So it’s the week of your official ACT or SAT exam, and you’ve been working hard for some time to prepare. It’s only natural to wonder how you should be spending your time most effectively over the week leading up to Saturday’s test.
Should you try and tackle as many problems as possible? Take another full-length diagnostic exam? Review curriculum? Relax as much as you can before Saturday and just focus on your classwork?
There are many considerations to be made in addressing this issue and so much depends upon your particular circumstances, but I think there are a few general guidelines that are applicable to most students. As always, consulting with your test prep mentor will help determine the best course of action for you, but I think the spirit of the week for all students is that of reinforcement.
Reinforcement of content you’re familiar with. Reinforcement of strategies. Reinforcement of timing. Reinforcement of those aspects of the exam that you’re solid on but may still benefit from some extra attention leading up to the exam. As is probably clear, it’s not too likely that you’ll suddenly learn new concepts or strategies in the handful of days leading up to the exam, so time spent there is likely to be less productive and a source of anxiety for you immediately prior to the exam. This is counterproductive and the last thing we want to occur. So let’s take a look at a few examples of ways in which you can shore up some details the week before your exam.
The English and Writing/Language sections rely very heavily on being able to take clues from the answer choices. By identifying the differences between the answer choices you can learn a lot about what the question is asking of you. For example, if one answer choice has a singular form of a verb and another has a plural form (ex: farm and farms), it’s very likely that you should focus on which subject the verb matches up to. In general, being able to tease out as much info about the question at hand by looking at the answer choices can help minimize the amount of rules/strategies that you may juggle for any given problem. A few other things that many students can benefit from reviewing are punctuation rules, apostrophes, and transition terms. No matter what the specific types of questions you focus on, I think identifying a handful of different types can help you optimize the time you spend.
In my opinion, the Math section is the section most conducive to shoring up content the week before. I think that most students should spend a reasonable amount of time focusing on the strategies and the formula sheet.
Many of the early questions on the Math sections can be handled by simply being familiar with the relevant formulas and associated algebra. It’s probably not hard to imagine how many times we hear students say something along the lines of “I knew what the question was asking, but I forgot what the formula was”. In countless other situations, students will apply the WRONG formula to a problem, and the ACT/SAT exams exploit this tendency, frequently (ex: circumference of a circle/area of a circle formulas).
With both of the above, a thorough familiarity with a few different strategies can be very helpful: choosing your own values, plugging in answers, estimation, calculator techniques. The last strategy brings me to one other thing I have students focus on the week of: their calculator. Not only do I want students to make sure it’s fully charged (or has fresh batteries), but I also want them to make sure they understand how to use their calculator most efficiently, when to use it, what extra tools the calculator may provide them that they’re not familiar with, and others. As odd as it may sound, spending some quality time with your calculator in the few days before the exam may save you a few headaches on the actual day.
These sections can be addressed in similar fashion the week of the exam. Both sections benefit from walking through different passages and identifying the types of questions. As you run through the questions, you should ask yourself things like “What type of question is this?”, “Where would the answer likely come from?”, “Do I need to dig through the passage or just focus on the tables/graphs?”.
For the Science section, in particular, you should make sure you are comfortable with deciding what you may need to read in the passages (if anything). This week is also a great time to practice any contingency plans you may have enacted should you run short on time in the last passage (either Reading or Science). Practicing this should give you a greater level of confidence that you’ll know how to navigate a passage under severe timing constraints and make the most of it.
With everything we’ve looked at here, you should remind yourself of a central tenet discussed at the beginning: your main goals for the week will probably revolve around trying to earn some additional mastery over topics.
While it’s certainly reasonable to try and add a few additional types of problems to your knowledge base, this shouldn’t be your driving ambition. It’s often not realistic to try and master new content (or content that you’ve historically struggled with and could use more time) in a matter of only a few days. Trying to do so would likely result in little progress (as certain content can often take many days/weeks to fully wrestle with) and leave you with a sense of frustration.
By focusing on shoring up material that you’re already pretty familiar with instead, you’re likely to set yourself up to minimize mistakes as much as possible and have a smooth and efficient exam. Focusing on the reinforcement of content, strategies, and timing can help you earn additional questions that you may have been a little shaky on as well as help build the confidence that is crucial to make the most of your skills.
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