If we could only offer one tip to help you get good test scores overall, it would be this: Practice, practice, practice.
Practice improves test scores
Years of studies show that test scores tend to increase with repeated testing, which makes a sense. Think about it. If practice makes us better at playing piano or shooting 3-pointers, why wouldn’t practice make us better at taking tests? In fact, the makers of the ACT have found that repeat test takers have average Composite scores that are 2.9 points higher than single test takers.
When it comes to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, practice as a means of test prep makes a lot of sense. After all, while the content of the test will change from administration to administration, the test itself remains the same. On the ACT, for example, you know that you’ll see a reading section. You know the reading section will include four passages, one each on natural science, literature, social studies, and humanities; that each passage will have ten questions; and that you’ll have 35 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. A big part of your success on tests rests on how quickly you can work through each section in order to beat the clock. If you practice with the test format under timed conditions, you can build up speed so that time management won’t be an issue on test day.
It’s not just for the SAT and ACT
But using tests as a way of studying isn’t limited to tests like the SAT and ACT. Students who study with practice tests retain that information better than those who study using other methods. Robert Bjork, a psychologist at UCLA, whose research has focused on learning and memory, says that using our memories to retrieve information changes the way we access that information: “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense, you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”
In other words, in order to retrieve information faster and more accurately, you should practice retrieving it by testing yourself as a part of your study routine. This study method can help you achieve good test scores whether you’re studying for your test in biology class or prepping for the SAT or ACT.
What’s the best way to practice?
When it comes to using practice as a tool for SAT or ACT prep, there’s a caveat. Simply practicing for the sake of practicing isn’t likely to boost your scores – you must use mindful practice. If all you do is take practice test after practice test, you’ll see diminishing returns with each additional test. This means that over time, the improvement you see will get smaller and smaller. At that point, it won’t be worth the three hours you spend taking them.
Instead, you need to take practice tests the right way:
- Stick with full-length practices tests. You want to feel like you’re taking the actual test. A few practice problems here and there or completing test sections in pieces won’t actually provide you with realistic practice. There are plenty of online resources for full-length practice tests, including both the College Board and the ACT website. C2 students enjoy access to our full suite of practice SAT and ACTs, all of which are built to mimic the real tests as closely as possible.
- Time yourself. This falls under the heading of mimicking test day conditions. One of the toughest parts of succeeding on the SAT or ACT is time management. By using timed practice, you can spot the areas where you struggle to finish in a timely manner. You’ll learn which sections or specific types of questions tend to suck up big chunks of time. Then you can strategize ways to tackle the problem. Timed practice will also help you build up your speed; the more reading passages you read, the faster you’ll get at reading them!
- Take the whole test in one sitting. It can be hard to carve out an entire 3-hour chunk of time, but if you don’t, you won’t be building the endurance you need to maintain focus for the entire length of the test.
- Carefully review each practice test. Go through your answers with a fine-toothed comb, and look at the questions you answered correctly and the ones you missed or skipped. If you got it right, understand why you got it right and that it wasn’t just a lucky guess. For a wrong answer, make sure you understand why the right answer is the right answer. Where you skipped a question, figure out why. Was it a time management issue or is this a type of question you struggle with?
Don’t just practice for the sake of practice. Practice to build speed, endurance, and skill by making your practice really count!