The key to cracking standardized tests

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On May 7, 2002, a sportswriter questioned NBA superstar Allen Iverson about his dedication to his team and his alleged failure to attend team practices. The next few moments would go down in NBA history as one of the most iconic interview responses ever given, and produced the now-infamous line: “We talkin’ about practice!”

While Allen Iverson and I are extremely different people (I unfortunately am the farthest thing from a star basketball player imaginable), we do have one crucial similarity: I am also going to talk about practice. Why? Because practice is the secret to acing standardized tests.

Now I know you might already be rolling your eyes. After all, who doesn’t know that in order to do well on a test, you must practice? But there are subtleties to practice. Not all practice makes perfect. Good and thoughtful practice makes perfect. Bad practice only creates bad habits. And I am here to share with you five of the most helpful tips I’ve accumulated over the years to help you maximize the value you get from your time practicing for standardized exams. 

#1: Practice the real thing

Standardized tests are high-pressure affairs. You’re stuck in a room solving problems for hours on end. It’s as much a test of preparation as it is a test of endurance. Therefore, when studying for these exams, it’s critical to add in practices that simulate the actual test. Block off however many hours it takes for you to do a full-length exam (yes, even if it’s a seven hour exam), and complete the full exam within those time limits, following the timing of each section/break. 

If your test will be done on a Scantron, do it on a Scantron. If your test is computerized, practice on the computer. Resist the temptation to stop the clock to go to the bathroom or grab a snack—you won’t have that luxury in the actual test! Standardized tests are an endurance sport. Just like how you won’t be prepared for a marathon running only 400m reps, it’ll be hard to perform at a high level throughout the whole test if you’re just practicing for 25 minute blocks at a time.

#2 Practice in small moments

In addition to carving out deliberate moments to practice, there are actually a lot of smaller blocks of time that can make a huge difference if they’re utilized well. I’m a strong believer in that learning through osmosis is a real phenomenon. When you see something or hear something multiple times, it’ll gradually start becoming embedded in your memory, even if you don’t realize it. When you’re waiting for the bus, pull out some vocab or math equation flash cards. Record yourself explaining some concepts that you’ve been trying to nail, and listen to the recording while commuting or meal prepping. Many small moments over time will add up, and allows you to turn otherwise idle time into productive moments.

#3 Practice with “resistance”

You’ll often see swimmers practice by swimming with parachutes, rowers practicing pull-ups with weighted plates, or other types of athletes practicing with various types of resistance to build power and strength. This same type of training can translate over to standardized exam prep as well. If you want to get better at reading passages quicker, maybe attempt a critical reading section in 20 minutes instead of 25 (note that this should be done outside of a full-length practice exam where you are simulating the actual exam). If you want to reduce your reliance on the calculator, take a math section without the calculator.  After doing this a few times, you will find that the original conditions given by the test feel much more comfortable.

#4 Review is often just as important as doing problems

I often see students skipping over the review chapters of a test prep book and heading straight to the end to do the practice problems. While this is okay if you’re short on time, the review sections in test prep books often have really valuable information. Even if you’re comfortable with the topic that the section covers, you’d be surprised at how a read through of the review text will further your understanding. Sometimes, you might even learn a thing or two that you didn’t know before. 

When checking the answers to your practice questions/tests, it’s natural to review the explanations and answers to the questions that you got incorrect. It can be just as important, however, to review the answers to the ones that you correctly answered. Sometimes, you may have been iffy about a problem and guessed the answer correctly. Other times, you may think you know the answer, but only inadvertently got the correct answer through a lucky misunderstanding. Reading the solution will help reinforce the shaky parts of your knowledge, and will also help you gain more insight on what test writers are thinking when they craft the test.

#5 People often underestimate the level of practice needed

Psychology research show that people are frequently overconfident in their abilities. This will differ from person to person, but it’s quite easy to underestimate the amount of preparation that is needed for a goal score, especially if it’s a high score. Starting preparation early is key (like really early!), and practicing consistently every day until test day (even when it can feel like a chore) will make a huge difference. Just like how the top athletes must train every day for their big match or race, to really get good at something (even if that something is a standardized test) also requires daily commitment. And because of humans’ natural tendency to be overconfident, you will likely need more practice than you initially think. 

And there you have it—five tips to level up your exam practice. Give these tips a try—you might be pleasantly surprised the next time you have to take a standardized test!

Eleanor is an MBA/Masters in Computer Science dual degree candidate at the University of Chicago/Booth School of Business. Previously, she received her Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University.

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