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Test Preparation & Test Taking Skills

However much you may dislike them (and it’s safe to say that most people fall into this category), you will take a seemingly-infinite number of tests while in school. From simple spelling tests in first grade to more complex and challenging exams in high school and college, you will encounter a wide variety of formats: true/false, multiple choice, essay, and endless combinations thereof. Even after you finish school and are ready to begin (or, later on, advance) your career, some employers may require specific testing to determine your aptitude for the position before they will actually hire you.

Whatever the reason for taking a test, it is imperative for you to have the test taking skills required to perform to the best of your ability. While each test presents its own unique challenges and opportunities, there are several test preparation methods, techniques, and strategies that you can employ intelligently to ensure that the test score you receive accurately reflects your true knowledge and mastery of the subject or subjects on which you’re being tested.

Unfortunately, being “naturally good” at taking tests is not a skill we all possess innately. With that in mind, we must find ways to improve our test taking skills through intelligent, strategic preparation. For the best outcome of your test preparation, it is important to understand which learning style or styles are most effective in helping you learn and retain new information as well as develop and master new skills and strategies. There are several different learning style categories into which people fall:

  • Visual: a student who learns more effectively through the visual presentation of knowledge, i.e. learning more easily from graphs, charts, and diagrams than from written descriptions.
  • Auditory: a student who learns more effectively through listening and speaking, i.e. learning more easily from listening to a lecture than from reading the textbook yourself.
  • Kinesthetic/physical: a student who learns more effectively through doing the activity, i.e. learning more easily from a laboratory experiment in a science class than from reading the textbook description of the same experiment.
  • Logical: a student who learns more effectively through systems and reasoning skills, i.e. learning more easily when you understand the “why” than when you only understand the “what”.
  • Social: a student who learns more effectively when working with other students than when working alone, i.e. learning more easily in a group environment (say, a test preparation class) than in an individual setting (such as doing self-study test preparation).
  • Solitary: a student who learns more effectively when working alone than when working with others, i.e. learning more easily in an individual setting than in a group environment.

While it is common to relate most strongly to one of the unique styles, most students find that they achieve better results through a combination of two or more of the various styles. For example, a student may find a visually-oriented approach to be the most effective method for topics such as geometry but find a logic-oriented approach to be better-suited for topics such as algebra. Finding the optimal blend of learning styles for you as an individual will allow you to make the most of your test preparation, giving you the opportunity to learn the requisite knowledge and skills more efficiently and, as a result, spend more time on the application and further development of those skills. This will pay enormous dividends on test day!

In addition to finding the best way to approach your test preparation, you also need to find the best way to approach the test itself. One challenge that many students face is test anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 18 percent of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety. Additionally, The National Institute of Mental Health’s ADAA report states that 75 percent of people with anxiety will most likely experience symptoms before they are 22 years old. It is also true that a majority of people, whether diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or not, experience some level of anxiety before a test. The issue, then, is not that you experience feelings of anxiety as you wait to begin the exam: you are not alone in having to cope with them! The issue is learning, developing, and practicing strategies and techniques to overcome those feelings.

Good news: there are many ways you can work to reduce the test anxiety you experience, both as you work through your test preparation and as you begin the test day experience. Through the employment of specific test preparation strategies as you study and of specific test day techniques as you work through the test itself, you can achieve your dream score.

The first step in developing better test taking skills is to begin with a thorough understanding of your individual situation. Here are ten test preparation “best practices” to consider in analyzing your starting point and developing a study plan:

  • Begin with a practice test
    It’s difficult to know how to map out the test preparation process if you’re unsure of your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t worry too much about the score you receive, especially if you’re taking it completely cold. Instead, go through the results and the questions you faced with an eye for patterns: content, skills, and question types that consistently gave you trouble. While a proper test preparation strategy will cover everything you need to be successful, beginning the process with your specific strengths and weaknesses in mind will give you a leg up in making meaningful progress.
  • Choose your target score
    Having a definite target in mind will keep you focused on what you’re trying to achieve when the study process starts to feel like a grind. In addition, having a concrete goal in mind will help you choose the duration of your study plan.
  • Create specific tasks for each study session
    Beginning a session by saying “today I am completing two hours of algebra problems” is not the way to get the most out of a session. Instead, go into your study time with specific objectives in mind: “today I will focus on exponents, inequalities, and absolute value.” Each of your textbooks is broken into specific areas of focus; they aren’t monolithic chunks of algebra, critical reasoning, etc. Use those areas to pick specific objectives for each planned session.
  • Develop a routine
    One of the best ways to get into a groove with your test preparation process is to develop a session plan that works for you. For example, if you spend two hours per weeknight session, you might find something like this to be very productive: 15 minutes for reworking a few previous problems (see a later point for more context),15 minutes for a quick review of key concepts and skills for that day’s work, 60 minutes for practice problems, and 30 minutes to review problems, analyze perfomance, and jot down key takeaways. Feel free to play around with the structure of your sessions, but after a few weeks you’ll probably have a great feel for what works for you.
  • Pick the best study time for you
    If you already have a busy schedule, then this may not be something you can address. However, if you do have some flexibility, then planning your study time based on when you feel most focused and alert can pay major dividends. Your sessions will feel like less of a grind (which can hurt your productivity and be very demotivating).
  • Be prepared for exceptions
    You can plan your overall test preparation strategy down to the minute, but there are always unforeseen complications, especially if you are juggling other commitments. Be flexible when things come up, and make up the missed sessions as soon as you can.
  • Make time to review
    Building in time to review previous work can make a dramatic difference in your ability to retain the concepts and skills you’ve covered to that point in your study plan. For example, you might set aside an hour or two each week to do a quick refresher on one important topic (such as algebra or critical reasoning) to make sure you’re still as comfortable with it as you were when you finished that lesson.
  • Revisit past problems
    It is strongly recommended to keep a list of problems that gave you trouble to review later on. Come back to them in a few weeks (when you’ve forgotten what the correct answer is and have to work through it from scratch) and see if you’ve improved. If you find yourself making the same mistakes, you may be able to identify patterns of errors that you can then take steps to address as you move forward.
  • Focus on achievement, not activity
    One mistake to which many students fall victim is mistaking time spent studying for progress made in mastery of the material. Doing problems for two hours and then checking how many you got correct is fine, but doing problems for an hour and a half and spending the remaining time checking your work, looking for ways to improve, and making note of concepts to review in future sessions is a much more productive use of a test preparation session. If your session takeaway is “I completed 25 critical reasoning problems with 80 percent accuracy”, you have not gotten as much out of that time as you would if your takeaway was “Of the five problems I missed, three were assumption problems, one was an inference problem, and one was a weaken problem.” Knowing what kinds of problems gave you trouble is more instructive than how many problems gave you trouble.
  • Work on test taking skills, especially as test day approaches
    While you don’t need to treat every practice problem as though it were a question on the actual exam (especially early in the study process), make sure you are also working to improve your test day skills and strategies. It’s one thing to achieve mastery of the material and confidence in your abilities, but it’s another to apply them effectively on test day. Make timed problem sets (to work on test-realistic pacing) and practice tests (tow work on test-day strategies and improve test taking stamina) a regular part of your study arsenal.

Evaluating everything, particularly when you are just beginning to dip your toe into test preparation, can be a daunting process; fortunately, our expert Veritas Prep instructors are ready and and able to help you assess yourself in these areas in order to develop an individual test preparation process that will work best for you. In addition, you may find the following resources to be very insightful:

Test Preparation

Test Taking Skills

Test Anxiety

  • Managing Test Anxiety — great advice for approaching the study process itself with the goal of reducing anxiety on test day.
  • Overcoming Test Anxiety — tips for the last few days before the test and for the test itself.

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