Prepping “Smart” for the SAT/ACT
- Review your practice.
- Ask why you got a problem wrong.
- Find patterns in the problems you got correct/incorrect.
- Keep the momentum going.
Millions of students around the world will be spending countless hours preparing for the SAT and ACT tests, but simply putting in the hours will not automatically result in a higher score. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could spend less time preparing for the test and get a better score? In order to do so, we need to ask not only whether we are preparing or not, but also how we are preparing for the test.
The effectiveness of your test prep will decrease significantly sitting in front of the TV, computer, or phone. Few people can multi-task well, and test prep requires more than only a portion of your attention. Auditory and visual distractions diminish your ability to commit content to memory. Put your phone on silent, get rid of music and other distractions, and focus exclusively on test prep. Whether it’s practice math problems or vocabulary memorization, do your best to devote the most mental focus possible to the task at hand.
Review your homework.
Homework is absolutely useless unless you review your work. Simply doing timing drills will reinforce both the helpful and detrimental processes, and you need the feedback that comes from grading yourself and checking your wrong answers. Get into the habit of taking a timed section, grading yourself, circling the problems (not correct answer choices) that you missed, returning to those problems, and seeing if you can try those again. A second attempt at a problem can be extremely helpful in seeing how you missed the problem, and more importantly, what you can do to get the problem right the next time.
Ask why you got each problem wrong.
Your error may have resulted for a number of reasons. Maybe you did not know the content, or you may have misread the problem and solved for another variable. Perhaps you made a careless error, like forgetting to distribute the negative sign. You might have skipped an important step and fallen prey to a mental math error. If you can identify how you got a problem wrong, you’ll have a much better idea of how to improve your test-taking.
Find patterns in the problems you got correct/incorrect.
For one section, you might find that each missed question deals with a different content area. But over time, if you analyze the types of problems you missed, you will notice some helpful patterns. Maybe it’s those long word problems that keep your wheels spinning. Maybe function problems, particularly factoring and foiling quadratic equations, are causing you to scratch your head. We don’t simply want to correct the problems we got wrong; we want to see what type of problem we’re missing and problem solve ways to improve accuracy. Maybe it means actively reading the word problem, or practicing some foiling drills. Noticing patterns of behavior will be essential for improving your problem-solving approach and increasing your score.
Keep the momentum going.
In a cross-country race, runners are often tempted to slow down their pace as the finish line approaches. Instead, they need to force themselves to accelerate and hit that tape at full speed. The same is true for SAT/ACT prep. You want your final week of test prep to be your most consistent and intense. Keep on practicing timing drills, learning vocab, and reviewing your work. Definitely plan on taking it easier on Friday evening and Saturday morning, but for those other days, finishing strong means that you’ll be in the best shape possible for Saturday morning.
This seems like more work, but it will actually help you save time. If you can be more thoughtful in your test prep, you will save yourself the headache of seemingly endless practice tests with little-to-no improvement, never-ending vocabulary flash cards that go in one ear, out the other, and constantly evolving math problems that catch you off guard. The smarter student will be focused on the metacognition, understanding the hows and whys of his/her preparation: how did I miss this problem? why am I confused here? how will I learn from this mistake?