The end of summer sets a number of changes into motion: leaves become tinged with red, swimsuits and beach towels are packed away in exchange for hats and boots, and, most importantly, kids and teenagers start yet another school year, perhaps their last. For seniors, autumn means college essays and interviews and applications—and their last chance to take those infamous standardized tests.
But even if you didn’t take a rigorous and expensive test prep course over the summer, don’t freak out! Preparing for SATs and ACTs over the next month or two doesn’t have to consume all of your free time. Of course, some people need more time than others to comfortably prepare, but there is a bulletproof study plan that only requires a few hours here and there.
Related: Class of 2017: The SAT Dilemma
The exact amount of time needed to study differs for everyone, but the goal should always be to become comfortable with the content, system, and environment of the standardized tests you intend to take. It is hard to strive for anything else, since it is impossible to know exactly what words and equations you will come across on the test. Studying can take longer if you decide to build up your vocabulary with flashcards or take test prep classes. But, no matter how you approach test prep, you shouldn’t let it overwhelm you; spread out your study sessions over a couple of weeks. And whatever you do, don’t resort to cramming!
Using these guidelines, I studied for two or three hours a weekend leading up to my test, and I was more than pleased with my improvement.
Familiarize yourself with the testing format
You can never know exactly what questions you will see on test day, but if you take advantage of the resources available to you, there should be no surprises. Just taking a practice test and even reading the preface to a test prep book are usually enough to do the job. I was surprised to see particular patterns among the questions. For example, the Writing section of the SAT is always looking for testers to recognize the same grammatical errors: subject-verb agreement, inconsistent verb tense, and proper comma usage, among other things. The incredible thing was that my study book actually outlined the patterns for me in the book’s introduction! Familiarity with typical test content is one of the most important aspects of preparation and it is nothing to sweat over because of the array of resources available online and in study books.
Learn to pace yourself
The most troubling aspect of standardized tests for most students is the time limit. The best way to eliminate that anxiety is to take a few practice tests on your own and get used to the timing. You may want to practice with a watch so that you know how to use it on test day—but remember, no alarm! If one section is generally easy for you to finish in time, focus more on the other sections. Aim for efficiency by working on what most needs attention, though it is still advisable that you complete one practice test under official testing conditions to best prepare yourself for test day.
Practice tests do more than give you a better a sense of time; they offer the perfect opportunity to learn from your mistakes and identify “the best answer” the next time around. I recommend that you correct and review your practice tests with a parent, friend, or teacher to understand the reasoning behind questions you answered incorrectly. While testing, I even like to mark questions that I guess on and review them afterwards even if I answered correctly. The goal is to maximize the practice test—you only get out of it what you put into it. If your practice book offers explanations for the answers, they may be helpful in learning how to narrow down option choices and see the best answer to a question.
Have a strategy
Going into the test with a strategy gives you something to fall back on when the second-hand keeps ticking away. Try a few different approaches during practice tests to find the strategy that works best for you. You might consider some of the following aspects of the test:
- How should I approach the reading comprehension questions?
- How will I mark questions that I skip?
- When I guess, should I mark a question so I can return to it if I have time? How many answers should I eliminate before guessing?
- I’m stuck. Should I skip it or work on it a little bit longer?
- I’m running out of time and still have a lot of questions left. How can I maximize the last few minutes?
Warning! Do not study the night before!
The night before your test, you’re about as prepared as you’re going to be. So take a break from studying, get to bed early, and wake up refreshed and calm. Cramming just makes everything more stressful (I learned that the hard way!).
If you’ve taken any of these measures, even if you only took one or two practice tests, you will perform well as long as you are confident and relaxed.