A not so well known thing about me is that I also serve as a mentor and life coach. I've been privileged to play a part in the lives of some up and coming youngsters and serve as guidance in their pathways toward success in the high school journey, through college, and even into graduate school as well. It's been quite interesting for me, personally, as it allows me to keep tabs on the evolution of academic circles and allows me informational access to where the market is going, both in terms of education and entry level job markets.
In any case, several of the people I've been coaching have been expressing their grief in regards to standardized tests. I can offer some more or less qualified help in this regard as I served as a preparatory instructor for SATs and high school APs in a prior time in life. Having watched the SAT morph into several forms, taken the GRE twice, and of course having passed the national physical therapy exam (NPTE), I've intimately come to know the core elements -- the basic nature of standardized tests.
In a sentence: It's not about what you know, its about how you find the answers.
For those who have standardized tests in your future and to those who are cringing at the memories, I'm sure we'll all agree the standardized tests do not truly evaluate the whole potential for any individual's academic performance. More importantly, such tests do not measure the likelihood of success in a vocation, profession, or other career path. It does not measure a person's fit to an organization or industry; neither does it test for integrity, character, grit, will-power, determination, compassion, ability to innovate, think outside the box, emotional IQ, inter-personal skills, etc. -- you know, the things that matter most in a working environment.
And, with that out of the way, I think we've gotten enough off our chest to deal with the situation at hand. Standardized tests exist. They are part of the academic matrix. Much like in Zombieland, we need to learn how to survive it.
Rules For Surviving Standardized Tests
Rule #1: KNOW THE NATURE
Learn about the NATURE of your test. Is it testing math? Vocabulary? Basic sciences? Perhaps it seeks to examine your fluency of language. Alternatively, it may be attempting to measure your competence for licensure in a specific array of skill sets. Knowing about the nature of the exam guides your focus on pre-exam study material; the stuff you need to have before you start preparing to sit for said exam.
Furthermore, you must know what the questions are actually asking for. Are they questions with information you must already know going into the test? Or, are these questions testing how you analyze any given piece or pieces of information?
How are the questions being asked? Is it multiple choice, true or false, matching, or column based comparisons? Maybe its an opened ended response, essay questions like seen commonly in legal exams.
What is the purpose of the exam? Is it to pass or fail you across a standard for licensure? Or is it to statistically stratify your candidacy for admission into an academic institution?
Realistically, it is ALL pass-fail. Why? Because LIFE is pass, no pass. No one gets 80% of a surgery correct and claims a B-minus. No one gets to staff 75% of a restaurant properly and call it a "pass" -- you either did it, or you didn't.
In the same vein, when testing for licensure, you either pass or failed the boards. When taking a stratification test like the SAT or GRE, you either pass or failed a margin you are aiming for. Say you wanted to be at the top 90th percentile; then this is your pass line. Anything under would be a fail.
Life is a pass, no pass experience. YOU need to set your own standards in life and this is a great place to take charge and allow the pressure to form your mind from the rough into the diamond.
Rule #2. KNOW THE ARCHITECTURE.
Learn about the ARCHITECTURE of your test. Knowing how your particular exam is constructed, designed, graded, and ranked is crucial to developing your test taking game and overall strategy. You must answer questions such as: What is a good score? How much time is allotted? How many sections are there? How is it graded? Does guessing or answering incorrectly count against my total score? Are the essays graded word by word or via key phrases? Does writing too much help or hurt my score?
Just as knowing the nature of the test guides you in developing your pre-exam studies, the architecture of your exam must shape your test-taking studies up until you actually take the test.
In the "old days," SAT questions which were answered incorrectly punished you by subtracting a quarter of a point. Leaving it blank didn't count against you. While this statement may date me, it should jump out at you that the best strategy in those days would be leaving your answer blank if you didn't have a strong guess between two options for selection. Anything less would not only guarantee you miss the question, it would rob your raw score as well.
Lessons so far: Know your test; know its nature and know how its built.
Rule #3. STRATEGIZE.
Learn about the STRATEGIES to your test. Every standardized test has a generally accepted best grouping of test taking strategies and tactics. Questions should formulate such as: Is guessing a good thing? Is writing "BS" going to work? Is skipping ahead a good idea? Should I read the question or the answers first?
Such questions should be tempered with foreknowledge of the architectural aspects of the test. Knowing who grades your essays and what they are looking for will guide your strategy. Knowing that the test asks a certain ratio of question types will also guide your strategy.
How much time you're allotted per section will prescribe how much average time you have per question in said section. If there are 25 questions and 30 minutes, you have a little over a minute per question. Of course, there will be tough questions sporadically and toward the end of the section. Therefore, you must blaze through and ace the early and easy ones to give yourself enough time at the end -- in such cases, there is no sense going back and double checking your answers. Just get it right the first time and move on.
Mental and physical stamina is also something you must consider. Some tests last for mere hours. Others for days. You must consider such things BEFORE you sit for your exam.
Rule #4. TRAIN FOR THE GAME.
Standardized tests are a GAME. That's right! You read that correctly. A game is a set of circumstances with winning objectives and confining rules. The standardized test you must take is most certainly a game.
This is where I basically slam most test prep material to date. It is NOT about that terribly thick, convoluted, and overwhelming section leading up to the practice exams.
It is ALL about the practice exams.
Think about any sporting activity, any game you may hold with interest. The physical and mental conditioning definitely helps to prepare for a victory. However, what may be more helpful is drilling, scrimmaging, and getting in some game time so that you can have enough experience, grit, and ability to win that championship game when it comes!
Game time is all about knowing yourself. How do YOU approach exams? Do you freak out because there's a time limit? Does multiple choice scare you? Does your mind go blank when the essay question appears? Is the testing room too quiet? Or, too loud?
How's your clock management? Do you stay stuck on a question and never move on until you come with an adequate answer? How do you handle strategic opportunities? Will you move on quickly or stick around to confirm your instinctive answer? Are you willing to cut your losses and move on for the greater good of the section?
Notice, I made no mention whatsoever to the CONTENT of the test. It is all about the ACTION of taking the test. If you feel so strongly that you must study; compelled by some force of nature, then sure, go for it. In cases such as the SAT, knowing the vocabulary is truly essential. In many others, you've prepared all you could coming up to the time of the test. However, there is a better way of learning the vocab, content, or otherwise, while also learning how to handle game time.
The best advice I can give to game time is playing it often throughout the long run. Taking a practice test section once every couple days for 6 months or a year will make you light years ahead of the curve come time to actually preparing for the test, not to mention exam day itself.
In doing so, you will build mental and physical stamina. Also, the nature and architecture of the exam will become YOUR second nature. By taking so many tests, over and over again, you will unveil the common grounds, obscure vocabulary words, recurrent concepts, and trick questions to which others will stumble but you will recognizes and conquer.
It's game time. Make sure you practice as such.
Rule #5. LEARN FROM MISTAKES.
Taking 5, 10, even 15 practice exams will unveil where you are consistently strong and where you are weak. There are many methods in tracking your performance. However, most of these methods are all AFTER the fact. The inherent problem with this is that a student is analyzing where the chips fell and not how they got there.
If you having anxiety during the testing process, how is knowing your results helpful to the fact that it is the testing itself you struggle with? Exactly! IT ISN'T!
Therefore, by taking so very many practice exams, track not only the mistakes you made but HOW you made those mistakes. Personally, I encourage my students to place question marks by their practice sheets the very moment the answer or answer process doesn't come to them instinctually. Most students will end up writing a question mark on 75% of the exam during the first time they try out this test taking tactic. Don't worry, it will get better!
Another helpful tip for anything other than essay based sections: Underline your second choice and even place a small dot under your third choice answer. Why? You want to know HOW you're testing. Many times, students second guess themselves and end up selecting the wrong answer. In those cases, use a double underline as your instinctual answer, the bubble as your formal answer (which may actually become the same), and then underline a second choice, and dot a third.
Will this steal from your clock management during practice exams? ABSOLUTELY! Is it bad? Not even close.
Such test taking tactics will only sharpen your ability to move through questions swiftly and accurately. The long term value is immeasurable as it will reveal some of the sticking points that basic software and manual tracking will never highlight.
Some Closing Thoughts
I could literally go on and on about what other strategies to employ and specific tactics in surviving Zombieland... Oh wait, I mean surviving standardized tests... "zombie" is how we all feel AFTER the test. You are not alone :)
But, in all seriousness, standardized tests exist. They set standards. Good or bad, they are used as such and therefore anyone who wishes for any opportunity within the pathways intersecting with such tests MUST go through these exams.
We can certainly cry out for change, picket, protest, and even start a hashtag. But, until that change is in effect, we'll be on the losing side of the battle. And so, instead of whining about the tests, isn't it better to learn how to conquer them since you have to go through with them anyway?
Another thought: There are many other types of standardized tests outside of the realm of academics. And, I'll be the first to say that standardized tests certainly have their place. Some are severely stringent. Being from San Diego, we're a Navy and Marine town -- the US Navy SEALs use BUD/S as one of their pass-fail to join the teams. Such standards are good and SHOULD be in place.
However, just like in the clinical realm, we must be careful to examine what we are actually testing and WHY. and, while education system could use some tuning up in that regard, we are remained to the means we have right now.
We can't complain about the fact Zombieland exists, we need to find our twinkies and go build a better world.
As this concludes this fun and unique blog post, I want to say that it has and continues to be my honor to play a small part in the lives of young hopefuls. Serving as guidance in high school, college, and even into medical school, DPT programs, toward their PharmD's, etc. is a thrilling, rewarding, and wonderful experience for me.
To be honest, I think I've learned more through these experiences than have my students and feel it's my continuing privilege to be part of it.
I want to close by encouraging you to develop the test taking skills, the test taking mindset, and the test taking endurance required to meet success when game time arrives. By doing so, I have full confidence you WILL. Rock. That. Test!
All The Best,