The Power of Practice

When I was 16, my parents signed me up for Applerouth SAT prep. I was a top student at a metro-Atlanta high school, although, in hindsight, I didn’t work that hard to achieve this status. I was the sort of student who could review my notes the night before a test and recall everything I needed the next morning. So, fancying myself an expert studier, I was a bit put out by the prospect of tutoring.

I attended the weekly sessions, but (as a tutor I now know) set myself up to reap none of their benefits. I vividly remember parking in a far corner of the Applerouth lot and rushing through my homework before every session. Most detrimentally, however, I resisted the practice tests. Too busy to sit for proctored exams on the weekend, I worked through them in the comfort of my home, giving myself extra minutes and a lunch break between sections.

On official test day, I showed up confident that my trusty test-eve review would coast me through, but when I got my scores in the mail they had barely improved. I finally saw the light: content mastery will only get you so far on the SAT.

Why do I regale you with this trip down memory lane? Because I don’t think my 16-year-old misconceptions about preparing for college admission tests are rare.

As an Applerouth tutor with three years under my belt, I’ve worked with all sorts of students — anxious test-takers, ESL students, students with learning differences, over-confident students like myself. By en large they share a common groan when I suggest they take a mock test over the weekend, but time and again the power of test-simulated practice prevails. Students who take regular practice exams achieve greater score gains.

At Applerouth we attribute this to three main factors.

Reduced Anxiety

In his article on mastering test-taking skillsJed discusses the balance between helpful and paralyzing anxiety. He defines anxiety at its core as mental energy, which can be positive in the appropriate dose. The thought pattern — “Hey, this test counts: I need to do well.” — produces productive adrenaline that heightens focus, but when anxiety takes over, it’s crippling. Excessive stress hormones impair working memory making it difficult for students to recall even content they’ve mastered.

Taking timed, proctored practice exams reduces unhealthy anxiety — the sort spurred from not knowing what to expect or feeling that everyone around you does know what to do. Each time a student takes a test he or she gains familiarity with it and gains confidence in his or her ability to succeed at it. This process is called the test-retest phenomenon, a common occurrence in scientific research that Jed explained in relation to standardized tests a few years back.

Enhanced Endurance

Both the SAT and ACT require mental endurance. Even if a student knows how to work every math problem on these tests, that know-how does not prepare him or her for correctly solving 60 problems in 60 minutes on the ACT or maintaining accuracy on the SAT Calculator section on the heels of a Reading section, a Writing section, and a No-Calculator section.

The ACT requires students to build-up the stamina necessary for working under intense time pressure for three hours. There’s not a lot of breathing room when one has to read four 750-word passages and answer 40 comprehension questions in 35 minutes.

The SAT grants students notably more time per question, but it asks for more prolonged attentiveness. Students must cultivate a different sort of endurance, one that enables them to read for an hour, rather than 35 minutes, and work through two math sections in a row.

Regardless of the test your student chooses, timing and structure can be mastered just like content. The best way to embark upon mastery? Explore the ins and outs of the SAT or ACT without the pressure of an official score.

Data that Helps You Prep Effectively

As a tutor, the first thing I do when assigned to a new student is read through his or her baseline mock test report. Although at Applerouth we administer official test forms as practice tests, our analytics are far more in-depth than the official SAT or ACT score reports. We tag every question to a content area and generate robust data about each student’s trends in missed questions, approach to pacing, penchant for certain reading genres, etc.

I glean a wealth of insight into my students’ strengths and opportunities for growth by reading that report, and this insight enables me to target our tutoring sessions, making them more effective than a general content review could ever be. As our tutoring sessions progress, regular practice tests allow us to continually hone in on question-types that elide my student.

Even without a tutor, proctored practice tests give students reliable data about their progress that they can use as a launching point for productive study.

My standardized test saga didn’t end in disappointment. I met with my tutor again, embraced study habits that would later serve me well in college and graduate school, and took the proctored practice tests. The next time I took an official test, my score went up more than 100 points.

In two weeks, Applerouth will debut its first annual National Practice Test Weekend (April 22-23rd). We want sophomores and juniors around the country to experience the benefits of practice without pressure, so we’re hosting full-length, proctored exams for free. Participants will also get to engage in exclusive online strategy sessions. Learn more about how your student can test drive the SAT and ACT.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or