Tips from a Test Prep Tutor: Good Habits Take You To The Finish Line!

Posted by Mac Staben on 12/27/13 10:09 AM

standardized test preparation

As a boston-based test prep tutor,  I’ve lately been thinking quite a lot about the power of habits and regularity. Good habits, bad habits, or disrupted habits - all of them influence who we are and what we do.  

For example, I’d always wondered how a glassblower I admire learned to handle glass so effortlessly. The reason became clear when he told me that he knew he had taken a gather of glass (the first step to making a bubble) at least 150,000 times.  That kind of familiarity with raw material didn’t just make standard examples easier; it helped him improvise and adapt to particularly difficult cases.  That practice let him forget the mechanics and allowed him to focus on what he actually wanted to make. To complete the comparison, as a GRE tutor, I hope that the mechanics of math are so familiar that they can focus on where the problem leads them.  When students make time for reading or work on their math skills, that time spent practicing creates real academic benefits as well as improves performance on the SAT,  the GRE, or  the MCAT.  Unfortunately, finding or making the time for daily practice is hard.

While I would never advocate that a student do a thousand practice tests, I have found that the students who have succeeded the most (both academically and on standardized tests) did so by altering their habits to eke out more useful time. In the spirit of the upcoming New Year, it seemed appropriate to share some examples and insights from students over the last year who developed habits that really helped them academically. 

  1. Carve out a block of time daily for practice: Designating a chunk of time for standardized test preparation daily will help much more than cramming in a few marathon sessions. Over the course of a month this summer, I had a student who took a physics class on electricity and magnetism, went on a bunch of hiking trips, and prepared for the MCAT all over the course of about a month and a half. He did this by working every day for a block of time in the morning and evening, every day and his sustained effort paid off. 
  2. Make use of downtime:This takes some creativity, but think of all the time spent on routine tasks like commuting or brushing your teeth. An MCAT student I work with drives 20 minutes to work every day. He started listening to an audio course during the drive, and since then, he has taken much less time to master material than he did beforehand. For a student working on GRE coaching, try learning 2 or three new vocabulary words while brushing your teeth or salt your room with post-it notes with tricky words. Seeing those regularly will imprint them in your brain much more than cramming ever could.
  3. Do it over the long-term. Most habits take about a month to develop. As a GRE tutor, I’ve seen students improve their English skills drastically by reading and analyzing three articles a day. While the first week or two may be difficult, eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’ll feel the absence of the habit, whether it’s reading before bed, learning vocabulary while brushing your teeth, or rolling down the highway listening to German courses.

Like anything, sustained effort is the best way to improve performance on any academic endeavor. Simple everyday practice helps more than any gimmick or quick fix. For ideas on how to make changes to study skills or academic habits, talk to a tutor from Cambridge Coaching.

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