Over a very long career in test prep, I’ve organized a LOT of practice tests in different formats at different locations. Even today, we proctor free and low-cost practice tests across the greater Rochester area for over 1,000 students a year. Why are we so committed to making high quality practice SATs and ACTs available for everyone in our community? Because high quality practice tests make all the difference in the world in unlocking our best scores.
So what does “high quality“ mean when looking at practice tests anyway?
The first aspect to consider when evaluating the quality of a practice test is the test itself. Are you taking an official exam released by the test maker? If not, the quality of this practice test is suspect. Kaplan and The Princeton Review, both of whom offer free practice tests in many markets, pour considerable resources into making their own tests. However, no matter how closely someone might try to model official test material, nobody can match the meticulously standardized real thing. Even worse are these new hybrid instruments that purport to diagnose whether a student is better suited to the SAT or ACT; the only truly accurate way to assess that would be to take high quality practice tests in both.
TAKEAWAY: Look for real practice material. Tests released by the test makers are the gold standard. When taking practice SATs and ACTs on your own, you should take tests from The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017 and Official SAT Study Guide (2016 Edition) respectively.
Most of us lead busy lives these days. Finding uninterrupted four-hour blocks for practice can seem impossible. However, if you want to simulate test day conditions, taking one or two sections at a time just won’t cut it. Why not? Simply put, part of challenge posed by any of these multi-hour exams is maintaining focus and energy for the duration. Just as marathoners cannot prepare through sprints alone, test takers cannot piecemeal their way to optimal performance.
Another aspect of timing to consider is time of day. In our experience working with high schoolers, many students try to take practice tests after a long school day. Such commitment to excellence may be laudable, but the inevitable fatigue factor ensures that these efforts lack the payoff morning tests deliver. When preparing for tests administered in the morning, always practice in the morning. Students need not rise at dawn to simulate the 8am start time favored by the SAT and ACT, but 9am or 10am beats noon or 6pm by miles.
TAKEAWAY: High quality practice tests offer full-length exams with morning start times. Accept nothing less.
How often do you find that your results on test day fall short of the brilliance you achieved taking tests in your bedroom? We see this all the time. The best practice tests are administered under official test conditions in simulated test settings. Thus, the optimal environments for practice tests incorporate the following elements:
- A quiet classroom-style setting
- A knowledgeable proctor managing the time
- Other students taking the same test
The benefits of the right room and proctor may be apparent, but don’t underestimate the impact of practicing among other test takers. Often, students don’t really sense how stressful the test day experience can be until they are surrounded by other often equally anxious students. Plus, something about taking a standardized test really opens up the nasal passages: attending group practice tests ensures students receive full exposure to the coughing, sneezing, sniffling, and sometimes even sobbing they’ll encounter on test day!
TAKEAWAY: Ironically, test day isn’t the best time or place for practice. Instead, strive for verisimilitude before test day. The highest quality practice tests involve multiple test takers under simulated test conditions overseen by experienced proctors.
The highest levels of success on test day demand impeccable skills, strategies, and psychology. How can you lock in your best performance without high quality practice? Considering how few students get all the questions on these exams right, we can’t say that practice makes perfect, but every high quality practice test you take moves you closer to your very best score when it counts.