Teenagers about to take their big exams have it tough. With minds crammed full of information and their sharpened No. 2 pencils, they’re only weeks away from the toughest hours of their school year.
Or maybe even their high school careers.
As parents, you hope the prep work has paid off, that the T’s have been crossed, and that years of education have primed your kids for their big moment. But whether it has or it hasn’t… it’s out of your hands when test day rolls around.
Help them by focusing on what your child shouldn’t be doing. In crunch time, a poor approach to studying expends valuable mental energy. But if your goal is to remove the barriers to a top-notch study session, you’ll make up ground.
So save you and your child some big pre-exam headaches by understanding the four common test prep mistakes below and working to avoid them.
1. Spending Equal Time Focusing on the Different Parts of the Test
A high-octane approach to test prep builds confidence AND academic knowledge, but with the clock ticking, improving upon weaknesses is most important.
So how do you know what your child’s weaknesses are? And better yet, how do you strengthen them?
- During every practice test (they are taking practice tests, right?!), ask them to mark questions they are unsure of the answer to.
- Collect the wordings of all of these questions into a spreadsheet, even if they chose the correct answer. This eliminates the chance of not working on questions which need better understanding.
- After the first few practice tests (students should take 1-1.5 per week), identify the questions that cause the most trouble. Categorize them by format and look for patterns and commonly appearing verbs throughout the questions.
- Rate these categories on a scale of 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest), according to either total questions missed or the amount of difficulty your child feels with a given type.
How to avoid? Build a practice schedule and revisit it as your student progresses
The goal of test prep is to build good test-taking habits by efficiently managing time each session, and spending more of your prep time on the areas where its needed most. Segment out the different difficulties of questions. A good mix is:
- 50% of the time: Areas that need better understanding
- 40% of the time: Areas that need brushing up
- 10% of the time: Areas of strength or confidence builders
2. Only Using One Kind of Practice Exam
The last months before the test should be dedicated to practice tests, practice tests, practice tests (again, 1-1.5 per week). That’s the obvious part.
What’s tricky is making sure:
- The practice exams accurately represent the quality of the test
- There is a large variation of the phrasing and topics within the questions
If the first criteria isn’t met, there will be knowledge of the concepts and questions, but no exposure to how the questions are phrased on the real test. This could lead to confusion and anxiety on the actual test.
If the second criteria isn’t met, practice scores might come out too high. You don’t want to rely on memorization of a smaller sample of questions instead of the foundational skills and approaches needed for success.
So where do you find practice tests?
When it comes to practice tests representative of the actual test, look to the test makers themselves. Normally, The College Board and ACT (aka the companies that make those tests) only make one practice test available each year.
Luckily, we’ve tracked down a few practice tests from previous years below.
- SAT Prep: The College Board publishes the official SAT practice test. You can also use their site to find versions of the SAT test from the past decade.
- ACT Prep: A free practice test for the ACT can be found at act.org.
- AP Prep: Visit the College Board website for Sample Questions and the blog AP Practice Exams for practice materials.
3. Treating All Mistakes the Same
Not all wrong answers are stem from the same issue. Your question spreadsheet from the first section will come in handy for additional analysis, namely, WHY questions were answered wrong.
You can boil down the reasons students miss questions into four buckets:
- Careless Errors: The question was misread or the wrong thing was solved for.
- Bad Guesses: Answers were successfully eliminated, but the wrong choice was made between the last two.
- Content: The necessary skills or knowledge for answering the question was missing.
- Wrong Approaches: The knowledge or skills are in place, but a mistake was made in answering.
Each category requires a different step to correct. And being able to identify those steps is priceless. Working with a tutor is an excellent way to refine these abilities. Another approach would be to learn the follow-up questions to ask when one of these errors are made.
Test-taking errors and follow-up questions
4. Studying Until They Drop
When it comes to such high-stakes testing, good study habits can’t only be captured with clichés like “eat breakfast” and “don’t pull all-nighters.” So rather than supply students with timeless verbiage that will go through them like milk through a strainer, explain the rationale of effective habits including:
Taking time to recover
Most importantly, recognizing learning needs recovery time. Don’t strong-arm your teenager into heavy studying less than 3 days before the test. Brushing up on harder material the nights preceding the test is fine, but know information from extensive study sessions won’t stick. Nor is it worth risking energy to stress or exhaustion.
Maintaining a sleep schedule
Don’t think 8:30 bedtimes the night before the test is the right amount of sleep. Optimal performance requires a sleep schedule—like going to sleep every night at the same time for at least a week. These good habits intertwined with a successful study routine will bring brain power to full force on test day.
Need more convincing on the importance of sleep to learning retention? Skim this Harvard Med piece.
Honoring the study location
As crucial as breaks are to effective study sessions (see this article in The Atlantic), so is consistency in where studying takes place. Make it a point to have your child leave the room they study in when they go on breaks. This will keep distractions out of the study space, ensuring extra efficiency.
More High School Test Prep Help
If nothing else, remember that it’s important to introduce a well-thought out study plan. Success on high-stakes SAT and ACT exams isn’t synonymous with endless time locked in a bedroom! By taking an active role in your teen’s study plan and creating efficiencies, you can open the door to significant long-term opportunities. You could even save money on the cost of college tuition!