How NOT to Take a Practice Test

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Practice testing is an essential part of your prep for a standardized test. When taking a practice SAT, ACT, or other standardized exam, you’ll get the opportunity to answer former or approximate test questions in a simulated testing environment. The feedback you will receive and the stamina you will build by sitting for practice tests on a regular basis are critical for helping you reach your ultimate score goals. Just as there are steps that you should take when preparing for or taking a practice test, there are also practices that are best to avoid. Here is a list of things to not to do when trying to get the most out of your practice testing experience.

Asleep

The human brain takes about 90 minutes to reach optimal operating levels after waking up from sleep. We don’t want to try following along with the migrating habits of beetles with our eyes half-shut. It doesn’t work, so plan to ​get 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night the week before a test. Also, get up early enough ​on test day to have plenty of time to be ready and alert by the time your proctor says, “You may begin.”

Hungry

We need to make sure we are properly fueled before testing. Taking a multi-hour exam is a physiological challenge. Yes, your brain is doing 80% of the work, but remember that our brains are part of our bodies, and the adrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol that will be flowing through our bodies will require calories … lots of them. Have your normal breakfast, and bring snacks to the test center. You will be thanking yourself after the first break when you’ve had a banana and some peanut butter M&Ms before returning to your seat with a little it more hitch in your giddy-up. 

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Not Dressed for Success

We don’t want to roll into the test center in our pajamas and sporting our own brand of bedhead. Our brains and our bodies are connected, and it is crucial to remember that information flows both ways. What am I trying to say? Well, what type of signal are we sending ourselves if we’re dressed like we’re going to a slumber party? As we just said, a practice test is definitely not the best time to be asleep … Now, you don’t need to dress like you’re going to the prom or to a job interview, but it might be a good idea to shower and put on clothes that communicate to yourself something like “I am here to get something done.” You’ll be surprised how well your brain responds to those cues. You should still be comfortable, just not as relaxed as you might be at home in bed or on the couch.

Going in Cold, Part I

​Testing for college entrance exams occurs all year long. This means that you may be testing when there is snow on the ground, around the holidays, or during X-Country pre-season in the Vermont countryside, and there is no way of knowing if your test center will be ready for the warmer weather or still pumping out heat for a late winter morning. So, dress in layers: sweaters that zip up or sleeves that roll up or down. That way, you are prepared, no matter what the inside (and outside) temperatures may be.

On The Lam

We already mentioned waking up on time, and with that, it is equally important to know the route to your test center. Most of the time, this won’t be a problem, because you’ll be testing at your school or usual tutoring location. Even then, though, we want to allow ourselves plenty of time to get through any traffic, unexpected weekend construction (hello, DC!), or parking or drop-off delays. Running into your test as if you were trying to make the last transport from the rebel base is a sure way to have a subpar first section and greatly reduce the chances you’ll do your best on the practice (or actual) test.

Going in Cold, Part II

The purpose of a practice test is to assess how well you are able to apply what you have been learning and practicing. It is not necessary to know how to do each possible question perfectly, especially on your early tests. However, the value of the test increases dramatically if we know just a few basics beforehand. What sections are on the test? How long is each section? Is it better to guess or leave a question blank? Can I write on the test? Are the questions weighted equally? Having just a few facts straight ahead of time will give you a boost of confidence as you make your way through the test. (Taking a practice ACT or SAT? Find out more about these tests here!)

Distracted

A key feature of standardized tests is that they are designed to measure and sort students, not to actually teach them. What this means is that we can’t approach these kinds of tests with the same level of familiarity that we do for Mr. Kasenow’s English exam or Ms. Friedman’s trig midterm. Standardized tests have completely different types of questions and style than what we’re used to from school, so we really need to give them our full focus. Test writers are certainly trying to test us (but not in the same way that our teachers do), and, at times, they trip us up if we aren’t paying close enough attention. This means that it is not a good idea to sit near those friends who will try to talk to us between (or during!) every section. Of course, we will want to turn our phones completely off while testing: no vibrating, no audio notifications whatsoever. In an emergency, your parent can reach the testing center to get ahold of you or the test center officials will interrupt and stop the testing completely.

Plugged In

In the past year, we’ve all had to get used to operating in a virtual environment — and that includes test prep companies. If you’re taking a practice at home, you will want to be mindful of giving yourself the best testing environment. Clear away any distractions from your desk or testing area, and let your friends and family (including pets!) know that you will be busy for the next few hours and you’d appreciate their not interrupting you. You might be at home, but it is still a good idea to dress semi-formally, as if you were going to school or a testing center. Again, you want to be comfortable, but not as if you just rolled out of bed. Wherever possible, treat your practice test like a real test and follow the official test policies on food and drink, phones, noise, and computer behavior.

This list is ​not comprehensive. In a nutshell, you’ll want to avoid any behavior that is not likely to be acceptable on testing day, including unscheduled breaks, checking the answer key to verify your answers, and working after time is called or the proctor says to stop. The more you can make the test as realistic as possible, the better prepared you’ll be on test day.

We know that taking 3-to-4-hour test is probably not your preferred way to spend one of your weekend days, but as long as you’re going to, why not make the most of the time you’re giving to the process? If your goal is to perform better on an official standardized test, practice tests are one of the best ways you have to gauge how ready you are. In the end, this may actually shorten the number of weekends you’ll ultimately sacrifice to the testing gods.

Good luck and have a great test!

John Jones

Tutor & Director of Quality Assurance

John Jones has been ACT and SAT tutoring at PrepMatters since 2001. He prepares students for the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, SSAT/ISEE/HSPT, PSAT, and ACT.  Mr. Jones began tutoring in high school, serving as Vice-President of Tutoring for a high school service organization. His tutoring experience continued through college and has also included work with the AmeriCorps National Service Program...

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