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Some people love standardized tests. Their scale is impressive – everyone who takes a particular test is scaled against everyone else. This allows schools and employers to see at a glance how you’ve performed on these often content-based, but even more often critical thinking-based, assessments. Other people hate them, saying that they are the epitome of a system that over-tests and results in students who know how to regurgitate information but not how to apply it in day-to-day life or in a future career. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that they’re here – and they’re very important.
The tests that most HOSA members are likely grappling with are the SAT and ACT. This pair of tests is important to master if you want to get into a range of schools (which you should aim to do!). They each require critical thinking more than they do specific content areas (although there are certain areas that are high-yield!). And test-taking skills are the highest-yield area of all. Just as learning how the MCAT works is imperative to performing well on it (and you can hear more about that in my MCAT post), the ACT and SAT are very long tests that are in many ways predictable; the more about a test that you can control, the better you are likely to perform. With that, I’ll jump into the first thing on everyone’s mind: preparation.
The usual suspects have review courses for these two tests, as well as for any standardized test that you can think of. They maybe aren’t quite as essential for the SAT or ACT as they are for the higher-level tests, but if you are usually bad at test-taking, bad with managing your own study schedule, have a generous budget, or want to get a particularly excellent score, I recommend a course. Otherwise, books are likely sufficient. Because you are expected to have learned most of the content for the tests in your high school classes, most preparation will be through practice. One important note as you look towards practicing for the SAT – the wrong answer penalty has been removed as of 2016, so guess away! If you feel that you need more rigorous preparation than books alone can provide but don’t have the money or time for a full course, I’ve heard that Khan Academy has great resources.
After taking both the SAT, the ACT, several SAT subject tests, and now the MCAT, there are a few general pieces of advice I’d like to share here.
1. Practice in increasingly test-like conditions. Practicing with immediate feedback can be valuable in the beginning when learning content, but struggling with difficult problems is the best way to practice. Even with the new, shorter SAT (it’s 3 hours now), these tests are still likely longer than any you’ve taken before. Full-length practice tests taken all at once are the most valuable type of practice that you can do. They can be exhausting simply because of their length, and I’ve often found myself doing worse on later sections than on earlier ones for this simple reason. You must teach your brain to work for this many hours at a time! Even more important is reviewing your performance on these tests afterwards – this will show you any weak content areas as well as the types of questions that you tend to get wrong.
2. Even though they’re long, these tests are designed to strain your time-management skills. This is another reason why test-like practice is imperative. Question triage (in which you skip difficult questions to ensure you have time to answer the ones that are easy for you) and smart timing must be learned so that they are second-nature for you on test day. The average scores on these tests would be much higher if we were given unlimited time, so learning to work with maximum efficiency within the time given will ensure that you’re able to show schools how much you actually know rather than simply how much you can get done during the insufficient time allotted.
3. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer on a practice test or on the real thing. Nobody knows the answer to every question, and not knowing an answer is an opportunity to use your test-taking skills. Are there key words to look for? Do two answers say essentially the same thing? (Both are wrong.) Are two answers opposite? (One is usually right.) Is one answer more vague than the others? (It’s probably right, too!) One interesting thing that I’ve found is that learning how to take tests on such a high level (especially at the MCAT level) has increased my test scores on other exams as well!
4. Learn to control what you can control. Be sure to arrive at the testing center very early so that you can decompress before the test starts. Get used to the breaks that are allotted during the test, and be sure to always use the restroom when allowed. Similarly, ensure that you have healthy snacks to eat when you’re permitted to. Getting into this routine will ensure that the only uncontrolled variable on test day is the test content. More on this below, however…
5. Realize that these tests have patterns, and therefore aren’t an uncontrolled variable! They are created by professional test-writers who must work very carefully to avoid any ambiguity or error in the tests. This means that they must make the tests from a limited number of content areas and a limited number of question types. The more practice that you have before you take the test, the more you’ll be able to identify these patterns and answer similar questions quickly and easily.
These are just a few tips that I found particularly helpful when preparing for the standardized tests that I’ve taken so far. No doubt any good review book will give you all of these tips and many more that pertain to the specific test that you are taking. Of course and as usual, if you have any questions about my test experiences feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m not done with standardized tests and so will continue to hone my test-taking skills along with you. I may even write more about this in the future! Good luck on any tests you’re taking in the near future, and good luck with applications in general!