ball somewhere near the plate with their legs tied together, but the pitches are unlikely to be very good. Here's an example of how not having solid strategies in place can harm a student's score. I recently worked with a student for the ACT who was extremely strong in math. She knew all the math concepts. She rarely made computational mistakes. She was great at finding creative solutions to difficult math problems. Before she worked with me and learned strategies, her issue in the math section of the ACT was misreading questions. Unlike most math questions on tests that she (and almost all students) take in school, most math questions on the ACT have a paragraph that she had to read and understand before she could do any actual math. Even though she knew all the math concepts and was good at solving math problems, she kept misreading questions and thus effectively solved a different math question than what was being asked. As a result of misreading a few questions incorrectly, this student ended up with a very mediocre score on the math section, even though she was truly skilled at math. Using the strategies I taught her, this student was able to improve her ACT score considerably. The issue that this student had is a very common one, and not just on the math sections. In fact, I believe that the majority of students who take the ACT or SAT score much lower than they are capable of scoring simply because their strategies are far from optimal, if they have any strategies at all. Without good strategies, they end up with scores that do not reflect their true academic strengths. Ideally, by the time students take their tests, the strategies that they use for each section and for all the question types will be habitual. They shouldn't even need to think about how to approach sections or how to manage their time well. These aspects should be automatic. The good news is that if students get solid guidance on strategies and they do a good amount of practice with these strategies, it is absolutely possible for students to have mastered their strategies by the time they take the ACT or SAT. My experience is that most standardized test tutors and class teachers do not focus on strategies or even know effective strategies very well. I once worked with a student who had worked with a tutor from one of the major test prep companies weekly for more than a year. He read well and knew the math well, but he had practically no strategies. He had taken the ACT three times over the course of that previous year, and he scored exactly the same each of those times. I worked with this student for only four ninety minute sessions, and we worked on nothing but strategy. His score improved by three points. This was far from a typical situation, but it is illustrative of why I place so much emphasis on strategies. Because I believe that strategies are so important and I want my students' strategies to be automatic by the time they take their tests, I start with teaching strategies to all of my students. Once a student has solid strategy in place, we then focus on the two other pillars, but strategy is at the core of my work with my students. Click here to read about the second pillar for success on the SAT or ACT.
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