6 Strategies to AVOID When Studying for the SAT or ACT

strategies to avoid blog

Studying for the ACT or SAT requires strategy. But not all strategies are helpful; in fact, some can even harm your practice! 

We’ve identified six strategies students use that they think help them prepare for the test…but aren’t really as helpful as they believe and should be avoided. Today we are going to take a look at what students and parents often think they want or need in test prep and what actually works best for students. 

6 Study Strategies to AVOID:

#1 You think you need 10,000 practice questions or 10,000 hours of practice.  

Malcom Gladwell did NOT say that you need 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in his book Outliers. Instead, the 10,000 hours refers to the amount of practice one needs to become a “phenom” – someone who far exceeds those within the same field. In terms of preparing for the SAT and ACT, we are talking neither about phenom nor expert, we are talking about score increase – which means it matters where you start and how significantly you are trying to raise your score.  

Thus, you may think you need a seemingly endless number of practice questions, but what you really need are questions that offer the highest yield and teach you, so that you can get the next question correct.  

Thus, you may think you need a seemingly endless number of practice questions, but what you really need are questions that offer the highest yield and teach you, so that you can get the next question correct.  

High-yield questions are those questions that show up frequently on the test and that are frequently missed by students. So while, yes, you want many high-yield questions, you don’t want to practice them in a vacuum. You need clear explanations in order for you to understand what you did correctly and what you did incorrectly.  

Too much ineffectual practice can be worse than too little good practice!  

If you are simply completing practice questions, but not changing your approach, then what you are really doing in reinforcing bad habits. Imagine hitting a tennis ball against a wall for one hour; then your coach comes to you and you learn that your grip is off and you are diminishing the force of your swing. Even though you only practiced incorrectly for one hour, it is likely to take around 3 hours to correct your grip, improve your swing, and finally make the new grip feel natural. Too much ineffectual practice can be worse than too little good practice!  

How to Stop Missing the Same Questions

#2 You think if you do enough questions then you will have “seen it all” and therefore be ready for the test.  

Well, no matter how effectively the practice questions mimic the test format, you will technically never see this exact question again. The key is that you need to recognize a future question as being like the questions you have done in the past. If you can recognize a problem as a certain type, understand the content, recall the process and execute it well, then small changes in the questions will not lead you astray.   

The key is that you need to recognize a future question as being like the questions you have done in the past. 

Tips for Studying for Cumulative Tests

#3 You think you need to take several full-length practice tests.

There is value in taking one to three full-length practice tests to be sure you have the pace of the sections and are able to stay focused throughout the test. But these should be taken strategically. 

Full-length practice tests are good for building cognitive endurance and solving timing issues. Cognitive endurance refers to having the ability to get through the whole 3 hour test without getting brain fatigue. Some students who are used to shorter classes & taking frequent study breaks can have some trouble staying focused throughout the entire test. Similarly, students can have trouble with the pacing of a particular section. It is important to find ways to work through these timing issues since unfinished passages or unanswered questions will definitely lower your score.   

Focused practice questions are far more valuable than running through practice test after practice test. 

But overall, especially in the beginning of your prep, clustered hard questions that cover multiple topics and questions based on dense text are the kinds of questions that push you to see what content you remember and understand, what you need to work on, and where you struggle. So focused practice with these types of questions are far more valuable than running through practice test after practice test. 

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#4 You think you only need to cover the topics you struggle with.

If you only cover the topics that you struggle with, then you will end up missing additional SAT and ACT test questions. You’ll miss them because 

(1) it has been too long since you have covered those topics, 

(2) you thought you knew the concept better, or 

(3) because the format of the test is different from how questions are asked in school.  

This is why spiraling content as well as spiraling subject areas is so effective.  

“Spiraling” means to mix up the topics and concepts. This is different from, say, how math is taught in school: math in school is grouped into chapters and units. Since figuring out the type of question and knowing which process needs to be applied is one of the main challenges that students face in the math section, spiraling or mixing up the math content pushes you to practice problem identification and process recall.  

“Spiraling” means to mix up the topics and concepts.

Additionally, spiraling or mixing the subjects is essential because if you complete lots of math practice then move on to reading, then by the time you take the test it will have been too long since you last looked at the math. Olive Book’s ACT and SAT courses keep rotating, or spiraling, the content and subject areas throughout your prep, and you should look for a similar structure in any prep course or materials you use.

#5 You think the time spent on prep should be focused on score improvement.

I know you’re wondering how in the world we would disagree with this notion!

The disagreement is really that time spent on prep needs to be meaningful. The prep needs to change or magnify what you know and don’t know. You need to learn the concepts that for whatever reason seemed to elude you the first time. You need to be learning. 

Time spent on prep needs to be meaningful.The prep needs to change or magnify what you know and don’t know.  

Yes, we all want score improvement, but you know how you’ll know if your time spent on prep is meaningful?  Because you will notice that you are really getting things you didn’t understand before – you will have a moment in school or with a friend where you can explain something clearly, you will notice that you are reading better, understanding more, and perhaps your writing and grammar skills are improving. You are taking in the concepts that are covered in the SAT and ACT and making them yours! You are owning the content.    

#6 You think you should be serious when prepping, perhaps even bored.

Learning can be engaging and so can your prep resources.

Olive Book’s SAT and ACT courses are a good example of a prep course that balances pacing, engaging content, and question yield. 

In fact, soon Olive Book will be offering a newly ordered course to help students make the most out of their prep time. Olive Book has always spiraled the content within the subject areas and has given priority to questions that show up frequently on the test and that are frequently missed by students as well as giving students the freedom to jump around as they see fit. What we have discovered is that some students need more structure and more blending of subject areas.  

Therefore, Olive Book will soon offer a course that is formatted to reduce prep fatigue and increase your engagement by mixing up the subject content while retaining the high yield question order. Yes, you can still jump around as you like, but you will be less likely to need to do so and more likely to get through more practice and see a more significant score increase!   

Therefore, Olive Book will soon offer a course that is formatted to reduce prep fatigue and increase your engagement by mixing up the subject content while retaining the high yield question order. 

The takeaway here is that good practice is not necessarily more practice and practice that you are engaged with is always better. Studying may not be fun but you should be learning something!

Further Reading:

One Tip for Conquering Standardized Tests
How to Guess on the ACT or SAT
How to Stay Focused on the ACT Reading Section

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