Standardized tests are limited by the nature of their format (multiple choice) and, well, by the nature of being standardized. The downside is that students may find prepping for these tests extraordinarily frustrating because prepping to take a standardized test is not like studying for any other test. The upside is that the tests have some fairly predictable “hacks” (strategic approaches) that can help students tremendously improve their scores.
The hacks we have outlined below can be applied to the SAT, ACT, SSAT, ISEE or HSPT.
Hack#1: Choose Study Materials Wisely
Test developers aren’t going to tell you how to hack their tests, but they will provide the best practice problems for study, because they will most closely represent the kinds of problems students can expect to see on the test. Therefore, we recommend students purchase two different books for the test they plan on taking:
- One book for strategy (not made by the test-maker)
- One book for mining practice problems (ideally made by the test-maker)
Books we recommend for Strategy:
- ACT/SAT – Black Book (newest edition)
- SSAT/ISEE – Test Prep Works (not perfect, but solid)
- HSPT – Barron’s
Books we recommend for Practice Problems:
- SAT – College Board’s “Blue” Book
- ACT- The “Red” Book
- SSAT – The Official Study Guide
- ISEE – What to Expect on the ISEE
- HSPT – There is no official test prep booklet the test makers release for this test. We currently recommend Barron’s book.
Ideally, practice problems will come from the test development teams, but these can take a long time to deliver, so make sure you order ahead or consider other options such as the Tutorverse books.
- Ivy Global
- Khan Academy (great for practice with math basics)
- Test Innovators (pricey, but comprehensive)
Hack #2: Focus on Strategy
Studying for a standardized test is unlike studying for any other type of exam. It’s true that students are expected to have a baseline of knowledge to score well, and therefore need to practice those basic concepts. However, it’s much more important for students to be able to recognize how to approach a question in the most strategic and time-efficient way, given the limitations posed by the structure of the test itself. The test makers have their hands tied in two main ways:
- The multiple-choice format
- The limitations on content given the level of the test
Students should not spend hours drilling practice problems. More importantly, students should spend time studying in the following ways:
- Breaking down each section and the questions within each section to better understand the mechanics of the test itself
- Understanding errors they have made on practice sections and how the test-makers managed to trick them (and how to avoid being tricked in the future)
- Practicing how to recognize patterns in question types and applying knowledge of the fastest approach given the question type.
Of course, there will be practice problems involved in study time. But, the focus for the practice problems shouldn’t necessarily be on the concepts covered. Rather, students should focus on how to best take a strategic approach to each question being asked.
Hack #3: Start with the Reading Section
*Note: This hack is taken directly from the approach described in the Black Books.
When approaching the reading section of a standardized test with multiple choice answers, test takers needs to realize that interpretations of any text/passage can’t be subjective. Therefore, there are only two ways to talk about a text this way (objectively) that apply to ALL reading section questions (and answers):
Correct answers will either:
- Restate text without changing meaning (RESTATEMENT)
- Demonstrate an idea that appears on the page (DEMONSTRATION)
Incorrect answers are always wrong because they fail to be restated or demonstrated by the text.
Really understanding this and starting to see how it plays out in the test itself can make a huge difference in student’s scores in this section of the test.
Hack #4: Know the Basics
There are actually relatively few actual facts and concepts (mathematical, vocab, grammatical, etc.) that students need to truly understand for all standardized tests. However, it’s important that students really do know those basics as solidly as possible. Ideally, the test prep materials will provide a roadmap of exactly what basics students need to know and those can be practiced and mastered. Small errors (that lead to wrong answer choices) can occur when, for example, students don’t know the exact definition of an “integer.” Achieving mastery of these basics is especially important in the math section, but students need to understand particular basic vocabulary they might encounter in every section so that there are no surprises.
Hack #5: Be Realistic About Study Time
Spaced practice is a more effective way to study than cramming, which means that students will ideally start studying at least three months prior to their scheduled test date if they plan on fitting in 10 to 12 hours of study time (which we recommend to see results). Most students can’t fit more than 2 hours of standardized test prep study into their busy school week (let’s be real: most students won’t be able to fit in more than a single hour weekly). We recommend getting the test date on the calendar and then working backward to ensure that, given a packed schedule, there will be enough time to fit in at least 10 to 12 hours of solid study time (or more, if needed, to hit goals). Keep in mind that starting to study more than 6-12 months before the scheduled test date, students may find themselves at a disadvantage because they haven’t learned the basic concepts and vocabulary in school given the level of the test.
There’s no magic bullet to achieving a perfect score on a standardized test. However, studying can make a difference if students understand that the majority of what they should focus on studying is how to hack the test as it has been written and developed rather than drill away on the concepts (because understanding the concepts won’t mean anything if they get thrown by the framing of the question itself, or the answer choices they’ve been provided).
Tutor Corps has been a leading expert in education in California for over 17 years. Tutor Corps has worked with hundreds of students to support preparation for the tests mentioned in this article. Visit www.tutorcorps.com for more information or to speak with us about supporting you/your student with our standardized test preparation programming in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or online.