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Test Prep Isn't Only About Studying the Material

Test-taking is an integral part of our messy educational reality. While many schools have opted to go “test-optional,” we believe that opting not to submit test scores will never be a winning strategy. Just consider the following: two nearly identical students apply to the same public university: 3.85 unweighted GPAs, 4 AP tests all scored 4, great essays, and solid backstories. But one of the students submitted a 31 on the ACT, while the other did not submit a score. Whom is the university going to accept? At ESM, we seek to provide a holistic approach to college prep, and test-prep tutoring is central to that mission. But, too often, when parents and students think test prep, they think memorization and specific operational processes. The reality, though, is that performing well on these tests is as much about general problem-solving ability, confidence, and bodily preparation as anything else.

test prep
Justin Scott

Let’s start with general problem-solving ability. For lack of a better term, some of my favorite students have been (temporarily) allergic to math. Numbers immediately get their heart rates up, their brains spinning into a dizzying maelstrom that does them zero good. Others come to a reading section and immediately don’t know where to look, what to focus on, or how to approach the questions. Both of these groups fail to see how general problem-solving skills can get them out of their predicaments, even when the specifics confound them. The best math students manage to get problems correct even when they are not entirely sure how to proceed. They work methodically through the text of the question, focusing not on what they do not know but on what they do. They use that information to narrow their choices down and arrive at a logical answer. Similarly, the best reading students manage to get the toughest questions correct because they learn to slow down, eliminate any choice that goes too broad, too narrow, or has a word or two with the wrong tone. What this requires, in both cases, is a trained and practiced sense of patience when working through challenges.

This training begins early, long before students start specific test-prep programs with us. Your students are probably learning the rote math and reading skills they need in school. But how often are their teachers pushing their abstract thinking? How many times are they given unstructured challenges where they have to find their way out? Science has called into question the idea of skills transference—that working on music might improve your math skills, or that painting might improve your speechwriting. But in test-taking, skills developed from video games, word searches, Rubik’s cubes, puzzles, and other patience-testing challenges can help develop students’ innate ability to stick with challenges until they come to a reasonable conclusion.

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The corollary here is confidence. Too often, the students who are (temporarily) allergic to math tell themselves “I stink at math!” or “This is always going to be impossible for me!” The reality is that negative self-conceptions hold back many a test-taker. Helping any human being to change his ideas of who he is and what he is capable of takes work. The earlier you begin to develop healthy thought patterns in your student, pushing a growth mindset instead of a fixed one, the more likely your student will be to make gains. For my part, I see confidence-boosting as equally important to my conceptual work with students. Too many times, I’ve seen students who know less outperform students who know more. The difference has been their optimism, willingness to stick with a challenge, and ability to fight off those “I can’t do it” thoughts. It might sound a little loosey-goosey, but one of the best tools to help with this is meditation, even for only 10 minutes a day. Learning to control the inner monologue is VERY difficult—just ask all those Buddhists who have never attained Nirvana (almost all of them—but even small progress will lead to an enlightened approach in the test room).

Finally, no mind can operate correctly when the stomach churns, when the bladder bursts, when the head hurts, or when fatigue sets in. Start a good sleep routine a week before the exam. Avoid sugars, caffeine, and carbohydrates in the 48 hours before the exam. Eat vegetables, meats, yogurts, eggs, nuts, and berries. Processed food takes a long time to process: it saps energy from the body. The wrong diet can lead to a test day disaster, with a brain more focused on holding it in than on honing in on the work. None of the above advice works if that happens. Test-taking is a lot more about these seemingly ancillary issues than most test preparation companies want to admit. To maximize outcomes, focus not only on the rote skills, but also on developing problem-solving patience, eliminating negative self-talk, and taking care of the body so that the mind can flourish.