Making Time for Test Prep

The spring semester is upon us, and with it brings AP exams, spring musicals, college visits, a new sports schedule, and, just maybe, another go at the SAT or ACT. So how do you find the time to balance all the competing demands on your time yet still prepare to do your best?

Make it Part of Your Routine 

I can think of 8,017 better — or at least more fun — things I’d rather do than test prep. Homework is due. There’s a snap streak to maintain. There’s a bio test in two days. There’s TikTok shanties to sing, dishes to do, memes to make, opinions to adopt, parties to plan, people to charm, papers to write, pants to purchase. Lists to alliterate.

It’s easy to let more pressing but perhaps less important tasks to take priority, as Randy Pausch notes in his phenomenal lecture on time management, and as we know from actually living our lives. So you need a specific plan to match intentions to action. When do you have some downtime in your day or week? Is there a free period on Monday morning? Do you usually just watch YouTube videos during breakfast?

Be specific about when you plan to sneak in quality prep time without throwing your overall schedule out of whack. MIT researcher Charles Duhigg notes that habits consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward. It is often powerful to insert new habits into behavioral patterns that you already have: either at a specific and reliable cue during your week, or before a specific and reliable reward that you afford yourself. Leverage the parts of your schedule that are reliable to accommodate unpleasant tasks that have not yet found a consistent allowance in your time budget.

Practice Like You Play

Making time for test prep is important, but what’s more important is making quality  time. Do you play a sport? A musical instrument? If you do, you’ve likely had a coach or teacher tell you that you need to practice like you play. That means you need to be mindful and make sure your practice is helping you get better and not worse, building good habits and not bad ones. Just like you wouldn’t want to practice the piano with flat fingers, or jog around the lacrosse field giving less than your best effort, you don’t want to do practice sections unfocused. You’ll make careless errors, not see the progress you want, and needlessly frustrate yourself.

Snack-Size Sections

Coming in for practice tests to work on your focus and stamina over an entire four-hour test is certainly important but not something most students will be able to do week in and week out. While individual test sections can be long (I’m looking at you, 65-minute SAT Reading section!), most of them are composed of passages. So feel free to do shorter, timed work. It only takes 13 minutes to do an SAT Reading passage, fewer than 9 minutes for an ACT Reading passage, and under 5 minutes for an ACT Science passage. So break out your phone and set your timer. You can practice working at the right pace for shorter amounts of time to help you internalize a feel for how fast you’ll need to work on test day.

Less is More

Prioritize quality over quantity. I’d rather my students do half of their homework to the best of their ability than all of their homework “just to get it done.” Test prep isn’t school. You’re not getting a grade or a checkmark for completion. You’re practicing in order to get better, so make sure you’re always doing just that. Your time is too valuable to waste – what a radical notion!

Surround Prep

Success on the test is surely about strategy and pacing, but those skills must be layered over a solid grasp of the content. So if you’re struggling to remember geometry formulas, or the quadratic formula, or when to properly use a colon, you’ll be struggling on test day. Think about where you spend your time and surround yourself with what you need to learn. Do you run 30 minutes on the treadmill every morning? Spend a shocking amount of time in the mirror preparing your elegant coiffure? Write the rules you need to know on some notecards and hang them up. Frame the mirror. Lay them on the treadmill console. Or just hang them on the wall next to your bed. You’ll be surprised how helpful it is to simply see those rules over and over again as you go about your daily routine. You can drive those rules right into your head without really spending any extra study time.