You may have heard that if you must guess, you should guess “C”. In truth, it really shouldn’t matter which letter you guess, because the occurrence of each letter as an answer choice has been randomized. If you have an inclination toward a particular answer, go for it! However, on a teacher-written test, the adage to guess “C” may indeed be true. As the end of another school year approaches, many students will soon be taking standardized tests – ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, AP, and countless other acronymned and non-acronymned assessments. The results of these tests can affect college admissions, college credit, and career opportunities, yet many students think there is little they can do to prepare. To the contrary, if you follow a few steps in the weeks and months leading up to a test, you can definitely improve your score. If you do a little preparation each week, you will get much better results than waiting until the last minute.
Know the Test
Many expensive test-preparation programs are available at tutoring centers, and if you follow them faithfully, gains almost always result. However, while the review of content that these sessions provide certainly helps, the number one benefit a test-preparation program can give to a student is “insider knowledge” of how the test works. You can achieve nearly the same benefit on your own if you’re willing to look for it.
First, find out how the test is delivered and administered. Determine rules and question types. For example, is it multiple choice, written response, and with or without calculator? How much time is allotted for each part; what equations or other references, if any, are provided; is it given on a computer or on paper, etc.? If you know what the directions will say before you go into the test, you won’t have to waste time reading them on the day of the test. Find out if you are allowed to write on the test or on scrap paper, if you can bring food or water, and if there will be bathroom breaks. If you know that absolute value is covered on the math ACT but not on the math SAT, you can review it if you’re taking the ACT but will not spend time on that for the SAT. Similarly, if you know what is on the formula sheets provided on the SAT or AP exams, you can make yourself familiar with them so that you can best use them to your advantage the day of the test. The websites for the different testing companies and organizations usually provide all this information – and your guidance counselor should also be able to help you.
If you know anyone who has taken the test, ask them for tips and for information about what was covered. Study guides, both online and in print, will often do an even better job at providing tips and information on content than friends will. Purchased or borrowed study guides can be a good investment, but they are not all created equally. Check ratings at bookseller websites or student forums before deciding on a guide. If you can afford it and they’re available, get two completely different guides and use both; the deficits in one will often be compensated for by the other.
Know the Scoring
Not all tests are scored the same way. For example, the ACT and SAT are both multiple choice tests for the most part, but the way they are scored makes testing strategy different for both. On the ACT, wrong answers and blank answers are counted the same way. Therefore, a student should never leave a blank answer on the ACT. But on the SAT, blank answers earn no points, while wrong answers earn negative points. This is also true on some multiple choice AP exams. For that kind of test, it is said that there is a “penalty for guessing”. What this really means is that if you truly have no clue about how to answer a problem or no time to work on it, you should leave it blank. But, if you can eliminate some of the answers as being incorrect, then in the long run you will come out ahead by guessing from the remaining choices.
On some tests, all problems are worth the same, in which case you should not let yourself spend too much time on a very hard problem and should instead make sure you get to every single problem you know how to do, no matter where they occur in the test. On the other hand, many tests, like AP tests, weight some problems more than others. Find out ahead of time which questions have more weight and do them early in the testing session. For example, on the AP Statistics exam, the 6th question on the written portion is worth more than the other questions on that part. A good strategy for that test is usually to do the first problem or two to warm up, then go to the 6th problem, and then come back to the rest of the remaining lower-point questions. To run out of time and not get to a problem worth huge points can drastically hurt your score.
Apply Testing Strategies
Standardized tests are not purely an assessment of your knowledge, but also of how well you can take the test; you can apply strategy to maximize your score. The most important testing strategy of all is to read each question carefully. Never skim over any part of a question. Make sure you know what is being asked and that you answer precisely what was asked. If you immediately know the answer and are confident about it, then choose it and move on. If you have time later, you can think about it more deeply and check your work. If you do not know the answer immediately, be methodical in ruling out wrong answers, looking up the answer in the reading, or following a valid procedure to arrive at the solution. If there are graphs or data tables on the test, always read keys, units, scales, and footnotes very carefully! Look for general patterns and relationships first, and then be prepared to look at details more carefully once you get to the questions.
On multiple choice tests, two of the most beneficial strategies are plugging the answer choices back into the original problem to see which one works, and to make up answers of your own without looking at the answer choices and then seeing which answer choice best matches your own answer. Making up the answer before checking the answer choices is a great strategy for reading and language tests. On a test involving math, it is often possible to make up a value for a variable (like setting x = 2), and then plug that into both the question and the answers. For example, if the question is something like how to simplify x(x-2x +15) and you can’t remember how to do it, you could substitute 2 in for x, and then see that your question is now equal to 2(2-2(2) + 15), or 26. Whichever answer choice also equals 26 when you substitute 2 in for x is the correct answer.
Many standardized multiple choice test answers are in a patterned order, such as least to greatest. Therefore, trying the middle answer first can save you time. If you try it and it doesn’t work, you may be able to recognize that it was too high or too low, and thus also eliminate the answers above or below it. That means you can often eliminate three answers at once if the answers are in order.
You may have heard that if you must guess, you should guess “C”. In truth, it really shouldn’t matter which letter you guess, because the occurrence of each letter as an answer choice has been randomized. If you have an inclination toward a particular answer, go for it! However, on a teacher-written test, the adage to guess “C” may indeed be true. Most teachers do not take the time to randomize the answer choices, and may indeed accidentally favor one letter over another. The easiest way to find out would be to look at several past tests and find out how often each letter was a correct answer. If one has occurred significantly more or less than others, take that into account if you must guess.
You may have also heard that it is a waste of time to read passages on the test before going to the questions about the passage. That is definitely false. You should always read the passages first, in a brisk but very focused manner. Even underline or star important things in passages, questions, and tables, etc., if you are allowed to write in the testing booklet. You may need to practice reading actively – if you read something and do not remember what you just read well enough to provide a good summary, or if you have to re-read something because you did not absorb it all, that is not active reading. Read for main ideas. Think about the purpose and tone of the author, who the audience was intended to be, and about setting, character, and plot, as they apply. When you get to the questions, if necessary, you can look up details like dates. On a reading test, every correct answer is directly supported from the passage.
Take Practice Tests
The best way to spend your time in preparing for a standardized test is to find and take practice tests. This can reduce test anxiety and provide valuable experience with content and testing conditions. A guidance counselor may have these, some may be available online, or you might need to purchase a study guide. Take some of them without worrying about time, but take others under timed conditions. Many practice test keys will help you identify where your weaknesses are and provide suggestions for improvement. If you are finishing early but missing many, you need to slow down, check your work, read more carefully, and try all the answer choices before going on to the next question. If you are not finishing on time, you need to practice making your best guess on hard problems that are taking you a long time and going on to other problems. You should also look for trends in what kind of problems you are missing and, if necessary and possible, learn or re-learn that content so you do not keep missing them. If it is a writing test, you may need to practice writing faster, self-editing, or organizing your ideas more efficiently. If possible, find someone who knows the test content to go over your practice tests with you.
If you will be taking a test on computer, practice taking it that way if at all possible. Some students have a tendency not to work problems out on computer tests, especially ones that are multiple choice. They just think for a few moments, then click. Just because it isn’t a paper/pencil test does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t work it out on paper!
Practice every good testing strategy so that each becomes automatic for the day of the test and not something unfamiliar. If you rarely use a good strategy until the day of the test, it may feel unnatural and slow you down unnecessarily. But if you practice it, it will feel natural and come easily, and it can be a great tool to figure out a problem you might otherwise have missed.
Do not study right before a standardized test. At that point, all you should do is maybe review the basic directions, scoring, and format information. Instead, focus on getting your testing supplies including test admission ticket, ID, jacket, water, pencils, calculator, etc., ready ahead of time and getting a good night’s sleep and good breakfast. Always arrive early and, if allowed, choose your seat and get comfortable in your environment. Approach the test with a positive attitude and perseverance. If the test involves use of a calculator, bring extra batteries, prepare to have its memory cleared by the proctors, and make sure it is a calculator you know how to use well.
Knowing your test, using strategies, and practicing the test in the weeks and months leading up to a standardized test will help you feel confident, know what to expect, and maximize your score.