Start Early

A few dozen times each year, a parent emails us asking, “When should my child start preparing for the SAT?” Or occasionally, a freshman worrying about their first experience taking final exams will ask, “When should I start studying?” Or a student might ask us in March when they should start reviewing for their AP tests. Or a rising senior might ask us in July when they should start working on their college essay.

To all these questions, our answer is always the same:

“Yesterday.”

We’re only half-joking. We’re just trying to give you permission to start earlier than you otherwise might.

If most students start studying for the test two nights before, you’ll do better if you start earlier. You can start studying for next May’s AP tests this summer by previewing next year’s content. You can start preparing for your final exams during the first week of school by doing a little more than what is asked of you. You can review throughout the year because you understand that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ and spaced repetition forms lasting memories. And you don’t have to wait for the test to be announced before you can begin studying because the test is always coming.  

And this is especially important if you’re concerned about test anxiety. Remember, true confidence comes from self-efficacy. If you’re well prepared, you’ll feel more confident.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go sign up your third-grader for SAT prep. I’m suggesting that, if you’re thinking it might be time to start, it probably is.

The Secret to a Higher SAT or ACT Score

People often want to know “the secret” to a higher score on the SAT or ACT, and they’re often unhappy about the answer.

In the world of test prep, there are basically four categories of students:

  1. Students who do little or no practice and receive no strategic coaching
  2. Students who receive strategic coaching but do little or no practice
  3. Students who do a great deal of practice but receive no strategic coaching
  4. Students who receive strategic coaching and do a great deal of practice

All other things being equal, that is also the order of scores students will earn from lowest to highest.

What’s the big takeaway from that list? Practice is more important than coaching. Of course, it helps to have a well-informed tutor who teaches you how to attack the test with skill and strategy, but that’s never a substitute for practice. This list of options also reveals the secret to earning a higher score on the SAT or ACT:

Eat tests.

The more practice you do, the better. Most students don’t even complete the first two practice tests in the official SAT prep book, of the eight that are offered. When they ask how to do better, the response is simple: Eat tests. Chew your way through the prep book and you’re bound to improve.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to do full-length practice tests all the time. You can also do five-minute drills from a math section, single passages from reading sections, or other small drills. Consistent, regular practice is essential for convincing your brain to care and walking down the mastery path for these exams. Also, giving yourself permission to do small doses of practice will, ironically, help you do more practice in the long run. Aim for 5-25 minutes per day, and try not to miss days. Apply the “shoulds before have-to’s” strategy and do it before your homework. And occasionally sit down for a full-length practice test to build your endurance.

Last year, Glencoe High School junior Nisala Kalupahana got perfect scores on both the SAT and the ACT – a tremendously rare feat.1 In an interview about the accomplishment, he explained that “‘The secret is doing practice tests. … It’s learning how the test works. Because the test doesn’t test subject content as much as how good you are taking the test itself. It’s a skill in itself.’”1

1 Rollins, Michael. “A Glencoe High student’s secret to a perfect SAT, ACT score.” KGW8. September 18, 2018.

Cramming: What To Do When It’s Your Only Choice

Let’s imagine that you’ve waited until the last minute to study for a big test. This is only a hypothetical situation; I know you would never do that. Just pretend with me for a minute. The test is tomorrow, and you’ve done nothing to prepare other than attend class and complete the homework.

What can you do at the last minute? Is it even worth studying this late in the game? Should you panic? Should you give up and accept failure?

In order, the answers to those questions are: Many things, Yes, No, and No.

Okay, obviously cramming isn’t ideal. You probably can’t learn everything that’s going to be on the test, and anything complicated that you don’t understand yet, well, you’re probably not going to understand it tomorrow either. But that’s okay. Surely you already know something. You’re not starting from zero. And you don’t have to learn everything to get a decent grade.

When you’re cramming, your job is simply to do the best you can with the time that you have. Throw your perfectionism away and get to work. A 77% is better than a 73%, even though they earn the same letter grade. And more significantly, a 59% is far better than a 29%, even though they are both “failing” grades. Remember, the game of school is about points not letter grades.

When you’re cramming, the goal is to make progress. Everything you learn tonight that’s on the test tomorrow will earn you an incrementally higher grade. A little bit of last-minute studying is better than no studying at all. Everything counts.

Now, I said you shouldn’t panic, but I also wouldn’t advise you to calm down. The stress you feel is actually a biological response that’s supposed to help you rise to the occasion.1 Stress can energize you and help you focus.1 And that’s good because cramming is a serious challenge, and you’ll need all the energy and focus you can muster.

Speaking of focus, put your phone in airplane mode and then put it in another room. The last thing you need tonight is distractions.

And you’ll be much more likely to experience the positive aspects of stress if you have some strategies for how to approach the task, so let’s load you up with some best practices.

Triage

First up, triage. Pretend you’re at the scene of a terrible car accident with only limited time and resources to save the injured. Some people have only minor injuries, and they’ll be fine on their own. Others are in serious need of help, and you could save them if you gave them your time and attention. And then there are those who are, sadly, too badly hurt for you to rescue. Giving them any of your precious time would be a waste. You should focus on the second group.

Sorry for the gruesome image; that was just a metaphor. I was really talking about the content that’s on tomorrow’s big test. Some of the ideas you know decently well, and you’ll be okay tomorrow without any further preparation. Other ideas are things that will take serious time and energy to learn, but you could learn them tonight if you gave them your attention. And lastly, there are ideas that will be on tomorrow’s test that you have no hope of learning tonight. These must be ignored. Why? Because they’ll only distract you from that second group – the content you actually have time to learn.

But what if the second group has too many topics to learn in the time you have? How do you choose? Focus on the biggest, most important topic. What did the teacher spend a great deal of time on? Were there multiple homework assignments about a single topic? Is it mentioned in the introduction or conclusion of the chapter? If so, your best bet is to start there.

Overview First

Okay, for any topic you’re going to tackle, the first objective is to get an overview. Start with the summary, if one is provided. If there isn’t one, quickly see if you can find one online. Learning the details will come easier after you’ve learned the basics.2 And if you’re really low on time, maybe the summary is all you’ll get to, and that’s better than nothing.

Active Studying

Do not, I repeat, do not study by passively skimming text or passively watching videos.2 If you’re going to remember anything from your cramming session it’s going to be because you took action. Effortful studying takes energy, and as such, it helps convince your brain that what you’re studying is worth devoting energy to. It convinces your brain to care, which helps form memories.

So grab some paper, pick up a pen or pencil, and make written product. Annotate, paraphrase, and take notes. Draw pictures, diagrams, and mind maps.

But Chris, the test is tomorrow, so I’ll never look at these notes again!

I know. You’re not making all this written product as a reference for later; you’re making it because the act of making it helps you remember it, even if you never look at it again.2 The more you write, the more you learn.

You should also be verbalizing what you’re studying, especially if it involves vocabulary or something like Spanish verb conjugations. Speaking takes effort and involves more senses, so that makes better memories.

And you should be connecting words to images. We remember far more when there’s a picture to go with the words.3

Test Yourself

So now you’ve spent 20 minutes learning one of the main concepts on the test tomorrow. Do you think you have it down? Prove it. If there’s a practice test on the topic you’ve just learned, take it. If there isn’t, no problem, you can probably find one on Google or just make up your own practice test.

How much can you remember if you just pull out a blank sheet of paper and start writing? How well can you teach it to someone else? Talk yourself through it while you’re doing the dishes or walking the dog or brushing your teeth. How much do you remember when you’re not looking at notes? This sort of mental recall practice can be done anywhere.

Self-testing is a critical part of memory formation.2 By trying to recall the ideas you were just studying, you’re making it clear to your brain that it will be asked to remember the material.

Anything you got wrong or forgot during your little practice quiz is a cue that more written product for that is needed. Don’t just look at the right answer and say ”Oh yeah!” Write your wrongs.

Repeat to Remember

Okay, so you’ve tackled a topic and you’ve got it down. Find some way to revisit that topic two more times before your test. These revisits don’t have to be long. They can be just a few minutes of reengaging with the material.

But don’t revisit immediately. Spaced repetition forms memories.2 Several small doses of studying can be more effective than one large dose.2 So go work on some homework or study another concept that’s on tomorrow’s test, and then quiz yourself again.

You could think about what you were learning while you’re drifting off to sleep. You could find a short video to watch during breakfast. You could review your notes on the way to school. Or you could explain the concept to a classmate during lunch (if the test is in the afternoon). Find ways to squeeze in some more repetitions. Make it happen.

Go to bed.

But Chris, there’s so much left to learn!

I know. Too bad. Staying up late into the night isn’t going to help you. Sleep matters.

Memories get consolidated while you sleep, so if you don’t sleep, you won’t remember most of the ideas you just crammed into your head.2 Plus, you need to be awake in all your other classes tomorrow. Live to learn another day.

Prepare for a Brain Dump

Whatever is the hardest idea, vocab word, or formula to remember, be reviewing it right up until the moment your teacher has you put away your papers. Then, keep repeating it to yourself in your head. Then, as soon as you receive the test, write that idea/vocab word/formula on the top of the test.

This is called a “brain dump.” It ensures that you won’t forget that one thing, and it frees up whatever brainpower was being devoted to holding onto the information. It is also an enormous emotional relief to get it written onto the test.

Emotional Readiness

Because you waited until the last minute, you won’t be fully ready for the test. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fun. Please keep in mind that it’s normal to feel test anxiety when you’re unprepared. Just do the best you can with what you know.

Finish Last

Lastly, when you’re taking the test, don’t finish early. Use all the time you’ve got. Sometimes you’ll find that one part of the test will provide clues about answers on a different part of the test. Leave nothing blank. Answer everything as completely and thoroughly as possible, even if it’s probably wrong. Guess when you have to and trust your instincts. If it’s math, show your work in hopes of earning partial credit.

Stay in the trenches and work as hard as you can until the buzzer. Finish last.

Next Time

Good job. You did the best you could with the time you gave yourself. If that was unpleasant, or if you’re disappointed with your grade, you know what to do next time. Start earlier. You won’t regret it.

1 McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Avery, 2015.

2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

3 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.