Originally Posted: Feb 19, 2014
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2017
I’ll start this by admitting that I didn’t ace my SATs (or get close . . . at all). I didn’t really know what I was doing to prep for them.
But it’s worth knowing that I went on to get perfect scores on four SAT Subject Tests and then the GRE. I learned some valuable lessons after the SAT Reasoning that changed how I studied for a whole lot of different exams and obviously led to a step change in scoring. For those of you already swamped, you’ll be happy to hear that I actually studied less for these later tests.
I’m also going to share some perspectives from having worked with some of MIT’s undergraduate admission officers, as well as some perspectives from far outside of academia that I think are quite relevant here.
Rule #1 of (most) test prep: it’s not worth freaking out about
I remember kids crying walking out the exam room after taking the SAT. I guess it felt like it hadn’t gone all that well. But holy smokes, tears? Even then, I knew something was a bit off.
While working with some of MIT’s admission team, I learned why.
When going over applications, admission officers usually give your standardized tests their due few seconds of thought before moving on. Usually they put a quick note on the page or on a spreadsheet, and from what I glean, your tests scores will fall into one of three categories:
- Good enough not to worry
- Worth worrying—other aspects of the application will need to pull this up
- Eliminating factor
Note that your SAT scores, no matter how good, probably won’t “pull up” your application. Why not? As far as I know, every U.S. university is looking not simply for logical and verbal talent—they’re looking for a more holistic talent, for creativity, for ambition, for the ability to apply one’s smarts. If you’re looking to the GRE instead of the SAT, this applies even more so—you’d better spend way more time on an awesome essay and sample work than the GRE. (It’s worth noting here that the LSAT and MCAT are probably exceptions to this thinking: the LSAT is probably the most important indicator of your logical quickness for law schools, and med schools are just so bloody competitive that the MCAT may well make the difference.)
But this is not a blog post on how to apply to college or grad school. The key takeaway is this: for most of us, standardized tests should be given their proper attention but should not draw away from other, more important parts of your application and experience. They won’t be the thing that gets you in the door.
But with that said, we might as well make them awesome while we’re at it!
How to win: run toward failure
I read a great book about the inception of systems engineering and mega-project management, following the development of the Atlas missile. One scene from the book is burned quite well into my memory, going something like this:
Sub-Contractor, calling the project manager: “Great news! We had six successful missile launches today!”
Project Manager: “What a waste of missiles! You’re not pushing the design hard enough!”
What’s this mean for us? Whether you’re building missiles or prepping for the SAT, don’t waste your time working on the stuff you already got right. Once you get something right, pat yourself on the back and re-focus your energy on what you’re getting wrong. This is where most students totally blow it: they just drill and drill, wasting time and wearing out. Progress is incremental and time feels wasted because it is, even though everyone around them is telling them it’s the best way forward. It’s not.
And so: run toward failure, intrepid college crusher! Focus your limited time on the parts of standardized tests that are toughest for you. This will:
- Give you more time to work on those weak spots.
- Keep you engaged during your drilling (rather than going into “autopilot”)—this second point may be even more important than the simple prioritization of your time, as a more engaged brain learns muchmore quickly and remembers more than a brain in “autopilot.”
But hopefully the concept makes sense by now: to get better at standardized tests, drill the parts of the tests you’re lousy at and stop wasting time drilling what you’re good at.
How to do it
There are three general steps to the “Run to Failure” method of test prep:
- Assess your weaknesses.
- Drill the priorities.
- Reassess and repeat.
The first step is the most complex, so we’ll spend most of our time there.
Assessing your weaknesses
- To start, I want you to take three (or so) practice tests. Don’t score any of them until you’ve blitzed through the five.
- Once you have, go ahead and score them. Write the average score somewhere you’ll find it later, but don’t let it hang you up.
- Mark out all your incorrect answers with highlighter or some big green circles or something else eye-catching and exciting.
- Here’s the hard part: categorize them. Most tests have very specific categories that are testing very specific skills, and many test prep books will have those categories laid out. (Frankly, you should neverever have to buy a test prep book—full explanations of all of these tests, vocab lists, and thousands of free practice tests are available for free online.) Once you’ve sorted out which categories you’ll be using, apply a category (or several categories, if applicable) to each incorrect question.
- Build yourself a bar graph of number of answers wrong by category. Sort it big-to-small, left-to-right. We call this a Pareto graph, after the great Italian mathematician.
- As I’m sure you can already glean, this graph is going to tell you where to focus. Odds are good you’ll have a few categories with a disproportionate number of incorrect answers. Go focus on them. If there’s not a totally obvious cut-off, focus on only up to 30% of the categories. Leave the other 70% for now. Leave. Them. Be.
Time to drill!
- It may well be worth doing a little research and learning before powering forward on drilling, unless it’s a pure memorization exercise (like knowing vocabulary). Many of the more math-y and logic-y types of questions, or grammar questions have some underlying concepts that are worth spending some time on. Take a few minutes with Google and see what you dig up. If nothing, that’s fine. If something’s gold, great.
- Now drill, baby, drill! Go ahead and take on your practice tests, but have the discipline to skip over everything that’s not part of your top-priority categories! Don’t bother with these questions—they are wasting your time, draining your willpower, and disengaging your brain. They’re bad news. Skip ‘em.
- Take breaks and such where you need to, but plow ahead. I recommend maybe a dozen to 20 tests (of those top priority questions only) before you reassess.
Reassess and repeat
- After some good drilling, you’ll likely have cracked a few nuts. Time to figure out what progress we’ve made.
- Take another three (or so) practice exams. Note your improved score! Pat yourself on the back. Tell your mom.
- Go through your exams once again, categorize your incorrect answers, and check your Pareto graph. It may very well be the case that your new priority categories are the same as your old ones. This is totally alright! The whole point is that we improve, we know what to work on, and we’re able to keep the pace high.
That’s it! I’m confident this’ll be a huge acceleration for your study prep, help with morale, and improve your grades (and sanity).
The principles behind this test prep are applicable to all aspects of your college academic and extracurricular success, and are outlined in my book, How to Crush College. If you’ve got any questions or comments, leave them below! Good luck, and go Crush College!