I keep thinking that I’m completely done with standardized tests. I took the SAT and ACT in high school and thought how great it would be to not take anymore tests. But I wasn’t counting on placement tests and the other opportunities my professors found to pull out the Scantron sheets in college, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about the placement exams necessary for graduate school and many jobs.
As we get ready to head back to school, or go looking for jobs, or think about accreditation for our career of choice, it’s worth thinking about the tests that are coming up. Not so that we can worry about what score we’re going to get but so that when the big day comes, we can beat each of those tests.
1. Understand test formats
The thing about giving the same test to a whole bunch of people is that you have to make the questions understandable even for someone who will be taking the test cold. If a teacher is giving you a mid-term, she knows exactly what was covered during her lectures. But if a prospective employer is testing you on your computer skills, he has to make sure that the questions are written in such a way that anybody can walk in and understand them. That means that most standardized tests avoid jargon as much as possible. They also adhere to easy-to-use (and easy-to-grade) formats, like multiple-choice and true-or-false. Being comfortable with these formats gives you a head start.
2. Take sample tests
If you can get a sample of the test you’re planning to take — or even a few sample questions — take advantage of the opportunity. Just taking a dry run once through before the real test can raise your score significantly — knowing that the questions aren’t horribly scary and recognizing the question format simply makes you more comfortable with taking a high-stakes test. Luckily, getting sample tests is usually just a matter of asking. College Board, the makers of the SAT, for instance, offer free sample tests on their website. It’s more than a matter of comfort. Familiarizing yourself with the test can help you understand questions better and answer them faster, important abilities on lengthy tests.
3. Read up on the scoring
The thing that tripped me up about the ACT and the SAT is the different way in which the two tests are graded. On the SAT, you lose a quarter of a point for every question you get wrong. On the ACT, there’s no penalty for incorrect guesses. That means that on the ACT, if you don’t know an answer, you should always guess. The worse that can happen is that you aren’t penalized. On the SAT, though, guessing a lot can get you into trouble. If you have no idea on the answer, you’ve got a 75 percent chance of losing a quarter of a point, and those can add up fast. If you can’t eliminate one or two of the answers, it’s probably not going to benefit you to guess.
Test scoring varies greatly. It’s up to you to know how the test you’ll be taking is scored — and to figure out if guessing is really a good strategy if you don’t know the answer. If you will be taking a test that doesn’t penalize for wrong answers, though, there shouldn’t be an unanswered question on your test sheet. Maybe you’ll get lucky.
4. Don’t go overboard on the studying
I would never advocate walking into a test without having studied at all, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour studying. Even on bar exams, there are definite limits to the questions that will be on the test. There should be limits on how much you study, as well. In theory, you should have learned most of what you need to know for any given test in the class or course of study (like law school) proceeding it. Preparing for a test shouldn’t be a case of actually learning material — it should be more of a matter of reviewing it. That is an ideal scenario, of course. You may need to study quite a bit — but you should still spread it out. Cramming all of your studying into the few nights before the test is a sure way to let the test beat you.
5. Think about taking the test later
There is not a single standardized test that there is absolutely no chance of retaking. Sure, there is typically a high cost associated with retaking it, but it’s important to remember that taking the test again is an option. I taught SAT test prep in college and I had one student who kept getting entirely freaked out by even the thought of sitting down to take the test. What finally got her to the table was the thought that she really could take the test as many times as she had to. Her parents didn’t particularly like the idea of paying for multiple tests, but they told her that if she struggled the first time, they’d pay for a second try without question. Eliminating the high-stakes can do wonders for the stress that normally distracts test-takers. Think about it: even if you had to wait a year or two to put the money together for a second shot, you’d still have the choice to do so.