Become a Master at Taking Standardized Tests: Tips from the Experts
Updated August 2, 2023
Preparing to take a standardized test has a lot of components; you don’t just need to make sure you know the information you’ll be tested on, but you also need to make sure you understand how to approach the test. What kinds of questions does the test ask? Is it delivered on a computer or on paper? What should you do if you come across a question you don’t know the answer to? What should you do if you’re running out of time? Honestly, the questions are endless. Below, Enhanced Prep’s seasoned SAT Tutors, ACT® tutors, and tutors for all kinds of tests provide some tips and tricks for approaching tests that can sometimes be nerve wracking, but don’t have to be.
So you only have a week before the ACT®/SAT: Five Tactics to Master
By Keith Brown
Here are five things you can master even if your test is this week!
- Write stuff down
POE is short for "Process of Elimination."
These exams are, for the most part, multiple choice or as my Anatomy and Physiology professor used to say, "multiple guess." That means that there is one correct answer in a field of wrong ones. Sometimes, it is easier to eliminate the wrong answers instead of finding the correct one. For example, in the SAT English/Writing section, you may be able to spot GRAMMATICALLY incorrect answer choices, i.e. semicolons with FANBOYS, abused commas, or erroneous apostrophes. In math, you may notice negative answers instead of positives or large numbers for small ones.
It is worth your time to look over the answer choices to eliminate any incorrect answers, efficiently narrowing your choices.
RTFQ is short for "Read the FULL Question."
If I had a nickel for every time I needed to have students reread (or read) the entire question before they realize the mistake they made, Jeff Bezos would not be the richest billionaire in America. Ok, maybe I exaggerate, but if so, not by much. Sometimes, we need to slow down for a sec and read the question, so we can identify missing or mystifying facts from charts/figures/graphs. Or, maybe we need to determine what the question is asking (i.e. x/y vs. x, the diameter vs. the radius, or the opinion of the author vs. a character).
Never leave anything blank. While it is true that your score for the ACT®/SAT is determined by the number of correct answers you give, they do not make any judgments on how you arrive at the correct answer. Points are not rewarded based on work shown. If you have 2 minutes left, and more questions than you can realistically answer in that time, pick a letter (or column on the ACT®) and bubble in answers. For most sections (math excluded), there are 4 answer choices. This means there is a 25% probability rate that you could get it right. Any additional correct answers you get can increase your score.
Write stuff down
I should have this plastered on my background. Students (and sometimes myself) think we can do everything in our heads. Well, that just increases our opportunities to make mistakes. Mistakes lead to wrong answers. Wrong answers lead to a lower score. You can see where I am going with this. Making notes on the test in the math or reading section allows a student to focus on the problem step by step instead of trying to keep it all in their head. Additionally, annotating in the reading section can help students concentrate on the relevant information to answer the questions.
Not much of an explanation should be needed, but sleep is a crucial part of brain function. High school students need approximately nine hours of sleep DAILY in order for their brains to function properly. Most of my students barely get seven: in bed by midnight and up before 7 am. I strongly recommend students get 9 hours of sleep in the days leading up to the exam. Not only can proper sleep improve brain function, but also it can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Well, there you have it. If you have a week (or less) to prepare for the ACT®/SAT, these five steps can help you prepare.
Keith is an Enhanced Prep tutor with a BS in Biology from Grambling State and a Masters & PhD in Developmental Biology & Genetics from Caltech.
IRL. LOL. POE!
By Vik Khanna
All great acronyms, all great texting tools! Today we’re going to focus on the last of our three letter friends—the POE, or Process of Elimination.
The process of elimination (POE) is an invaluable tool that can help us out BIG TIME on both the SAT and ACT® Math and Reading sections. We want to use this lovely acronym to the best of our abilities to help us eliminate obviously wrong answers in a quest for two great options: isolating the only correct answer, or getting rid of as many wrong answers in the hope of having the best chances possible if we have to guess.
The SAT and ACT® are two tests that are like friends we have that like things a very specific way. You say “Hi,” your friend wants to hear “Hello.”—same with the exams. They expect things a certain way and only give you credit for certain answers.
Take Reading on either exam, for instance. Both exams HATE extreme language. So, although not a hard and fast rule, if we are in a rush, we can be very careful about answers that use the words “all” or “none.” In the same way, we should also be mindful of answers that are too happy or too sad, or answers that are too positive or too negative. Really, the key idea is to avoid extreme answers. If two answers are almost exactly the same, but one uses the phrase “the author argues” and the other uses the phrase “the authors suggests,” we prefer the answer that is more neutral, meaning the one using the word “suggests.”
“What about Math,” you may ask? In Math sections we use the POE much differently than in reading. We use the POE by reading questions very carefully. Let’s say a question begins “X is a positive even integer . . .” and then gives us a bunch of details regarding the variable X. Now let’s say the question is asking for a possible value of X, and answer choice A is “5” and answer choice B is “-6.” We can eliminate both without thinking because the question told us X had to be both positive and even. We are not using the POE based on extremity of word choice here, but based on our own careful reading of the question. Again, if we have time to solve, we’ve made our lives easier and less option-filled. Let’s say we don’t have time to solve the entire question? At least we’ve given ourselves a better, more efficient chance of guessing the right answer, if need be!
Thus, our use of the Process of Elimination can make our standardized testing lives a bit simpler. Please use these tools whenever possible to improve your standardized test scores!
6-Steps To Master the SAT Reading Section
By Rachel Mead
Rachel spent decades as a tutor before founding Enhanced Prep to help set students up for success and turn reach into reality.
Logic: How to answer SAT and ACT® math questions without doing any math
By Scott Swallows
A common phrase I hear from my students is “There is no way to work this problem.” On first inspection, they seem to be right. But, if we look closer at the problem, we can identify what the ACT® and SAT are actually testing. In a word, some ACT® and SAT math problems are testing—and can be solved solely with—logic. Logic is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “Interrelation or sequence of facts or events when seen as inevitable or predictable.” In different words, this would mean that logic is a sequence of true statements that leads to a necessary conclusion. How does this appear on these tests?
Let’s take a look at an example problem:
To put the problem into different words, the question is asking what value of x makes this absolute value strictly less than negative one. Some of the more advanced readers will notice that this is necessarily impossible. But can we “logic” through this problem by using very basic mathematical facts? We have that the value must be strictly less than -1. We can also see that we have an absolute value which will be positive or zero at all times. This is a contradiction, so we are only left with the empty set. See what just happened there? We just solved a tough problem without doing any math. One thing to note: This problem was taken from an official ACT® test and is question 58 out of 60. With the ACT® and SAT, the math problems get harder as you go which makes this problem one of the hardest on the test. We answered it correctly, and we didn’t even have to do any calculations.
In my years of teaching, I have seen countless problems that can be solved this way. If you know the very basics, you can answer some of the hardest math problems on standardized tests by simply using logic. How can we practice this logical line of thinking? By doing. As with anything in life, you must immerse yourself in practice to gain proficiency in any task. If you practice enough, study hard enough, and have a great attitude about doing those things, you can achieve great scores on the ACT® or SAT (or any test for that matter).
Basic Tips for Approaching Math on Standardized Tests
If you are “good” at math (or at least comfortable with math), that’s fantastic! However, when good math students encounter a practice SAT/ACT® or even an AP exam for the first time, they often don ’t perform as well as their talents indicate. This doesn’t mean these students are secretly “bad” at math, they were doing math in an unfamiliar situation!
Here are some basic tips to keep in mind when attacking math on standardized exams.
1) Know the Rules
Doing math on your homework is different than doing math on an exam in class—why is that? It’s simple: the “rules” are different for homework than on exams! As with school exams, you will find this same difference applies when taking the SAT, ACT®, or other standardized exams.
Before you even get started on your SAT, you need to make sure you know the “rules” for the math portions of this exam. What math topics will be expected of you? What resources will be provided and allowed? If you don’t know the answers to these questions come test day, it will be like walking on to a soccer field thinking you can use your hands to control the ball (unless you’re a goalkeeper, of course!).
For example, you use a lot of math in your chemistry and physics classes. While you can use calculators on the entire AP Physics exam, you can only use one on certain sections of the AP Chemistry and AP Calculus exams.
2) Equip Yourself with the Right Tools
In many cases, this means getting a calculator for the math tests/sections. However, the right calculator is one you are comfortable using and can use efficiently. If you’re taking the SAT/ACT® and you know your scientific calculator like the back of your hand, go ahead and use it! You don’t need to break the bank for a fancy graphing calculator you don’t know how to use!
For the AP Calculus AB/BC tests, there are questions that require the use of a graphing calculator. However, the rule still stands: use a calculator you already know well (the difference between a TI-83 and a TI-89 is just six numbers in this case). If you are new to one, make sure you spend some time getting familiar with it.
If you aren’t allowed a calculator for the test (e.g. MCAT), you’ll need to rely on your other tools—estimation, algebraic manipulation, and use of scientific notation—in order to make the math manageable. In either case, don’t do a bunch of math in your head; use your other tool: your test booklet (or noteboard if you are given one)!
3) Don’t forget your strategy (or your algebra)
Remember, these are still standardized multiple-choice tests (this is true with parts of AP exams). That means time saving strategies can still work in many situations. Don’t over-rely on your calculator; if there is a more efficient way to get the correct answer (e.g. algebra, POE), use it! If you’re not sure how to solve a problem, or if it seems time-consuming, mark the problem, skip it, and come back.
For those who cannot use a calculator, you will have to lean on these strategies a bit more. Remember, a multiple-choice test doesn’t care how you (legally) arrived at the correct answer, just if it is correct.
4) Practice, Practice, Practice!
As I said, back in #1, standardized tests have their own rules. Thus, you need to practice doing your math using these rules. Get familiar with your scratch paper, your calculator (or estimation tools), and the format/timing of the exam. The more you are able to practice, the more comfortable (and confident) you will be when the big day arrives!
Scott is a math tutor of over 8 years, specializing in every level of math, as well as working with students who have learning differences. He is also an accomplished musician.
Step by Step Math Solutions
By John Bragelman
Which of the following is the solution to the equation above?
The above problem appeared on the April 2019 SAT Math – No Calculator section. In the high school math classes I have taught, I would hope to see the following solution:
Why? The student shows their work: how they ‘move’ the 4 and how they cancel out the radical with a squared. I can also determine from the work the student understands the procedures involved. That’s why I call this type of solution good math student work when I’m working with students on the SAT Math. But, this procedure isn’t necessarily the most efficient for solving the SAT math problem above.
Why? We already know the answer! It’s right there! One of them . . . So now what? We become a good SAT Math student. A good SAT Math student finds the solution to the problem as efficiently as possible. Use other methods:
Process 1: Eliminate! We can eliminate several solutions’ choices immediately because 12 is a nice whole number, which means x must simplify to a similarly nice, whole number. That means any solution that is not a perfect square cannot be the answer. That removes 2 options, A and D.
Process 2: Use the possible answers! Unlike most traditional math tests, the answers for most SAT Math problems are given to you. Use them to your advantage. For the problem above, there’s no need to do any algebraic manipulation – just plug in answers and solve! Let’s try B:
B cannot be the solution. That leaves only C! If we have time left on the test, we can come back and double-check C as well.
To summarize, being a good SAT Math student can sometimes mean doing ZERO math to find the answer. Sometimes it means using the provided solutions to work backwards. In both cases, it means not jumping straight into the traditional problem-solving process math teachers emphasize.
John has been teaching for over a decade at high schools, colleges, and universities. He has a BS in Applied Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Master’s in Mathematics Education from Georgia State, and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Know These Comma Rules to Gain Confidence on SAT Writing & Language
By Keith Brown
Most students think that the SAT Writing and Language section is all about grammar. In fact, approximately 50% of the questions on this section concern grammar rules, while the other half test students’ knowledge of writing strategy and expression of ideas. Tackling these grammar rules off the bat can be a surefire way of gaining quick points on Test Day, as grammar questions tend to take less time and require minimal context to answer correctly.
Of the grammar rules Writing and Language tests, punctuation is most heavily tested, and the test makers love to test comma rules. If you can’t recall the last time you talked about commas in English class, don’t worry -- the good news is that the SAT is only concerned with four comma rules. Here they are!
Use a comma to separate:
- Three or more items in a series or list.
- Two independent clauses connected by a FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
- An introductory phrase or transition word from the rest of the sentence.
- Nonessential information from the rest of the sentence.
Let’s examine these one at a time.
Comma Rule #1: Use a comma to separate three or more items in a series or list
Most students think of using commas with a list of nouns (tomatoes, onions, and peppers), but you can also use commas to separate phrases, as in this example: We have plans to swim in the pond, run to the park, and play in the sand. You can use commas to separate any parts of speech, including adjectives: The orange, striped, and flat ball is in the corner. In this example, we use three adjectives to describe the ball, which is fine as long as the comma appears between two or more adjectives of equal rank that describe the same noun. Adjectives of equal rank can exchange locations in the sentence with one another such that the sentence will still make sense.
Comma Rule #2: Use a comma to separate two independent clauses connected by a FANBOYS conjunction
Separate independent clauses (complete sentences) with a comma and a coordinate FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The key with this rule is to check for independent clauses on either side of the comma and conjunction! Just like complete sentences, independent clauses have all the components of a sentence (a noun, a verb, and expression of a complete thought). The bottom line? If you can substitute a period for the comma and FANBOYS conjunction, it is appropriate to use them.
Comma Rule #3: Use a comma to separate an introductory phrase or transition word from the rest of the sentence
An introductory clause can be any dependent phrase with gerunds or subordinate conjunctions. For example: Before going to the pool, Jim bought a new swimsuit. However, you do not need to use a comma if the introductory clause follows the independent clause: Jim bought a new swimsuit before going to the pool.
Comma Rule #4: Use a comma to separate nonessential information from the rest of the sentence
Nonessential words and phrases are elements of a sentence that are not needed to make the sentence complete. You can cross off nonessential information from a sentence and still have a complete idea! Because it is not necessary, a nonessential phrase must be set off from the rest of the sentence with punctuation - commas in this case. For example: Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States, signed the executive order.
There you have it - the four ways the SAT test makers love to test commas on the SAT! Keep these rules in mind as you prepare for this section.
Keith is an Enhanced Prep tutor with a BS in Biology from Grambling State and a Masters & PhD in Developmental Biology & Genetics from Caltech.