Consistent practice testing is an integral part of any effective test prep plan. Ideally, students will sit for full length practice exams every two weeks. Some of our students sit for as many as 15 practice exams before taking the official test. Practice exams are so important because test prep is less about studying and more about training. You can read about running a marathon; you can even strategize about it with an experienced coach. But you need to actually get out and run if you have any hope of finishing the race. For those who are less athletically inclined, we can explore a different analogy. If you are hoping to put together a successful play or musical, it is not enough to memorize your lines. You need to have rehearsals to make sure that the mechanics are all in place. Here, we highlight just a few reasons why practice tests are essential.
This is perhaps the most important benefit. The SAT and ACT are long. Between time allotted to filling out informational bubble sheets and the optional writing test, the test can stretch for over 4 hours. Though students may not be physically exerting themselves, the test is mentally exhausting. Stamina is a balancing act. Some students have difficulty getting through the entire test. Others exert themselves too much on the earlier sections and find that they haven’t saved enough energy to tackle the later sections. After several practice tests, these difficulties start to work themselves out. Not only do students get more experience in a testing environment, they also become aware of which sections derail their speed and stamina. With this knowledge, they can make a plan to combat these difficulties.
When you take tests for school, you think more about content than strategy. On standardized tests, strategies are almost more important than content. Strategy refers to how you take the test. For example, on the reading section, do you read the passage first or go straight to the questions? When you read, to do you annotate or leave the passage blank? In other words, there are many different ways you can approach the test to gain more points. Practice tests allow students to try out different strategies to determine which are most effective. You don’t want to assume that a certain strategy will work, only to try it on the official test and find that it actually lowered your score. Once a student hones in on the appropriate strategy for each section, they can practice it so that it becomes second nature, and they won’t have to think too hard about it on test day.
Practice tests are important for gathering data. Students may have a general idea of what they will struggle with before starting test prep (they know they might struggle more with geometry than with algebra, for example), but they need to take a practice test to confirm; often students and parents are quite surprised by the results. With all of English grammar and math topics ranging from pre algebra to algebra II and statistics, it is important to be efficient and target the areas that need the most attention. Practice testing can also help identify whether there are other factors impeding progress like timing.
Students often ask whether, in lieu of a full test, they can do timed individual sections (ie spend 35 minutes once or twice a week doing a full ACT science section). Though this is good practice, it is no replacement for a full timed test (but can certainly be done in addition). This approach fails to account for the fact that the science section falls at the end of a long test. For the best shot at reaching their full potential, students should plan on full length timed tests every 2-3 weeks.