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5 Tips To Beat a Standardized Test

5 Tips To Beat a Standardized Test

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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