The Best Test Prep Advice You'll Ever Receive

In my newsletter (you can sign up on this page), I talk about the best test prep advice I ever received while I was preparing for the SAT.

In this article, I'll lay out the best test prep advice you'll ever receive, based on my 15+ years of tutoring experience.

One of the most parroted pieces of advice you'll hear in the test prep world is that you need to do a lot of practice tests. And not just any practice tests, but official ones released by The College Board (also called QAS tests, referring to The College Board's Question and Answer Service). "Do tons of QAS tests," reads one post from a popular test prep message board. This advice is so ingrained that I haven't met a tutor who didn't encourage taking as many practice tests as possible. In fact, I myself have repeated this advice multiple times on this blog.

While this advice is well-meaning, what I've realized after many years of teaching is that it puts the student's focus in the wrong place. When students are encouraged to do as many practice tests as possible, test prep becomes a game of quantity—how many can I do?—as if practice tests were pushup "reps" needed to finish a workout. What students end up doing is plowing their way through one test after another, and the whole approach becomes "This week practice test one. Next week practice test two."

This mindset is helpful only insofar as it gets students comfortable with the timing and format of the test, but it does not lead to significant improvement. In fact, for most students, grinding out one practice test after another is a massive waste of time. The problem is that students don't do what it takes to make significant changes in their know-how from one practice test to the next, so they continue to do what they've always done, making the same mistakes and falling flat on the same types of questions.

Imagine being asked to find the area of an equilateral triangle again and again. If you didn't know how to do it the first time and you didn't learn how to do it afterwards, what good is it to ask you a second or third time?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. — Albert Einstein (supposedly)

"Well, that's obvious," you say. "You have to learn from your practice. What student doesn't grade his work and review his mistakes afterwards?" And therein lies the issue. All too often, afterwards means afterthought. In theory, students take the time to learn from their performance. In practice, this doesn't happen (at least not to the extent that it should). When students (following the standard advice of "do a lot of practice tests") spend all their focus and energy on the practice itself, actual learning always takes a backseat.

As a teacher, I've seen how this plays out so many times, whether a student is in a class or self-studying on their own:

Student takes practice section. Student finishes practice section. Student feels accomplished because in his mind, practicing = studying. Then Student feels tired and distracted. Student hasn't budgeted enough time for a study session that would make his practice worthwhile. In fact, Student has never realized that a 25 minute practice section might require 90 minutes of in-depth study to actually learn from that practice. In any case, Student doesn't have the time or energy for that. Student grades practice section. Student glances at the questions that were answered incorrectly. Student looks at the right answers and goes, "Oh, I get it now." Student thinks they've done enough for the day.

The underlying misconception here is that doing practice tests is what test prep should look like.

The "do a lot of practice tests" directive is used to push students to slog through sample problem after sample problem but it completely neglects the much more important part of actually learning from those sample problems.

Tutors are also guilty of putting more emphasis on the doing than the learning. To make things easier on themselves, some tutors like to assign entire practice sections as classwork, whether it be a reading, writing, or math section. The problem is that it's very difficult to both do a practice section and give it a thorough review within the timeframe of a typical class (from my personal experience, one 25 minute practice section can take over an hour to review). So class time inevitably runs out and a good chunk of that in-class practice is wasted. Now I'm not saying that it's bad to assign practice questions as classwork or homework. I'm saying it's bad to assign practice questions and then not give them their due.

There is no point in doing any problems if you can't reflect on their solutions to the point where you've really learned something from them.

If mindlessly churning through practice tests is a common trap to be avoided, then how do we ensure that we actually gain something from our practice?

Here's what I've recommended to students in recent years, and it's the best test prep advice you'll ever receive:

Do not spend more than 3 minutes on any one question. If you're struggling on a question, jump straight to the solution. Don't spend even one additional second on the question, and don't move on to the next question. Keep your focus on this one question and go directly to the solution.

Understand the solution deeply. Write it out. Make notes. Look up things you don't understand, whether it be a math concept, vocab word, or grammar rule. You may have to spend an hour learning a topic on youtube or in your textbook. You may have to reread a reading passage four times, looking up words along the way. Allow yourself this time. The point is to understand the solution as deeply as you can no matter how long it takes.

Repeat this process for any question on which you feel any uncertainty.

This approach is called the "surrender" method. It puts the main focus on learning from the solutions rather than doing the questions. If you don't know what you're doing after 3 minutes, surrender. Don't waste time spinning your wheels. Turn to the solution and learn from it. You don't need to time the 3 minutes. You'll know when you've been stumped long enough.

A lot of students feel bad about giving up on questions. Don't. This is the SAT. All these questions have known solutions, so what's the point of banging your head against the wall? You're not trying to solve the mysteries of quantum physics. There's no shame in going straight to the solutions and using them as a study tool. Don't worry—you'll ensure you know how to do the questions yourself in the final step.

You'll improve faster if you just learn the existing solutions rather than trying to come up with them yourself.

The final step is critical. Every test question you looked up the solution to must be revisited the next week. Get a fresh copy of the test and redo those questions on your own, without looking at any of the solutions. By redoing the questions you missed before, you're reinforcing what you've learned and you're uncovering any blindspots you still have (you will have a lot of them). For any question you still struggle on, again go straight to the solution.

With this approach, it will be impossible for you to mindlessly grind through practice tests without learning anything from them. You will avoid treating the review process as secondary to the test-taking process as so many students do once they've finished a practice section and want to move on.

It may take you a month to get through one practice test, but it will be worth it. Once you have gone through a few practice tests like this, you will start seeing patterns and you will know how to solve question types you weren't able to solve previously.

This may sound like a long and tedious process, and it is, but remember that you're only doing this for 3-4 practice tests and you're jumping straight to the solution for any question you're unsure of.

Once you feel a lot more comfortable with the test, you can start doing entire sections on your own and reviewing afterwards (don't forget to budget time for the review!). You'll find that the review process is a lot less burdensome because 1) you'll be making fewer mistakes and 2) you'll be better equipped to learn from those mistakes.

Let me know how this method works for you in the comments below!