Advice for Optimal Test Prep (SAT/ACT)

1. One Section at a Time

Unless you're reviewing practice tests, I recommend studying one section at a time (math, reading, or writing) so that you build enough momentum for a solid understanding of each section. Momentum comes from having certain concepts fresh in your mind so that you can leverage them when learning new ones. Things tend to "click" faster and stay in our brains longer when we see them repeatedly.

If you study all three sections at once, it's harder to dig in and gain a deep understanding of the test because you're switching contexts so often. You're also more prone to forgetting what you learn.

So let's say you've blocked off 2 hours each day for SAT study. Instead of studying math for 1 hour and then writing for 1 hour, just spend the entire 2 hours on math. Don't jump to another section until you've completed a book or set of lessons devoted solely to math. This brings me to my next piece of advice.

2. One Resource at a Time

Finish one resource before you start using another. This doesn't mean you can't use multiple resources. By the time you take the real exam, you'll likely have gone through books, online tutorials, in-person classes, and practice tests. That's fine. But if you start going through a test prep book or program, finish it before you start reading chapters from another book or signing up for another program.

If you decide a book isn't that useful or you were only reading it for certain topics, then you can move on, but in general, don't switch just because the grass seems greener on the other side. Like people who start a different diet every week, too many students are easily convinced that some other book or course is the magic pill they've been looking for, when really all they need is the patience to work through the resources they already have. Research as many test prep options as you want upfront but once you choose one, stick with it until you've finished it.

3. Give Yourself Time and Space

After a 4-hour practice test, it's tempting to just grade it and be done with it—you probably don't even want to look at it anymore. And if you do decide to review it (usually at the insistence of your parents), you just flip through the questions you missed, glance at the right answers, and convince yourself that you now understand them.

What a mistake!

Give yourself the time and space to review your practice tests! Don't treat it as an afterthought, something to be crammed in when you're tired and only have a few minutes to spare.

If you're low on time and energy after a practice test, then block off an hour of study time the next day to do the review.

The same is true for "rabbit holes". Let me explain: you're reviewing a practice test that you've taken. You come across a question you missed because you didn't understand the underlying concept. Learning this concept could take half an hour and would interrupt your review, so you just let it go.

You just missed a huge opportunity for improvement! Give yourself permission to go down that "rabbit hole," even if it inconveniences the review you were doing. Another option is to take note of that particular concept and ensure that you revisit it soon.

To summarize, reviewing practice tests should not be an afterthought. Relearning a concept you've forgotten should not be an afterthought. It's okay to spend 30 minutes reviewing one question. Instead of getting frustrated, give yourself the time and space to do these things.

4. Stop Forcing Yourself onto a Strict Schedule

One of the most common questions I get asked is "What's the best study schedule?"

Whether your exam is in two months or two years, the question is pointless.

It's unproductive to plan everything out in advance. You just have to start and adjust course along the way.

It's good to have a loose "big picture" plan, but it's actually detrimental to adhere to a strict schedule that you set at the start.

As you study, your understanding of the test will change and so will your strengths and weaknesses. You'll realize some things you didn't know at the beginning and you'll get through some topics faster or slower than you expected. As a result, your study plan will have to adapt accordingly, which means that whatever schedule you initially set for yourself will, at some point, no longer be relevant. That's why you shouldn't waste time creating one in the first place.

You don't need to have a study schedule all mapped out. Just pick a resource for a particular section and get started!

I hope this post helps you have a more efficient and stress-free test prep experience. While these exams are never fun, the right approach can mean the difference between success and burnout. Please leave your comments below.