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What Painting a House Taught Me About Test Prep

Painting a home is an exercise in underestimation. How hard can it be to pour paint into a little pail? Get ready for a mess if it’s your first time. You should be able to paint some rooms in a couple of days, right? Try an entire week. I would have to live within these walls, and I wanted to do the job right.

Meanwhile, students across the country are dealing with the uncertain landscape of standardized testing. If you’re as new to the ACT or SAT as I was to painting, you might also underestimate how much time and effort this endeavor will take. Still, if it’s going to help determine where you’ll spend four years in college, you’ll want to do the job right.

Oh, I read some tips and watched some YouTube videos. But I was painting with a lighter color over a textured wall and a previous sloppy paint job. Also, professionals have a way of making things look easy. It really is one thing to be able to follow along as a tutor shows you how to do a problem and another thing to actually get your hands dirty and do it. Wishful thinking -- “Oh yeah, I would’ve done that” or “I’ll just be more careful next time” -- is often not enough. I told myself I didn’t have to cover all the sides of my room because I could just move my drop cloth as I worked. That’s some wishful thinking from my lazy self who is now wishing that I had a couple less paint stains on my carpet.

Even when you do put in the work to fix your mistake, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fixed forever. I touched up parts of the wall that my first coat didn’t entirely cover, and I swear that when I came back the next day, some of the old paint was still coming through like stubborn mildew. So, you can’t just fix something or learn a new concept and then turn your back on it forever. Revisit and reinforce.

In addition to learning from your mistakes, learn from the mistakes of others. These tests are full of trap answers that are taken from common errors that students make. I saw the sloppy work of the previous painter (what kind of idiot hits the ceiling with the paint roller?), and I should have respected those mistakes instead of dismissing them (ok, but at least I wiped off the paint from the ceiling). When you start seeing these trap answers, you’ll be one step closer to getting into the minds of the test-makers.

Once you learn all of the tips and strategies, there’s still a chance that, in the heat of the moment, it all goes flying out the window. Maybe you forget them or maybe you deliberately stray from the plan in favor of the easy, quick convenience of just picking what sounds good in the grammar section. That hit a little too close to home, huh? When you abandon the plan, you’re doing a disservice to the hard prep work you’ve done. If you find yourself needing to save time, ask your tutor or teacher how you can work more efficiently rather than cut corners. I knew the proper way to paint from the online research I did beforehand, but if I gave into the temptations to overload the roller or paint recklessly, my time-saving plan would backfire. I would need to spend more time fixing the shoddy results.

In the end, I was proud of my work. It might not have been as quick and neat as a professional’s, but it represented careful planning and effort. It also reminded me that it’s okay to not be amazing at everything. Your performance on the ACT or SAT is not meant to be a proxy for all the talents and qualities you possess. Still, with hard work, you can make it a part of your application of which you are proud.