- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Study for a Standardized Test

There are plenty of different standardized tests: SAT, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT as well as hundreds more for specific classes, fields and specialties.

In many cases, the thought of preparing for big tests like this can fill you with anxiety, as you imagine going up against hundreds or thousands of other students in a high-pressure environment. Often these tests decide your fate as a future doctor, lawyer, accountant or student, so you know you need to take them seriously.

What is the right way to study for these kinds of tests?

Step One: Know Exactly How the Test Works

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The first step is to really know, not just the material you need to learn, but the exact format and specifications of the test itself. How long is it? How are the questions asked? How important will speed be to getting a good score?

Become an expert on the test you’re about to take. Know your enemy before you face it.

There’s three ways you can do this:

  1. Buy premade test-prep guides. These are essential for big standardized tests since many people have already studied them endlessly and know how they work. Learning from a test-prep guide should be your first resource.
  2. Talk to instructors and graders. Talk to the people teaching the classes or who have graded exams in the past. They can clue you onto which things are important and what the test is trying to ask of you.
  3. Talk to other people who have taken it. While less reliable than a test-prep guide or teachers, other past students can give you insight into the format.

Step Two: Is the Test Measuring Knowledge or Intelligence?

The next step is to know any of the specific material the test is asking. Here you can see a divergence between the two types of standardized test you may face.

Knowledge tests are trying to see whether you know the things needed to pass. These are common in professions which expect all members to know certain things in order to practice. Lawyers need to pass the bar. Doctors need to show they understand medicine.

Aptitude tests are often intelligence tests in disguise. Rather than testing specific knowledge, these tests just want to know how much general knowledge you may have, so they can see how well you will perform in a further intellectual task. SAT, GMAT and other aptitude tests often cover huge ranges of potential knowledge, so they are much harder to study for.

For knowledge tests, the focus should be on acquiring the knowledge. For aptitude tests, you need to split your efforts between acquiring knowledge that can be acquired and focusing on mastering your test-taking skills to learn the test itself as well as you can.

Step Three: Know the Material

For knowledge tests, or aptitude tests which have specific, learnable components, your next step is to learn the material. This is like studying for an ordinary test, although the scope may be much broader if you have to cover a lot more than a single class.

Studying effectively is a complex art, but here are the basics:

  1. Practice retrieval, not recognition. Don’t review notes. Instead, cover up your notes and ask yourself what they say. Do practice problems for complex subjects. Try to explain the essence of big ideas for essay topics. Only look at your reference material after you’ve tried to answer it.
  2. Repeat and space your studying. Every topic you study should get studied more than once, and those times should be spread out over your total studying time before an exam.
  3. Understand first, memorize second. If something can be understood—because it has an internal logic or because is a more complex idea—then start there. Only memorize details of things once you understand their foundation.
  4. Practice at least as hard as the test. Does the test ask essays? Then don’t study with multiple choice. The act of studying should be no easier than the act of test-taking, with the possible exception of time pressure (which can be added in later).
  5. Start learning early, keep learning consistently. Pick a schedule for studying, and stick to it. A consistent, long-term studying plan will do more for you than any trick or hack applied last minute before a cram session ever could.

Organize all the things you need to learn and attack them systematically. If you’re dealing with a huge topic coverage, you may want to insert tests in your learning phase so you can get feedback about how well your efforts are on track.

Need more studying advice? I teach a six-week course on learning faster [1].

Step Four: Master the Test

In an ideal world, your mixture of studying the topic and practicing the test would be:

  1. Take a practice test immediately. This sets a benchmark for future progress and will show you the difficulty you face, even if you fail miserably the first time.
  2. Study until you feel about 50% ready to take the test. This is a subjective benchmark, but you shouldn’t wait to get feedback on your progress.
  3. Take the test again and see if you were right. If you were, you should have made noticeable improvements, over your initial attempt.
  4. Once you feel 80% ready, focus at least half your efforts just on doing practice tests. This is for two reasons:
    1. Doing practice tests *will* help you learn the material.
    2. They will be much more focused than general studying efforts, so you’ll start to master the test.

When you take a practice test, always do it under the conditions of the actual exam. That means you should have access to the same materials (or the be restricted from them) as well as operate under the same time pressure.

If time is a factor in the actual test, and you don’t do your tests under time pressure, you aren’t learning much about how you’ll perform on the test in real life.

Your goal should be that, as you approach the final exam, you should be able to estimate your grade to within 10% of what you actually achieve. This is because you’ll have done it enough already to know.

Step Five: Relax and Focus Your Mind

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re about ready to take the test. You should have understood how it works thoroughly, mastered the material and taken enough practice tests to know your score within ten percent.
If you’ve managed to do this, most of your work is done. Now you just need to make sure you’re set up for peak performance on test day.

Start by getting enough sleep. At minimum, you should require yourself to get enough sleep the night before. If you suffer from test anxiety that might make it hard for you to sleep the night before properly, make this a minimum of three nights of proper sleep. That means no all-nighters, no last-minute cramming.

Next, practice a visualization ritual of taking the test. Imagine yourself sitting down and hearing the signal to start. See yourself flipping through the papers, writing down your responses. Picture facing questions that you have no idea what the answer is, but you calmly give your best response and move onto other sections.

This kind of mental rehearsal can help reduce the anxiety in the actual moment. If you experience a lot of test anxiety, you may want to actually go to the room you’ll be taking the test to try to imagine it as vividly as possible, and start practicing your visualizations earlier.

Ultimately, however, no visualization can replace the work of preparation. Confidence comes from knowing your competent. You’ll be competent because you learned the material. You’ll know you’re competent because you did practice tests. Start early, be patient and you’ll be sure to be successful.