ACT & SAT Prep and College Admissions Blog

Simple but Powerful Test Taking Strategies: Part 1

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 @ 06:00 PM

act-tutoring.pngStrategy is an intrinsic part of preparing for standardized tests. Without the proper strategies even the most advanced students find themselves performing below their full potential.

Here are a few proven test taking strategies that will take you a long way in your quest for a high score, regardless of the test you’re taking.

Focus on official test prep materials.

Purchase a guide written by the very people who administer the exam you are preparing for; this is “the official guide,” IE: The Real ACT Prep Guide, The Official SAT Study Guide, The Official Guide to the Revised GRE, The Official Guide to the GMAT, etc. This will familiarize you with the material and format of the test and which strategies to employ to be successful. Though there is a variance in the material covered across the various graduate and professional school entrance exams, their structures remain similar. Regardless of which exam you take, it will include a Math multiple choice section, Reading multiple choice section and a writing section.

That said, there are some test prep providers that offer free or low cost, yet high quality self-paced instruction that we've found can complemenat official test prep materials very well. Kahn Academy (free) or Magoosh (low cost) are two such options.

Pay close attention to the question.

Read the question first. A hurdle of Reading Comprehension is filtering through the passage to find the information pertinent to answering the questions. Passages can be lengthy, making it difficult to pinpoint the material needed to answer the questions. Sometimes, test writers make it plain and direct you to specific lines of the passage. When this isn’t the case, reading the questions first can serve you well. This is called guided reading. Once you are acquainted with the questions, as you read the passage you can more easily identify the information needed to answer the questions. In essence, the questions can guide you through the reading to the most relevant parts.

Beyond reading the questions, pause to recognize what the question is asking you. On timed tests we are inclined to work swiftly, moving too quickly can produce errors not only in our answers, but in our ability to comprehend the questions, which is necessary to answering them correctly. We have all come across questions which are straightforward besides the addition of a word like, EXCEPT. Most certainly, the answer choices contain the answer we would pick had we not seen this caveat. This is the type of careless mistake you cannot afford to make. These questions are designed to see how well you perform under pressure. Are you able to work quickly while simultaneously paying close attention to details, helping you to ultimately arrive at the right answer? These skills are invaluable and necessary to succeeding as a graduate or professional school student.

Pay close attention to the answer options.

Read all answer choices before selecting your answer.  Just as it's imperative you read and comprehend the question, you must do the same with the answers. The first answer-choice might seem correct, but if you keep reading you may recognize another may be right. This is why it is so important that you assume nothing! With reading comprehension in particular, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making an assumption based on the information you are given and undoubtedly, there will be an answer that “could” work based on your assumption. In a Math section such an example might be: assuming a triangle is a right triangle based on its visual appearance when in fact, there is no angle marked 90 degrees. If you work the problem based on your assumption you could be lead to the wrong answer.

Use specific strategues for honing in on the correct answer.

Another tool by which to narrow down your answer choices is, using the process of elimination.

Using a “guess and check” method can be faster than traditionally working the problem; by plugging answers into an equation you can quickly determine which answer choices simple will not work.

You can also use the strategy of affirming the consequent, (ex: If P, then Q, or, when P is true, Q is true). When using this line of reasoning don’t get trapped in an answer-choice affirming the opposite. Just because you know Q is true, this does not necessarily mean that P is true.

Make abstractions concrete by assigning values to the abstract components of a question so you are working with tangible things.  This comes in most handy on Math word problems which ask you; What is “twice Mary’s age” five years ago? If you decide to say that Mary is 20 today, she was 15 five years ago and twice that is 30.

Stay tuned for Part II of Common Test Taking Strategies where we will cover:

  • Reading & Retention
  • Managing Your Time
  • Structure & the Writing Section
  • Mentality & Confidence



Topics: test taking strategies, ACT, Reading Comprehension, process of elimination