How you do your practice tests is how you’ll do the real test

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard

Here's a common situation I face as a teacher:

  • A student skips over a math question that is relatively easy.
  • I notice he did not even label the diagram. It seems like he dismissed the question right away.
  • I have the student do the question in front of me.
  • NOW the student starts labeling the diagram and is able to do the question without my help.
  • I put on a patronizing expression and stare disdainfully at the student (in good fun).

It's after these moments that I tell the student:

How you do your practice tests is how you'll do the real test.

Now when you're just starting out and learning the test, you should absolutely be taking it slow and experimenting with different approaches (still not an excuse for laziness). But when you're practicing for performance and timing, you cannot take practice tests casually.

You can't do the practice test one way, and the real test another way, and hope that you'll just magically perform at your best when the time comes. If you're sloppy in practice, how are you going to compensate for that sloppiness on the real test when that's been your approach the entire time? Football teams don't take it easy during training, and the same applies to test-taking. You have to approach everything with the same sense of urgency and focus in order to improve. If you don't bother to label diagrams in practice, not only are you developing bad habits that could sabotage you later on when you're under pressure, but you're also missing out on crucial learning opportunities that come only by getting to the final steps of tough questions.

Think about it. So many of your wrong answers are probably due to silly mistakes or giving up too fast. Those issues won't resolve themselves unless you practice with the INTENT of resolving them.

Learn to take questions step-by-step. Sometimes, the solution does not become apparent until you start taking action, by writing things down or drawing a diagram or translating words into an equation. I can't tell you how many times I've walked over to a student who asked for help only to find that he's already figured it out by himself in the few extra minutes he had to wait while I was helping someone else. It's important to always take action even if you can't visualize the full path to the solution right away. Get your hands dirty as soon as possible.

Every top-scoring student I've seen had a cut-throat intensity when it came to beating the test. They'd rather read the passage again than have to guess. They would underline what questions were asking for. They always labeled their diagrams. Any mistake would be noted and revisited. No question was going to slip through. It's that intense attitude during practice that conditions you for success on test day.

A lot of those students, however, didn't have that attitude when they first started. That intensity was something they improved and developed over time because a high score meant a lot to them, and it's something you too can practice. Yes, you can practice being serious by taking your tests seriously.

In much of life, how you do anything is how you do everything.