Category Archives: General Testing

Don’t Try Too Hard to Justify your Answers on Standardized Tests

When we take major tests like the SAT and ACT, we often expect WAY too much of ourselves by thinking that we should be able to clearly explain why we picked the answer we did. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to explain why you picked the answer is a great thing.  The problem is when you feel you must spend too much time on a question because you cannot give a detailed justification to yourself as to why you picked what it is.

If you are teaching a class on test preparation, then you should definitely be able to explain and justify why a particular answer is correct.  I know that if I attempted to explain a question by simply telling a student, “well that’s just the obvious answer!”, they would ask for a refund.  If, on the other hand, you are simply taking the test, then you only need to have a good sense of what is correct.  This is a significant issue for test takers in the following situations:

  • On vocabulary questions where they hesitate to trust their intuition and instincts as to what a word might mean.
  • On math questions where they might be afraid to use unconventional methods, like plugging numbers in, because they are not what they have been taught as a “proper” method in school.
  • On grammar questions, they will know that something is incorrect, but because they can’t think of exactly what would replace it, they just leave it as is.
  • On science questions, they think they need to recall in-depth facts from school when what they actually need is just a bit of common-sense problem solving.

The SAT, ACT, and other major standardized tests are not long short answer and essay tests:  they are predominantly multiple choice.  You will not need to give extended explanations as to why an answer is correct – you simply must know that it is correct.  Do your best on these tests by letting your instincts and intuition guide you when it is called for.

How Many Times Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

 

How many times should you take the SAT or ACT?  Ask this question of a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen different answers.  Here are my thoughts on this, based on my tutoring experience, personal experience, and from reading everything I could find on the topic.

The Quick answer:  If you take the ACT and SAT 3 times each, you really don’t have anything to worry about.  Taking it more times than this could start to look a bit desperate, and taking it fewer times than this may not allow for the best performance.  Also, statistics from ACT and SAT indicate that test scores tend to plateau after 2 tests.  But what you should do really depends on your personal situation.  So, let’s break down some things for you to consider when deciding how many times to take the ACT or SAT.

First, here are some things everyone should do:

  1. Determine the score use policy from the college.  You can use this document from the College Board to find out more:  http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/sat-score-use-practices-list.pdf. Do this because if all the colleges to which you are applying will take the best overall score, then take the SAT or ACT as many times as you want!  If some of the colleges require all sets of past test scores¸ you may have to watch out that you don’t appear too desperate by taking it 5-6 times.  Many of the more selective schools do require that you send in all your past scores, but less selective schools generally do not require this.  (I have never come across a college that averages all past SAT or ACT test scores, so don’t be concerned about that).  Check with the individual colleges to be sure on their requirements.
  2. Practice before you take the SAT or ACT so your scores will look good.  There is no reason you can’t at least familiarize yourself with the ACT and SAT before you take them.  If you are on this website, you are already part way there!  You want to do this if for no other reason than you don’t want ACT or SAT to think that you may have cheated if you have substantially improved scores the next time (this happened to a student of mine once).

Now, let’s investigate the pros and cons of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times so you can make a decision for yourself:

Pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times:

  1. Most colleges superscore the SAT, and some do for the ACT.  Superscoring is taking the best score from each section of the test from multiple test dates, arriving at one “superscore”.  By taking the ACT or SAT multiple times, you can have an increased superscore even if your composite score does not improve.  Check with individual colleges on whether they superscore.
  2. You have the opportunity for more scholarship money.  Although your score may be fine to get you into a particular college, you open yourself up to many more scholarship opportunities by having a higher score.
  3. I can’t find any college that averages the SAT scores.  You don’t have to worry about a bad test date bringing down your overall score.  I’ve looked and looked, and I can’t find any college that treats test scores in this way.
  4. Score Choice for the SAT, only one set of scores for the ACT.  When you register for the SAT, you can select the “Score Choice” option that will make it so that you only send in scores from the test date you wish.  There are some colleges that will require all test scores from any date, but these are more selective institutions. The ACT only sends in one set of scores from a test date.  You can pick and choose what you want them to see, unless they require all test scores.
  5. Can simply leave the score BLANK on the application – it is not lying.  If you are applying to a school where they do not require all test scores, there is nothing wrong with omitting a bad score on your college application.  If the ACT went much better for you than the SAT, only put the ACT score down on the application.
  6. It is unlikely that the person making your admissions decisions will bother to go through all your test records.  Admission officers have to read thousands of college applications.  They will likely take any measures they can to make their jobs easier.  Often, after a secretary has entered the scores into a form for them, they will simply look at only the highest scores to make the decision.
  7. You’ll know you won’t have any regrets.  If you go ahead and give the ACT or SAT another try, you’ll at least know at the end of your senior year that you did all you could to get into the college of your choice.
  8. Your brain continues to change and you continue to learn in school, even without test prep.  The human brain continues to develop and change all the way up through age 25.  Even if you have done no test prep, giving the ACT or SAT another try after some time has passed may result in improvement because of your biological changes, and also because of your general academic progress.
  9. Cultural hostility towards doing it multiple times due to how it’s done elsewhere.  Don’t let a cultural bias prevent you from taking the SAT or ACT again.  In many countries, like China for example, there is only one opportunity to take the college entrance exam.  Students expect that they should be absolutely flawless in their preparation before giving the test a try.  That is simply not the case with the American University system.  There are many, many opportunities to give it a try.

Cons of taking the SAT or ACT more than 3 times:

  1. Will you look Desperate?  Colleges don’t want to have “grade-grubbing” desperate students – they want talented, curious, and level-headed ones.  Will your repeated test-taking attempts make it look like you have massive insecurities and that you won’t have much room for intellectual growth at the university level?
  2. Despite score choice, some colleges will require all scores anyway.  As discussed above, if you are applying to highly selective schools, they may require all scores, so you want to be sure that what they see puts you in the best possible light.
  3. Does your High School Transcript record the test scores?  Check with your guidance office to see if they will automatically send in your scores as part of your transcript.  Many high schools do, and despite all your score choice and planning, colleges may receive all your scores no matter what.  If your school does do this, consider omitting your high school code when you take the ACT or SAT and you may avoid having it show up in your school transcript.
  4. Waste of time and money, lots of frustration. It is true that students tend to plateau after a couple of tests.  It does cost a decent amount of money and takes a huge chunk of time to do the ACT and SAT, so make sure it is worth the time and money to do it.

 For most people, the pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times seem to outweigh the cons.  Think about your personal situation and figure out what makes the most sense for you.

A final word:  Are there any people who shouldn’t worry at all about taking it a bunch of times?  Absolutely!  Here are some potential situations:

  1. Athletes looking for a score for admission.  If you are being recruited by a school and they have told you will get in with a certain score, take it until you have what you need!  I can think of no downside to this.
  2. Someone already in to a school looking for a magic number for a scholarship. I have had students in my classes who have already graduated from high school, but who can earn far more in scholarship money be attaining a certain score.  I have even had students who only focused on what part of the test, like the SAT Critical Reading, when they took it because the other scores were fine for a scholarship.  Take it until you get what you need!
  3. You’re taking it as a seventh or eighth grader.  No need for concern about a college later rejecting you based on your talent search score.  Go ahead and give it a try to see if you are eligible for summer programs.
  4. You’re ONLY applying to schools that take the best score.  If you’ve done your research and you know for a fact that you are in this unusual situation, go ahead and take the ACT or SAT until you are all set.

Thanks for reading! I hope you have found this information helpful!

 

 

 

What if You are a Bad Test Taker?

Having worked with thousands of students over the years, I’ve come to realize that some students, no matter how much content and strategy help they receive, are simply not very good test-takers.  What can you do with respect to college admissions if no matter how hard you work, you can only make miniscule improvements in your test performance?  Here are six ideas:

  1. Look into extended time.  Maybe your issues with timing and test anxiety are due to an underlying learning disability that only manifests when you are doing a major test like the ACT or SAT.  If you have never been tested for a learning disability and you find that you have serious issues with attention, reading, and problem solving, it may be worth checking out.  Typically, a school psychologist will do it at no cost.  If you want to move the process along, you may need to have a private psychologist conduct some testing.  If you end up finding that you have a learning disability, you would then need to get an IEP or 504 plan through your school.  After that, you could apply for extended time for the ACT and SAT.
  2. Know it’s only part of the process. In my reading of the blogosphere and my discussions with college admissions counselors, the consensus seems to be that about ¼ of the college admissions decision is based on your standardized test performance.  If you know that tests are not your thing, be sure to make your extracurricular activities and grades as good as they can possibly be.
  3. Check out Test Optional Schools.  Many colleges are now test-optional, making it possible to gain admission to a great college while having poor performance on the ACT or SAT.  You can find a complete list on the website Fairtest.org.
  4. Submit a Portfolio. If your true intellectual talents cannot be demonstrated with a test, take the initiative to demonstrate them in a different way.  If you are a great artist, send in a portfolio of your creations.  If you excel at music, submit a CD of your recorded work.  If you are an excellent writer, direct the admissions officers to your blog or novel.  Admissions officers will only know that you have non-testable talents if you show them – the application gets accepted, not the person.
  5. Have a personal meeting with someone on the admissions staff. Schedule an in-person meeting with someone who works in the admission office at the school.  This will give you the opportunity to explain your unique situation or share accomplishments that cannot be easily presented in an application.  Most colleges will be more than happy to do this with you, provided you give them sufficient notice.
  6. Evaluate if college is really the best choice for you.  So many recent college graduates find themselves with tens of thousands in debt and only able to find jobs that they could have gotten with a high school diploma.  If you feel that you are likely to end up with a degree that won’t really help you find work, perhaps you should look into an associate’s degree in a field that is more to your liking.  There are tons of people who have made great livings starting plumbing, electrical, and web design companies, just to name a few. Check out your options!

How Going to a Great High School can Negatively Affect your SAT and ACT Performance

You would think that going to a top-notch public or private high school could only help your performance on major tests like the ACT or SAT. Although having a top-notch high school education is indeed helpful for one’s performance on these tests, I have found that it occasionally can harm students as well!

The problem is that students from top notch schools expect that they should KNOW how to do all the problems. Why wouldn’t they? After all, they have excellent teachers and great academic resources. Many elite private school students with whom I have worked become easily frustrated when they don’t see how to solve things right away. What they need to realize is that the SAT and ACT do not test your knowledge – they test your critical thinking ability. If they tested your knowledge, they would be much more like the SAT Subject Tests or the AP tests. Colleges use the SAT and ACT to see how well students can problem solve with things they haven’t seen before. Having it set up this way gives students who do not attend really good high schools the potential to demonstrate that they have room for academic growth, given the right academic environment.

If you attend a great high school, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately understand a problem or a passage – in your thought process you need to let things happen, not force them to happen. If you do not attend a great high school, know that the SAT and ACT will give you the opportunity to show your intellectual potential. I hope you found this discussion helpful. If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.

Thanks, Brian Stewart

Questions on the ACT, SAT, GED, and other Major Tests have only One Definitive Answer

One of the most helpful things for students taking the ACT, SAT, GED, or other major tests is to know that there is one definitive answer for every question.  This can be quite a change if you are used to coming across rather vague questions on school-based tests that indeed could have a couple of correct answers.  The ACT and SAT take significant steps to ensure that they do indeed only have one correct answer for each question.

They do this by testing the questions before they are given on scored tests.  The SAT does this on every test.  Each SAT has 10 sections, only 9 of which are scored.  The 10th section is an experimental section which they use to test out questions for future tests. They want to be certain that the questions are not biased towards any gender or ethnic group, and that the questions are of appropriate difficulty.  The ACT does not test its questions as frequently as does the SAT, but they seem to pick the June test date to add in an experimental 10 minute section for test-takers to do at the end of the test.  In order for these experimental sections to be valid, the test-takers cannot be aware that they are experimental.  Otherwise, students would simply go to sleep and save their energy for the questions that actually impact their score.  The test-makers are quite good at this question experimentation – the last time I took the SAT I thought I had determined which section was the experimental, but when I received my answers and test booklet in the mail, I realized I had been mistaken.
How good are the SAT and ACT at making sure there is only one definitive answer to each and every question?  Very, very good, and if they do mess up, they fix it.  Check out this great New York Times article on the appeals process for questions on the ACT and SAT:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/education/edlife/strategy.html

What struck me is that in a 22 year period, no ACT questions were thrown out.  Between 2005 and 2008, only 3 questions on the SAT were deemed to be flawed.  If and when the SAT and ACT do find that they have made an error in a question, be assured that they will take care of it and omit it from scoring.  This is one reason why it takes time for your scores to come back – ACT and SAT need time to make sure that they have not made any errors on the test, and need the opportunity to find any questions they might have to omit.

One potential reason that the ACT has a more of a spotless record is the strong possibility that the test makers repeat some questions.  I do not know this for a fact, but I do know that the ACT limits you to taking the test 12 times in your life while the SAT allows you to take the test as many times as you would like.  (I try to take the tests regularly, and I am spreading out my ACT test taking experiences so that I don’t run out!)  I can see no reason other than the possible repetition of questions as to why they would place these limits on test takers.  Once the ACT knows they have a perfectly worded question, they are in the clear and can use the questions on subsequent tests.  Since the SAT is starting fresh each time, they have more room for error.  Keep in mind that this is all just an educated conjecture on my part.

How does knowing that there is one definitive answer help in your test-taking and your test preparation?  Two ways:

 1.       Don’t waste time looking for games or tricks on the test.  Spend your time thinking instead.  There is no point in overanalyzing a question to see if there could be two correct answers; this simply isn’t going to happen on the SAT or ACT and if it does, they will omit it from scoring.

2.       Make sure you prepare with practice tests that have definitive answers.  If you are prepping with practice questions that in fact have 2 correct answers on occasion, you will drive yourself insane in overanalyzing the questions.  As a result, you will have a flawed strategy when it comes time to take the test.  So, be sure the materials you are using are high quality.  One great place you can go for solid questions is the website of the test you are taking. You can also purchase actual materials from ACT and SAT.

I hope you found this discussion helpful.  If so, I would greatly appreciate it if you passed it along to your friends.  Thanks so much.

Should You Do Test Prep Before Taking the ACT and SAT for the First Time?

Students and parents often wonder whether to take the SAT and ACT with or without any test preparation the first time.  There is not a simple answer to this, so I will offer you some things to consider when making your decision:

1.  How close to applying to college are you?  If you are in the spring of your junior year or the fall of your senior year and are going to take the ACT or SAT for the first time, I would highly recommend doing some test preparation prior to taking the test.  Because you don’t have much time left you want your first time taking the test to be a solid experience, so do some test preparation beforehand.  If you are in the fall of your junior year or earlier, you may decide to take the ACT or SAT once as a run-through just to see where you stand.  You can then do more targeted test preparation based on the areas of weakness that you find in your test results.

2.  Do you have significant anxiety about testing?  For many students who are quite anxious about testing, having a bad experience the first time around on the SAT or ACT can give them baggage and hang-ups the next time they take the test.  For students like this, it usually makes sense to do some test preparation ahead of time so that the test goes smoothly the first go-round.  However, I want you to consider that once in a while, I see students take the SAT or ACT without any prep and, because the students expect so little of themselves, they are able to truly relax and let their intellect shine through.  For example – I had a young lady who took the ACT after doing some preparation and scored a 27.  Then, she took the SAT thinking that it didn’t matter, did zero prep for it, and scored the equivalent of a 30 on it!  I have found that this may be the case for students who are very bright and pretty anxious.

3.  What is your personal schedule like?  Some students have significant extracurricular commitments during part of the year; they have no time to do any test preparation during those months.  However, they may need to take the SAT or ACT during those times.  If this applies to you, you may want to do your test preparation the summer before school starts so that you have the opportunity to give it your full attention.  If your schedule permits you to do test preparation leading up to a test date, that can be quite beneficial as all the strategies and concepts will be fresh.

I hope that you found this discussion helpful.  If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

How to Increase Your Mental Focus and Endurance When Taking the ACT, SAT, GED or Other Standardized Tests

A common concern that students have when they take a major test, like the SAT, ACT or GED is being unable to maintain focus.  Here are 15 things that can help you improve your mental focus when you are taking a test.

  1. Get Plenty of Sleep.  If you are cramming for a major memorization test, sacrificing a bit of sleep can make sense.  If you are studying for a major conceptual and problem-solving test, however, adequate sleep is essential.  The SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, GED and most other major standardized tests are conceptual, problem-solving tests.  As such, be certain that you are well-rested for test day.  If you are thinking about staying up late to study the night before the SAT or ACT, please don’t! Get a good night’s sleep instead.
  2. Caffeine Can Backfire.  Caffeine can be a helpful supplement for students who have attention deficit issues (please talk to your doctor about your personal situation).  Most students, though, find that caffeine can make them jumpy and jittery on test day.  The adrenaline you have pumping through your veins will more than be sufficient to make you alert.  You want to make sure you are not accelerating your thinking to the point where you make lots of careless errors.
  3. Don’t Ask Too Much of Yourself. If you only scored in the 50th percentile on practice tests, do not expect that you will score in the 99th on the actual test!  You will have significant focus issues if you attempt to do more problems than you should or if you try to read faster than what is comfortable.  If you give your mind a reasonable task to do, it will comply.  If you don’t, your mind will shut down and think about other things.
  4. Get Medical Help if Needed.  If you notice that you have quite a bit more difficulty focusing on tests than your friends do, it couldn’t hurt to have a doctor or psychologist evaluate you.  I once had a student who told me that every time he took a test, he struggled to focus.  I suggested that he see a doctor since he had never been evaluated for attention issues.  He was able to get ADHD medicine for his test.  He took the test with his prescription, and did well enough to get into the college of his choice.  It doesn’t hurt to look into this if you never have.  If paying for a medical evaluation is a concern, your school psychologist may be able to do an evaluation free of charge.
  5. Control Where You Take the Test.  Don’t just sign up for any old test-center.  Try to take it at a school or facility where distractions will be kept to a minimum.  If you are distracted by large rooms and lots of noise, take the test at a school with small classrooms.  If you are distracted by having lots of people you know at a test center, sign up to take the test on the other side of town.  In any event, think about where you should do it.  As long as you plan far enough in advance, you should be able to have plenty of control over where you take your test.
  6. Declare a Drama Moratorium Leading Up to the Test.  You don’t need to be as extreme as one of my students was – he broke up with his girlfriend a week before the ACT so she wouldn’t be a distraction to him!  You may want to isolate yourself a bit more leading up to a test so that you don’t have the “drama” that your “friends” may often cause.  Plan on going out for a fun evening with everyone after the test is over!
  7. Practice Without Social Media Distractions.  Nowadays, we are almost like cyborgs in how we are constantly connected to our phones, computers and tablets.  If you are practicing a standardized test with the test in one hand and your phone in the other, you are setting yourself up for failure.  Get used to practicing without having the constant interaction of social media so that you don’t experience internet deprivation when you are stuck taking a test for five hours.
  8. Have a Snack During Breaks.  This is one of the easiest yet most helpful things you can do to stay focused during tests.  Almost every major test will give you some sort of a break.  Use this time to get your blood sugar up to where it should be by having a healthy snack:  almonds, banana, jerky etc. Stay away from processed carbs and sugars though as they can make you sleepy!
  9. Wear Earplugs. I have never come across anything saying you can’t use earplugs during major tests.  If you are distracted by the smallest of noises, go ahead and bring earplugs (they only cost a few dollars) and tune out your fellow test-takers.   Just be sure that you are aware of when the test proctor is calling time so that you aren’t ejected from the testing site for continuing work when you shouldn’t.
  10. Eat Peppermint When Studying and When Test-Taking.  I have heard and read from various sources that eating peppermint while you study and then having peppermint while taking memorization-based tests can help you remember things because you are connecting key concepts to your primitive sense of smell.  I have not tried this personally, but I have had students do this and say that it is helpful.  If nothing else, it will have a placebo effect, giving you more confidence in your ability to remember things.
  11. Do Relaxation and Hypnosis Exercises.    Athletes do mental conditioning.  Musical and dramatic performers do too.  Performing well on a standardized test is a major undertaking – why not do some relaxation or hypnosis exercises to help you focus?  If your situation is really bad, you may even consider hiring a professional hypnotist to help you learn to subconsciously tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand while taking a test.  If your lack of focus is more mild, you can do any number of relaxation exercises available in books or online to help you channel your energy when test-taking.
  12. Get Test Anxiety Under Control if Needed.  If you are always distracted by serious worries about your performance when taking a test, address these concerns ahead of time by thinking through how you will handle your test anxiety.  Having a plan in place will actually help to reduce anxiety!
  13. Get Motivated if Needed.  If you are distracted when test-taking because you just don’t care, find motivation.  The best way to do this is to talk to your parents, teachers, or older friends who can tell you why doing well on the test is indeed very important. I can assure you that their advice will ring true for you.
  14. Accept That There is Nothing Else You Can Do During Test Time.  When I go on an airplane ride, I accept that I will not be able to call anyone or use the internet.  I embrace this quiet time and spend it reading or talking with family members.  Use the same mindset when you take a major test.  Let go of any of the other things that could be bugging you during this time because there is absolutely nothing you can do about them during the test.  Given the ever-present media distractions we face, taking a standardized test can be, in a way, a bit liberating!  (I know that’s a stretch, but some of you may be able to look at it that way. . . )
  15. Your Mental Endurance.  If you are about to run a marathon and you haven’t even gone for a run around your neighborhood, you will completely fall apart.  Similarly, if you are going to take a 4 or 5 hour test, it is unlikely that you will be able to focus for this long if you have done nothing to build your test-taking stamina.  If you know you have issues with mental focus, be sure to do some full-length tests leading up to the actual thing.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

 

 

The Most Important thing to Focus on for Standardized Tests

When I was a public high school teacher one of the courses I instructed was AP World History.  The AP World History Exam typically averages three out of nine as the median score on its extended responses.  One year, the median for a question was only around one and a half out of nine.  What happened?  The vast majority of students thought the question was asking about countries in “South-East Asia” (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand etc.). In fact, the question asked only about countries in “South Asia” (India, Pakistan etc.).  If a student had simply answered the question discussing what little he or she knew about India, he or she would likely have received a score well above average.

This example illustrates the most important strategy for taking the SAT, ACT, GED, AP, and IB exams as well as any other major test:  you must understand the question!  If you rush through what they are asking you may very well misunderstand the question and you are definitely going to miss it.

This is such an issue because in school we often have questions that are quite simple in their wording:  “solve for x”, “who was the main character”, or “define mitosis.”  Quite frankly, we don’t even need to read the questions much of the time on school tests – if you look at the choices the answer is clear. The questions on standardized tests, however, are far more elaborately worded.  If you skim over them really quickly, you will have no idea what they are asking you to do.  Instead, make sure you read the questions very, very carefully so that you fully understand the task at hand.  Remember that a careless mistake is still a mistake, so don’t let yourself make them by misreading the question.

For any teachers reading this, know that you can help your students quite a bit by giving them questions with more difficult wording.  I was conducting a teacher professional development workshop about the ACT when a math teacher said, “My gosh!  We never have words in our problems – only numbers!”  After our meeting, he made sure to do more word problems on his math quizzes.  I know it takes more time to write questions like these, but even a couple of toughly worded questions on a test will really help your students become better prepared for major tests like the SAT, ACT, or AP exams.  If you feel you are only “teaching to the test” by doing this, know that you are teaching the very important life skill of reading instructions carefully.  I don’t know about you, but I definitely would want my accountant, lawyer, or doctor to be able to carefully read what they are supposed to do and not make careless errors.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart