In this blog post I will reveal the secret strategy that I used to make a 32 on the ACT and go to college for free, without any test prep. Are you ready? Here it is:
Learn what is taught in school as you go along.
Let me explain. Students and their parents spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on test prep materials, services, and software each year, but the ACT (as well as the SAT) is designed to measure academic achievement in high school. This means that there’s nothing on the test that is not covered by the standard curriculum that all students are required to take. Test prep is only a review, and can’t prepare a student to perform well starting from scratch. The time to begin preparing for the ACT is not a month or even six months before taking the test, but the first day of freshman year, by having a passion for learning, a personal motivation for what you are doing, and by getting help along the way. Learning is fueled by relevance, and without having a sense of purpose and drive, cramming facts and figures is like trying to fill a bottomless bucket.
As an online tutor and academic coach, I help students not only learn the most effective ways to use their talents, but also get in touch with their own sense of passion, motivation, and burning sense of curiosity. If you build a house with a strong foundation, you won’t need to do last-minute repairs. Contact me today to find out how I can help your son or daughter unleash their inner academic rock star.
Much of the structure of the school environment teaches us to guess when we don’t know the answer. While this may be a good strategy when taking a multiple choice exam (or “multiple-guess”, as an old professor I was fond of used to say), taken on as a habit it actually hinders the learning process.
This occurred to me recently when I was working with a particular student. When I would ask him a question, by way of response he would often spout off a string of related vocabulary terms, as if he was trying to answer by throwing darts at a mathematical glossary. I realized that this was just conditioning from the school environment, but it wasn’t actually helping him to learn. For one thing, many of the terms he would spout made no sense in the context of the question, so instead of thinking about what the question meant, his mental process was “What words do I know that might work?” For another, he was missing the opportunity to honestly say “I don’t understand”, so that I could ask the question differently. And finally, if he happened to give me the answer I was expecting, I couldn’t be sure whether it was because he actually understood what I was asking or because he had made a lucky guess.
This is the thought process I suggest in place of “guessing” at answers:
1) Think about what the question means. If you don’t understand the question, you can’t give a meaningful answer.
2) If a possible answer comes to mind, ask yourself first if you understand it and if it makes sense in the context of the question. There are few situations in real life when answering a question without being able to provide an explanation will do you much good.
3) If you don’t understand, say so, but try to be specific. Say something like “I don’t understand what ______ means”, or “I don’t understand how ______ relates to ______.”
Theoretically, if a test is designed to measure what a student has learned, then there should be no such thing as “preparing” for the test. This is why I believe that the best “test prep” method is to focus on learning what is taught in school, and ignoring the test itself until the day of. This philosophy may go against the grain of the conventional wisdom perpetuated by test prep companies and anxious parents, but it got me a full-ride scholarship to the college of my choice based on my ACT score, so I know there is something to it.
In general, with the prevalence of test-prep courses, software, and services, what standardized tests really measure is not how effective a student’s overall education has been, but rather how well the student has prepared for the test. This goes to show that sometimes what you focus on doesn’t expand, it actually shrinks.
One of the most common complaints students have about learning math is, “I’ll never use this”, and, when it comes to math as it is usually taught and measured on standardized exams, they are right. Math professor Sanjoy Mahajan writes on the Freakonomics blog about how the math questions on standardized exams are unrealistic, and how they could be written to reflect the ways that people actually use math in real life. I especially enjoyed reading this article because Sanjoy’s methods reflect the ways that I teach students to think about computations: using their brains in natural, intuitive ways, rather than like a fleshy digital calculator.
Benchprep is a comprehensive online test prep resource, providing reading and review materials, practice problems, and entire practice tests for dozens of standardized exams. Whatever standardized exam you are preparing for, they probably have it, from AP exams, college and graduate school admission exams, and licensing and civil service exams to prep courses on college subjects. A monthly or lifetime subscription gets you access to your preparation materials on the web or on your smartphone so you can study any time, anywhere. They also have a blog with dozens of helpful, informative articles. If you have any standardized exams in your future, or want extra supplementary resources for your college courses, Benchprep is a valuable resource.