High School 2 College

April 14, 2012

What Makes Some People Good Test Takers?

I’ve been watching my students take tests for over 25 years.  Some consistently score better than others.  Of course, some of the difference has to do with innate ability.  But if test taking were only about ability, tutors wouldn’t help a bit, and my students usually do quite a bit better after a course of tutoring than they did before. Why do some people just test better than others?  Why do some improve and other don’t, even with tutors?

Here’s what some students do wrong:

1.  Fail to be decisive.  Standardized tests are timed.  This is not a good time to be leisurely or contemplative.

2.  Second guess themselves.  You’re not smarter now than you were a minute ago.

3.  Lunge at the right answer.  Stabbing at choices that seem right before you really understand the question is never a good strategy.

4.  Take a practice test just to get a score.  It’s not just about counting up how many you got right or wrong.

5.  Go back to the exact lines of the passage indicated by the question.  The quote may be on those lines, but the answer may not be.

6.  Talk themselves out of the right answer.  Telling yourself you aren’t good at this type of test or this type of question is bound to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If you think you won’t get it right, you won’t.

7.  Decide the test is boring.  If you decide it’s boring, it will be.  You’ll be right, but what have you won?

8.  Decide their answer is better than the answer in the book.  The correct answer is whatever the test-maker says it is.  Your English teacher may find you very clever when you point out an alternate interpretation, but on a standardized test, you’ll just be wrong.

Here’s what excellent test takers do:

1.  Be decisive.  The ability to pick and answer and move on is what makes boys, on average, better at the SATs than girls.  If you ask a typical boy, “Which two of these three things go together: bird, rock, tree?”he’s likely to answer, “Bird and tree because they’re alive.”  If you ask a typical girl, she might say, “Well, bird and tree are alive, but bird and rock are small and can move.  On the other hand, tree and rock usually stay in one place…” and she’ll likely come up with other combinations and reasons as well.  We need more of that thoughtful reasoning to help solve global problems, but it’s a terrible strategy for timed tests.  Just pick an answer and forge on.

2.  Be confident.  This may sound strange, but I’m convinced your brain is faster than your mind.  Sometimes you choose the right answer because your brain has made a lightening-fast connection between the question and the right answer.  If your first impulse is that the answer is B, more often than not, the answer will be B.  Have confidence in your own brain and let it choose the answer.  How many times have students told me, “Oh no, I was going to put that answer, but then I thought about it and I didn’t.”  If you were going to put it, put it!

3.  Eliminate the wrong answers rather than look for the correct answer.  Very often, students’ eyes are drawn to the answer choices before they’ve even understood the question.  Test makers include choices that may seem like a familiar phrase or fact but don’t really answer the question.  Here’s a quick story:

When I was a senior in high school, the Meadowlands race track in New Jersey had just opened up near my home.  Every weekend, a bunch of us went to the track.  Since the minimum bet was $2, we could all chip in and bet all night with very little money.  One of my friends who always came with us was Mormon.  She also owned a horse.  She was great with horses and often had a good instinct for which riders seemed most comfortable on their horses.  Because she was Mormon, she didn’t feel right telling us which horses would win, as that would be helping us to gamble.  But she gladly told us which horses she thought would lose!  With ten horses in each race, when my friend said, “Not 1, not 3, not 4, not 6, and not 9,” we had a MUCH better chance of winning – and we usually did.

It’s the same with taking a test.  If you eliminate the losers, you have  a much better chance at finding winners.  Even though this technique sounds obvious, under the pressure of time, few students are methodical enough to eliminate answers patiently.  They’re so eager to grasp at the right answer that they get the question wrong.

4.  Find out why your answer was wrong and another answer was right.  If you take a practice test and look at the answer key to find out how many you got wrong and how many you got right, you’ve only just begun.  The time-consuming part of taking a practice test – or even a section of a test – is not taking that test but in analyzing your mistakes.  When you get an answer wrong (or if you get an answer right because you guessed well but you really don’t know why you were right), spend as much time as you need to look at the other answers.  Why was your answer wrong?  Why was the right answer right?  Why were the other wrong answers wrong?  Over the course of the section or the test, is there a pattern to your wrong answers?  Are they often at the end of a test?  Is there a certain type of question you consistently get wrong?  Taking a practice test isn’t where the work is.  You are only taking a practice test so you can examine your answers to see where your thinking or reading or vocabulary needs help.  When a student of mine gets a question wrong, I try to explain where he went wrong and why the right answer is right.  When a student seems impatient with that process, I know he has very little chance of making significant improvement in his score.

5.  Understand the quote in context.  When the test mentions a specific line number, always reread from a few lines above to a few lines below that line.  I can usually convince kids to read a line above, but they rarely read a line below.  As soon as they hit the quote, they jump back to the question.  That’s a mistake.  Very, very often, the quote is explained in the sentences that follow it.

6.  Prepare for the test, and trust your preparation.  When a parent calls me to set up a tutoring schedule with her student, so often she says, “My daughter is just not a good test taker.”  I cringe.  If the parent said that to me, she probably said it to her student, or her student said it to her, and she patted her kid on the head and concurred.  If you go into a test thinking, “I’m awful at this kind of test,” of course you will be!  If you prepare well, you can take any test thinking, “I may not be the very smartest kid in the room, but no one is more prepared than I am.”  Read this blog post over a few times and trust my advice.  Then you can say, “I used to be a poor test taker, but now I have the strategies I need to be an excellent test taker.”  It’s true!

7.  The test is meant to be a challenge that you can master.  Tests aren’t light entertainment.  They aren’t a sitcom or a comic book.  They’re not even Harry Potter.  They are a challenge, and you can win.  If you read a passage on the Supreme Court, think to yourself, “How interesting!  I wonder what they’re going to ask me about this.”  In college, especially your first year, you’ll have to read lots of stuff that you’d rather not read, yet you’ll have to make sense of it before you can move on to more interesting material.  Difficult reading is excercise for the brain.  Running laps isn’t fun, either, but athletes do boring activities to build their skills and strength.  Test reading passages aren’t meant to be fun.  Look on difficult reading as something designed to test your skills and strength.  Don’t stop paying attention halfway through the passage.  Press on, mighty student!  You can do it!

8.  The answer in the answer key is correct and you are wrong.  Very rarely, the makers of tests goof.  But going through a test trying to prove that your answer is as good as or better than theirs won’t get you any prizes.  Presume that the test maker has included the correct answer in your multiple choice list, but also presume he has put in a couple of almost-right answers.  Your job is to figure out why those answers are wrong before you worry about which answer is right.  Standardized tests are battles of wits:  you against the test maker.  You can only win by choosing the same answer as the test maker.  Clever alternatives don’t win.  Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to select the same answer as the test maker did.

Do you have other tips for taking standardized tests?  Let me know!

Wendy Segal

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6 Comments »

  1. Some things excellent test-takers do (especially with the math):
    – Read the whole question. Yes, time is a factor. And yes, it doesn’t matter whether the train going at 50 mph leaves from Chicago or Memphis. But a single word could easily change the entire meaning of a problem. Different people have different techniques for making sure they read the whole question — some people highlight as they go, some people mouth the words to themselves, some people read it twice. The number one cause of careless math errors is not suddenly forgetting how to multiply: it’s not seeing where they said to answer in feet instead of inches, or missing the word “negative.”

    – Check to see if answers make sense before bubbling it in. This doesn’t mean going through the math again to double-check the answer, which nobody wants to waste time with. It means looking at the last part of the question (you know, the part that ends in a question mark, or starts with “Solve for” or “Find the value of”), and making sure you’re answering what they’re asking. One common error is to solve for X, and then start bubbling that number in, when it turns out the question was asking for 4X (or X in inches, and you have it in feet). You can also catch big mistakes pretty easily, if you notice, for example, that X is supposed to be the number of hours a train takes to from from one city to another, but you have X = 6000. That’s an obvious sign of a mistake.

    Comment by aaronak — April 15, 2012 @ 2:06 am | Reply

    • Excellent suggestions. Thanks!

      Comment by highschool2college — April 15, 2012 @ 10:05 am | Reply

  2. I’ve found that a little familiarity goes a long way. Don’t waste time reading instructions; get to know the test before you take it so that you can spend all of your time focusing on the questions themselves. Also: on reading tests, you should always read the questions BEFORE you read the passage (that way, you know what you’re looking for as you read–and sometimes, the questions don’t even require reading the passage at all.)

    Comment by thatwritinglady — April 16, 2012 @ 10:44 am | Reply

    • I agree with your advice that students should be familiar with the instructions before they take the actual test, but I’ve found the opposite is true with regard to looking at the questions first. I’ve found that if a question mentions a particular line number or line numbers, kids will read only that and get the question wrong because they don’t have a context for the question. Also, when the SATs ask in some form or another, “What does this word mean?” it’s seldom the expected use of the word. If you don’t read the passage, you won’t catch the sarcasm or irony or any other tone of the author. You certainly can’t compare passage 1 with passage 2 if you’ve not read either! I’ve found that when kids read the questions first, their minds are so engaged with remembering the questions that they’re not really paying attention to the reading. So I ALWAYS instruct kids to read the passage, but on the SATs, I have them read in clumps rather than read the entire passage first. Read, answer, read, answer – that helps kids maintain focus.

      Comment by highschool2college — April 16, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  3. Thanks! I have a placement tests tomorrow! Wish me luck 😀

    Comment by asianeekamkee — May 3, 2013 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for all of your advice I will try to use it during my math quiz and test this week and see how I will do.

    Comment by Tami — September 2, 2013 @ 4:22 pm | Reply


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