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Top Standardized Test-Taking Tips

Top Standardized Test-Taking Tips

Fastweb's top test taking tips for standardized tests.

Mark Kantrowitz

If you’re taking a standardized test soon, whether it’s the SAT, ACT, MCAT, GRE or one of the other tests, there are a few tips that can help you prepare. Find out how to make the most of your prep time by following our advice.

1. Practice, practice, practice. The more you practice, the more familiar you will be with the test format, and the less likely you are to panic when you take the test for real. Practice also gives you an opportunity to get rid of all the bad habits that lead to careless errors. The more you practice, the more likely you are to recognize careless errors. Try to practice with practice tests under realistic testing conditions.

2. Studying for the test over an extended period is much more effective and lasting than cramming for the test at the last minute.

One of the best ways to build your vocabulary and understanding of current events is to ready a daily newspaper. It is best to start doing this as a high school freshman. But even a few months of close reading can help, probably more so than memorizing vocabulary lists. It is important to understand the meaning of a word in a real context. Word-a-day drills are only effective to the extent that they provide memorable examples of the word’s use in context.

3. Bring two sharpened, soft-lead number two pencils with you to the test. Make sure they have good erasers. Bring a sharpener with you.

4. Eat a good breakfast the morning of the test. Avoid eating sugary foods. High-protein foods like scrambled eggs are often best for aiding concentration and minimizing fatigue.

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5. Visit the bathroom 15-30 minutes before the test. Do not drink water or other beverages for an hour before the test, as a full bladder will affect your concentration.

6. Get a full night’s sleep before the test. Do not pull an all-nighter cramming before the test. A lack of sleep will affect your performance.

7. Wear comfortable clothing.

8. Don’t panic. If you start getting anxious, take slow deep breaths. Don’t worry about other people finishing early. Smart people know to use all available time to double-check their work.

9. Pace yourself. Calculate the amount of time you have to answer each question and avoid getting bogged down on any one question. A watch with a countdown timer can be very helpful for budgeting your time. You might also take a minute at the start of the test to scan through the questions, so you can know what to expect.

10. Answer the easiest questions first. Most tests arrange the questions in order of difficulty, but sometimes you’ll find that later questions are easier for you. If you’re stuck on a question, move on to the next question (but be sure you skip it on the answer sheet). You can always return to the question later. Sometimes returning to a question after answering other questions can give you a fresh perspective.

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11. If you have time left over at the end of the test, review your answers. Don’t second-guess an answer unless you are certain that you misread or misinterpreted the question. Watch out for careless errors. Also double-check that you wrote all of the answers in the correct locations. (If you skipped a question, make sure you didn’t misalign the answer to the next question.)

For math questions, sometimes it can help to calculate the answer in two different ways. Also use estimation techniques to ballpark the answer as a sanity check. For example, instead of multiplying 412 by 24 to arrive at 9,888, multiply the most significant digits (400 by 20) to arrive at 8,000. You know that the answer is a little more than 8,000; this helps you recognize smaller answers as errors.

12. Read the question in full before trying to answer it. At least some of the answer choices will be designed to trap students who don’t read the question fully. Also identify the answer first before looking at the answer choices, since some of the choices will be designed to prime you into misinterpreting the question. Don’t jump to conclusions.

13. Eliminate any answers that you know are incorrect, especially on questions where you are having trouble arriving at the answer. Eliminating a few wrong answers can increase the chances of a random guess being correct. The ACT does not have a penalty for wrong answers, so there’s no harm in guessing. The SAT assesses a 1/4 point penalty for each wrong answer, so a purely random guess will not improve your score on average. However, if you can eliminate one or more of the answers, making an educated guess among the remaining answers is worthwhile.

14. Consider all the answer choices before writing down your final answer. If one of the answers is an all-of-the-above choice, make sure there isn’t more than one correct answer. If you’ve identified at least two correct answers, choose the all-of-the-above response.

Answers that are positive are more likely to be correct than answers that are negative. Answers that are more informative are more likely to be correct.

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