How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You probably know what the old joke says: Practice, practice, practice. Really, practice is the only way to get to most destinations worth aspiring to. And not just any practice will do. Only perfect practice makes perfect, so if you want to improve, embrace the right kind of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice for standardized tests depends on high-quality practice testing and targeted review. In fact, if you don’t take practice tests, you’re not really doing test prep. Practice tests (and review) unlock all kinds of benefits, including some you wouldn’t even expect, as long as you take them right. Proctored tests, like the ones we run at our office as well as partnering libraries and schools, incorporate most of the elements of perfect practice. But if you can’t make one of those opportunities, you can still optimize your own practice test if you follow some specific guidelines.
Only use exams released by the test makers themselves as representative of what you’ll see on test day. Books of official practice tests are available for the SAT, ACT, GRE, and just about any other high stakes standardized test. Other official exams can often be found online. Why bother using third-party material when you can get tests straight from the source?
Have you ever considered that testing in a quiet classroom with a crowd of equally anxious students is itself part of the challenge of many high stakes exams? Prepare for test day conditions by matching them as closely as possible. This usually means that you have to turn off the music, get out of your bedroom, and find other people to work among, as long as they are as quiet and focused as you need to be. If you can’t get into an actual practice test, a library may be the closest simulation of a test environment available. Call ahead to find out if quiet rooms are available and need to be reserved. Under no circumstances should you try to take tests in rooms where people (or pets) are talking, playing, cooking, or even moving around too much.
Time management represents one of the greatest challenges–and opportunities–on test day. Learn to make every moment count through timed trials. The best way to manage this aspect of practice testing is to recruit a parent to serve as unofficial proctor. If you can’t hand the timer over to someone else, you can manage it yourself, but be sure to wear a watch anyway: you won’t be allowed to use your own timer at the official test, so don’t get used to looking at one when you practice. Set it and stop when it goes off, but track time within each section with a watch. Be sure to practice advanced time management techniques.
Morning tests are best, since they mirror the early start of most official exams. Also be sure to take the entire test in one sitting–unless your accommodation says otherwise– and give yourself the standard breaks. Breaks provide your only opportunity to eat, drink, move around, and refocus for the remaining sections, so take full advantage of them:
SAT: 10 minutes after Reading and another 5 minutes after Math-Calculator if you are writing the essay.
ACT: 10 minutes after Math and another 5 minutes after Science if you are writing the essay.
Coaches always insist that you play like you practice, and with good reason. Taking a test hungry, tired, distracted, or anxious almost guarantees that you’ve wasted your time. Make practice matter by managing all of the drivers of performance: get enough sleep, eat the right foods before and during your test, manage your stress, and psych yourself up for your best work. And don’t undermine all of that excellent preparation by forgetting to turn off your phone!
After everything you’ve just read, you’d be right to conclude that taking great practice tests isn’t easy. In fact, the closer you get to test day, the more these practice tests should feel like the real thing. If you’re willing to put in this level of work, you’ll be way ahead of your competition. Even better, the higher the quality and commitment of your practice tests, the fewer you’ll have to take to earn your dream score!