The original purpose of the standardized test was to level out the playing field for applicants to degree programs. As we all know, the magnitude of expensive prep programs and materials have tipped the balance in the favor of those that can afford them. Nevertheless, there is still a way to uncrack these tests without spending such a large sum. The great thing about standardized test prep is that a lot of the things you learn while studying can also help you in all your other academic work as well.
At home test preparation requires some effort, especially motivation to do well in the first place. For many test preparation classes, this is the job of the instructor. The instructor supervises performance and supports improvement. However, if you are self-disciplined enough, you can be your own teacher.
The first step for at home prep is to develop a realistic study schedule. If you plan on studying for the SAT during the school year, you must assign a day and/or time that you will stick to until your test date. Ask yourself: how long will you give yourself before your registered test date to study? 6 months? A year? Will you be willing to study daily in small increments or study weekly in larger ones? Planning is another thing that you pay test prep companies to do for you and if this already seems overwhelming to you, check out my time management section. I must warn you that I’m still working on this section (I have only 2 articles up at this point), but if you would like some personalized advice, please feel free to email me.
The first thing you can do to improve your English score is to memorize vocabulary. My favorite tool for this task is Visual Education Study Card sets. Instead of buying the SAT vocabulary, I highly recommend the English I and II cards. The great thing about VisEd is that they include a sentence using the word on the flashcard, which made it easy for me to learn the definitions as well as incorporating these words are best used in my own writing. So in a lot of ways, this method kills two birds with one stone: you are improving your verbal score plus improving your ability to write concisely. Also, you do not need to buy these vocabulary sets. You can always make your own vocabulary flashcards inexpensively by pulling up test-specific vocabulary lists online.
Although it may seem like a mundane task, vocabulary is one of the most important aspects of any standardized test and you can never learn too many words. If you go for the VisEd card sets, there are a total of 2,000 words to be memorized. Whatever you may choose as your vocabulary test prep, do recognize that vocabulary is important in both the critical reading and grammar sections of the test. It improves comprehension of passages, elucidates on grammatical usage of words, and reveals redundancy.
Learning 2,000 words may appear impossible, but this is when your time management comes into play. For example, if you are committing your entire 10-week summer to the test and want to learn all of the words by then, you will need to memorize 200 words/week. This means 40 words/day if you want your weekends off. It took me about an hour to really get the words down.
You will also need test preparation books by any major test prep company. These can be found at the library for free and the sample tests, the most important part, copied quite cheaply. Otherwise, you can always purchase them used or new. I have also found that the these books do not normally vary much year-to-year, but it is more helpful to use books that are geared towards a newer version of the test such as the new 2400 SAT rather than the old 1600.
Getting as many of the sample tests and their answer keys with explanations is key to doing well on standardized tests. Finding a resource that provides real previous tests is even better. But in the end, once you have a method to build your vocabulary and your practice tests, you are set to start.
Increasing your vocabulary will surely affect your performance, but there is still that dreaded reading comprehension section. There is a solution to this. For me, I always did well on the reading comprehension because I outlined every passage while reading. By outlining, I mean quickly writing down a summary of each sentence. For instance, the following passage is Sparknotes’s current example:
Galileo Galilei was born in 1564 into a Europe wracked by cultural ferment and religious strife. The popes of the Roman Catholic Church, powerful in their roles as both religious and secular leaders, had proven vulnerable to the worldly and decadent spirit of the age, and their personal immorality brought the reputation of the papacy to historic lows. In 1517, Martin Luther, a former monk, attacked Catholicism for having become too worldly and politically corrupt and for obscuring the fundamentals of Christianity with pagan elements. His reforming zeal, which appealed to a notion of an original, “purified”
Christianity, set in motion the Protestant Reformation and split European Christianity in two.
My outline would look something like this:
-Galileo was born in Europe when there was cultural boom and religious upheaval.
-Even the popes succumbed to the pressures and gave into their immorality
-Martin Luther later appeared to denounce Catholicism and it’s corruption and proposed a more “purified” form of Christianity
-This led to the split of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism.
Now the question:
Which of the following was not a reason for Martin Luther’s attack on the church?
a. pagan elements in its practices
b. the amorality of its leadership
c. its excessive attention to piety
d. its corruption and worldliness
e. the political involvement of the popes
As you can see, the answer cannot necessarily be found in the outline (i.e. I did not include that Luther had an issue with pagan elements in it) but by the act of outlining, it has increased your comprehension by having to mull over the content of the passage. Also, you can see that knowing the definition of words such as ferment and strife could have significantly improved your comprehension of the purpose of the passage. The answer to this question is C.
Generally, this works best with non-narrative passages, where you will most likely be given a question speculating the author’s opinion and/or argument. The outline format could work with narratives as well, but the trick is moreover identifying points of ambiguity in the passage, such as vocabulary words, that will most likely be questioned in the multiple choice.
There are many other methods you can find in test prep books, but I find this one the most effective. The secret is to find the method that you are best at, which can only be figured out by practicing as much as you can. Realistically, your outline will not look like the one I have typed above because of the time constraint. My outlines normally were sloppily written phrases or words, but they were well worth the effort. This plan can serve as a disadvantage at first since it will take longer to finish a section. However, it enough practice, I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up the pace.
With the math portion, I suggest that you go over all the algebra and geometry rules that are summarized in test prep books. Usually, any test prep book that has an overview of topics can do the trick and if you find that there is one topic, such as right triangle rules, that you do not know make sure you have them hammered down by test time. For any difficulties in the math section, they best way to conquer them is with PRACTICE. Practicing increases your speed and familiarity with common mathematical problems as well as the identification of trick questions.
When taking practice tests, I think the best way to start off is to time how long it takes you to complete each section rather than trying to beat the clock. This way, you’ll know by how much you will need to speed up. I can almost guarantee that your speed will increase with enough practice and the time limitation should not be stressed unless you are experiencing circumstances where your speed is not increasing as much as you hoped.
While taking these tests, it is important to write down your answer and how you feel about this answer. Are you sure? Unsure? Make sure you do this because this is the best way to be able to gauge your correctness during the actual test. When you go back and correct the test, do not just mark the wrong answers and give yourself a score. Go over the detailed answers of every question, if available, and if you got the question wrong, jot down why you got it wrong. Was it a concept error? Attention to detail? Time constraints? If it is a concept error, make sure you take note that you will need to relearn this concept. If it was more logistically, make sure you read the passage more carefully next time and take your time with those types of questions.
There are stories out there of people that have been out of school for years and managed to score in the 98th percentile for both the math and english portions of the GRE. I do not think it is impossible to do well on any standardized test without shelling out the big bucks to test prep companies. It is very possible and the secret ingredient is practice. If you would like more tips and help, please let me know at http://www.meeraonthewall.com .