One of the most common parent concerns through the college application process is that their child has never been a “good test-taker.” While their child may work hard, and fully understand the material they’re being tested on, they struggle with the test format, or freeze up with anxiety on test day. This is why test-taking is sometimes viewed as a skill in and of itself, separate from the actual content of the test.
The question is, how can your child improve not just their score on the SAT/ACT, but their skills as a test-taker in general? While there’s no one “magic bullet,” there are plenty of ways to improve test-taking skills before test day.
Learn the Format
It’s extremely important to become familiar with the test format well in advance. Many students are used to primarily writing long-form answers for test questions, or having an essay that takes weeks of research. Multiple choice is probably familiar, but not the norm. Students re-familiarizing themselves with the format can help a lot. For instance, many students find it helpful to look at the potential answers to a question and then read the question again—if the answer they were expecting isn’t a possible choice, they may have gone too quickly reading the question. Simply reviewing some sample multiple-choice questions can help ease students into the format before test day.
Practice With Timers
One thing many students struggle with is the timed aspect of the SAT and ACT. This is why it’s vital your child time their practice sessions, as many online practice tests ensure. If they’re practicing at home with pen-and-paper, they should be sure to set a timer when they work. This will help your child figure out how and when they need to slow down or speed up, and will get them used to the idea of a time limit, which in itself can be a source of stress.
Learn Some Relaxation Techniques
If your child has trouble with “freezing up” when a test starts, it can be helpful to learn some basic relaxation techniques. This can be anything from deep breathing exercises, to humming a familiar song under their breath, to clenching and unclenching their fists. The point is, a simple, at-your-desk method of calming down can get your child past the first throws of test anxiety and started off right on the test itself.
Prepare in the Right Environment
This advice is so tried and true, it’s not just for test taking—presidential candidates take care to practice debating in spaces similar to where the actual debate will be! While your child may not be able to practice in the exact same space where the test will occur, it’s important that they do any practice questions in as similar an environment as possible. That means sitting upright at a table or desk, in a quiet environment, with as few distractions as possible. When your child is actually answering questions or taking a practice test, the environment should be as similar as possible to what they’ll see on test day, so the change in circumstances won’t be jarring.
Find Out What’s Tripping Your Child Up
This is one circumstance where only your child can tell you what’s wrong. Obviously, they may not have all the answers, but a simple, gentle, “I know you understand this concept—why do you think you have trouble with it on the test?” can go a long way. Are they rushing through because they’re afraid they won’t have enough time? Does the wording of the questions make them struggle to know what’s asked of them? Only they can tell you for certain—and the solutions can vary wildly depending on the nature of the problem. In fact, in some cases, your child may be entitled to accommodations on the test itself, so it pays to check.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Most of what “being a bad test-taker” really comes down to is test anxiety. While there’s no one trick to cure test anxiety, the best way to get around it is steady practice. This means taking full practice tests multiple times, in addition to ordinary review techniques. The “point” isn’t so much that they need to review the material—odds are they already have a fine understanding of algebra, reading comprehension, and other test materials. Rather, by taking practice tests, your child will get “used to” taking the test, so that on test day, they’ll be walking into something familiar, and test anxiety will be less likely to set in. While “being a bad test-taker” is often a source of stress, individual techniques and plenty of practice can help any student improve!