The zen of test prep

I used to use the words “zen” and “test prep” in the same sentence only in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, but I’ve been thinking about it seriously of late, and I actually think there’s a connection.

First, though, lest you think I’ve gotten all new-agey, let me make it clear that I am not talking about meditating in order to get yourself in test-taking mode or reduce your anxiety or anything of that ilk. There are test-prep companies that do that sort of thing, but I’ll refrain from voicing my opinion about them. Suffice it to say that I am a firm believer in the principle that the best way to reduce test anxiety is simply to master the material on the test.

What I’m talking about is the attitude with which you approach the entire test-preparation process. One of the things I’ve noticed is that students who come to me knowing that they have big gaps in their knowledge and that they don’t really know what they’re doing tend to end up with higher scores in the long run than students who come to me with relatively high scores, convinced that they only have to find the one trick that’ll make everything perfect.

I think that this is largely because the first group has what’s known as beginner’s mind: because they have no illusions about knowing more than they actually know, they’re wide open when it comes to absorbing new information. They simply learn it and apply it as necessary because they know it’s their only hope, and consequently their scores often rise dramatically. The ones who think they know it all or are convinced that they deserve a particular score…well, they usually don’t do anywhere near as well as they’d like.

The other thing that characterizes my most successful students is that they never take the test too personally. That is, even though most of them have complained about it or tried to get out of it completely on occasion (“Erica, how about we forget the SAT for today and just talk about Harry Potter? Come on, you know that would be SO much more fun”), in the end they’re willing to accept the test on its own terms.

It’s really impossible to overstate the importance of that last part. It’s very satisfying to rage against the College Board for making you take this horrible, stupid, unfair test with ridiculous “correct” answers that people only pick if they know the right tricks. (And everyone knows that of course the SAT is just about tricks.)

The problem with that mentality is that while it’s gratifying in the short term, it can be very damaging in the long run because you never bother to take the time to learn how the test actually functions. Here’s the zen part: that means giving up your ego and forgetting about what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with a particular answer is utterly irrelevant; the test isn’t going to change for you. It just isn’t, no matter how worked up you get. That’s a hard notion for a lot of people to swallow, but the sooner you can accept it, the sooner you’ll start to make progress.

Strategies for finishing ACT Reading faster

The most common issue that students have on ACT Reading is time. Granted, the timing is tight: 35 minutes for four passages and 40 questions, or precisely 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage/ten question set. The timing, however, is not the whole story.

In reality, what presents itself as a time issue is often something else entirely. Most people assume that they have problems on ACT Reading because they can’t read fast enough when the real problem is that they don’t know how to read effectively enough to locate the requisite information in time. Yes, it is true that many ACT Reading questions are detailed-based and require the identification of a particular fact buried in the middle of a paragraph, but what many test-takers overlook is the fact that there are many strategies they can employ to quickly locate the necessary information — even if they have no recollection whatsoever of where it is.

In a roundabout way, the ACT can actually be more of a reasoning test than the SAT, and if you really want to improve your score dramatically, you need to treat it like one. Simply reading each passage fully, trying to absorb all of the information, and then going through the questions in order will have little to no long-term effect on your score.

The bottom line is that if you want to get through all four passages in time and obtain a high score, you must be willing to be flexible and shift your strategy to fit the question.That includes doing the following:

1) Skip around

When students with solid comprehension skills get stuck below a certain score on ACT Reading, it’s usually not because they spend a little too much time on every question, but rather because they spend far too much time on a handful of questions. When they learn to identify those potentially time-consuming questions upfront and go into the test planning to skip them, their score often jumps two or three points right away.

In general, if a question looks hard or time-consuming, skip it upfront and come back to it if you have time. Figure out a marking system so that you don’t forget do so. Your goal is to get as many questions right as you possibly can, so don’t sacrifice questions you can answer easily for questions that will take a lot of time and that you may not even get right. For example, if you know that “main point” questions are consistently problematic, don’t even look at them until you’ve answered every other question that set.

2) Learn to distinguish between “detail” passages and “argument” passages and treat them accordingly

For passages that focus more on details or descriptions without a real point, you can ignore this process; it won’t really get you anywhere.

For the passages that do focus on a single argument, however, you need to take the time to both determine and write down the main point. Keeping that information in mind when you answer the questions can save you unbelievable amounts of time.

3) Learn what information you can skip initially

This is another strategy that comes primarily into play when you’re dealing with a straightforward “argument” passage. Whenever you encounter a topic sentence that clearly indicates that the rest of the paragraph will just offer supporting details, you can skip the rest of the paragraph. If a question asks specifically about those lines, you can go back and read them closely, but remember: the topic sentence has already told you why those details were important, and there’s a decent chance that’s what the ACT will ask about.

4) Think logically about where information is most likely to be located

This may sound obvious, but very often when asked to locate a piece of information that they don’t recall, people begin re-reading the passage from the beginning. Don’t. If the passage discusses a movement chronologically and the question asks about an event that clearly must have happened toward the end of the movement, focus on the end of the passage.

In addition, when you’re trying to locate information that you simply don’t remember reading, just focus on the topic sentences to help you figure out where the topic is discussed. If you try to skim through the interiors of paragraphs, you’ll most likely just end up lost.

5) Circle major transitions and important information…

and don’t forget to consult those spots when you look back. That’s where the information that gets asked about will probably be. It’s a waste of time to make notes if you just end up ignoring them and skimming through random sections.

6) Take shortcuts

The ACT can be exactly like the SAT here, in the sense that there’s often a “back door” that will let you quickly answer what appears to be a complicated question.

For example: if a question asks about the order of a series of events and the answers list four different combinations, each with a different event first, you just have to figure out the first event. By default, only the answer that lists that event first can be right.

7) Learn when to look at the answers first and when to look at the passage (or your notes) first

Again, this requires that you be willing to shift your strategy to fit the question. If it’s a main point of passage question, you need to consult your notes about the main point. If it’s a main point of paragraph question, you need to read the topic sentence of the paragraph in question. If it’s an “all of the following EXCEPT’ question, you need to look at the answer choices first. You just have to do whatever will get you the answer fastest.