The MuchSmarter Blog

How to Become Smarter at Standardized Tests

Steve Schecter
July 18, 2014

Here are the five things we here at Much Smarter Than You Think! tell all of our students about how to do their best work on standardized tests:

1. Recognize these tests for what they are: games of skill! The SAT and ACT are not tests of intelligence, nor do they predict how well a person will do in college or in life. The skills that you need for these tests are similar to the skills you need in your school classes, but they are not identical. At a moment in time, for example, you might be doing very well in math class, and be surprised to find that the math part of your PSAT is much lower than you thought it would be. Your school performance and your standardized test performance may differ for several reasons, but the main reason is that school subjects and the SAT/ACT are different games! So, start with the idea that the SAT and ACT are games of skill, and use this idea to make the most of your experience with these games.

2. Approach these games as you would approach any other game that you wish to master. Think about it: if you apply the same focus and energy to the SAT or ACT that you do to another game that you are passionate about, you will do very well! Think about how you play your favorite sport or video game, and approach the SAT/ACT game with the same mindset. You will enjoy the process, you will not stress out, and you will surprise yourself with how much you improve.

3. Give yourself enough time to succeed. If I told you I was going to learn to play competitive golf, and I was allowing myself a month or two to train, you would think I’d lost my mind. But so many people prepare for a month or so for the SAT or ACT and, if they don’t get the score they hoped for, conclude that “I’m just bad on standardized tests.” You might only need a month—or less—to prepare for a standardized test, but if you need more time to build your skills and master the game, give yourself the time! Allow a good stretch of time—six months or a year—to master your standardized test game.

4. Focus on building your game skills. When you look specifically at the reading and math components of the SAT and ACT games, you have three skill hurdles to jump over to become a first-rate player.

For Reading:

  • Is your vocabulary large enough to enable you to understand most reading passages?
  • Do you know how to play the reading comprehension game? (standardized test reading is different from reading for your English class)
  • Do you have enough experience in this kind of reading to master the difficult passages and the difficult questions?

For Math:

  • Do you know the fundamental math skills and concepts very well, or do you have to stop and think about them?
  • Do you know how to do SAT or ACT math?
  • Do you have enough experience in this kind of math to handle difficult questions?

For testing in general:

  • Can you do the work quickly enough to finish sections on time?
  • Do you have the stamina to keep working at your highest level for the whole test?

5. Finally, make the game work for you in every way. When you learn to play your best standardized test game, you not only get scores that you can use to strengthen your application to college, you become a stronger learner overall. While most classroom teaching focuses primarily on individual subjects, standardized tests provide an arena for sharpening the underlying skills of reading, math, and writing. It is not unusual for people who train well for standardized tests to find that they get better grades than ever before. Many get an even bigger bonus: they discover that they now have the confidence to learn anything they want!

- Steve

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