Most test prep programs use a one-size-fits-all approach. Students work their way through simplified content, which is designed so relatively inexperienced tutors can teach the broadest set of subjects to the broadest set of high school kids. These programs about are about coverage rather than depth. A good tutor will pick and choose which subjects to focus on, but still, a lot of time gets wasted either going over things the student already understands or attempting to explain subjects that the student isn’t ready for yet, just because that’s the next chapter in the book. For a high school student, this uneven approach to test prep can be alternately boring and exceptionally frustrating, with moments of genuine learning in between.
After years teaching the SAT just like everyone else, I decided to abandon convention and try a radical approach. Instead of doing what parents expected me to do—lots of homework and long one-on-one tutoring sessions—I decided do what was best for my students and their test scores.
The first thing to go was the one-on-one session format. Simply put, it’s just not that effective. Even if the tutor has the most encouraging attitude, it’s just too exhausting and demoralizing for students to be subjected to that kind of critical scrutiny for hours at a time, and it does NOTHING for confidence. Instead, I switched to a 2 hour session format that combines the best elements of private tutoring with the best parts of group learning.
Group testing to replicate the conditions of the test
Everything starts with the test-taking environment. My approach is to create two separate spaces with two separate purposes. First, there is the test room, where a group of students simulate the group-testing environment. I supply my students with real SAT and ACT tests and have them complete them section by section, sticking to the time limits, just as they will on test day. Like the actual test environment, my testing room is not without distractions. People shuffle their papers. They tap their pens. And intermittently, I purposefully go in and cause distractions. All this prepares the students for the actual day of the test. If they can work through the distractions they encounter here, no sniffly nose or bouncing knee will upset their performance when it really matters.
Private conferences to teach content and testing strategy
After the student has completed a section of the test, I immediately score the test and address the weak areas I see. This approach has a few major benefits. First, I don’t just pull students aside; I bring them to a separate and more calming space—when the weather permits, we meet at a table in the garden for some fresh air and sunlight. This little break from the test helps them stay focused, improving attention and mental stamina. Second, by addressing problems as they arise rather than hours or days later—as is the case with tutoring programs that emphasize homework—students have a chance to struggle through the questions, just like they will on the day of the test, but then we walk through the problem while it is is still fresh in their minds. Whether it is an issue of comprehension or confidence, this calm space allows me to address whatever is limiting the student’s score without increasing test anxiety or undermining confidence.
Over the course of each 2-hour session, students meet with me for three private, one-on-one conferences (totaling about 20 minutes per student, each session), during which we work through difficult question types, process performance anxiety, build confidence and review test-taking strategies. This balance of hands-on, real-world practice with focused, expert instruction has resulted in huge score gains for a wide range of students. [See: Testimonials]
Free, Group Practice Tests
To ensure my students have an accurate gauge of their progress, I offer full-length, group practice tests, free of charge. After a few sessions—once he or she has had a chance to internalize some of the things we’ve been working on—I encourage each of my students to sign up for a practice test. This helps the student build mental stamina, a huge advantage when preparing for a high-stakes, four-hour, multiple-choice exam. This also helps reduce testing anxiety through low-stress exposure, making standardized testing nothing but an annoying routine, rather than a looming crisis. Embracing the routine—show up, sit down, do your work, go home—is the best antidote I know for anxiety.
The next time we meet, the student and I go over his or her scores and address any material that posed a problem. Not only does this give the student valuable exposure to actual test-taking stressors and actual tests, but it also gives us plenty of opportunities to identify and then solve the underlying issues that cause students to struggle with standardized testing.
Mindfulness and Meditation
There is no greater impediment to big scores on a standardized test than anxiety. In some ways, the thing the SAT and ACT test most effectively is a student’s ability to perform under pressure. This is why even kids with the highest grades, taking the most advanced classes, can still sometimes underperform on material that is comparatively easy when positioned next to the final for APUSH or Calculus BC.
Too many test prep programs focus on teaching students ways to game the exam: “If you see a question that looks like A all you have to do is B.” But strategy and skill building is really only part of the solution. The key is learning how to maintain poise and a positive mental state even in the midst of an intensely stressful and unnatural environment. The clock is ticking. A proctor is pacing the aisle. The kid next to you seems to be finishing the section twice as fast. How do you cope with those stressors?
The answer is mindfulness and positive self-talk. Laying the groundwork for a peaceful mental state can be the difference between a panic attack and a smooth sailing on test day. Bearing this in mind, I help my students unlearn bad mental habits—“I’m not good at this subject.” “The SAT is stupid. Why do I have to take it?” “What if I get a bad score and no colleges accept me?”—silencing the incessant, self-critical inner voice that plagues both adults and high school students alike.
Not only do I use our session time to reshape their mental image, but I also offer free, mindfulness and meditation classes once a week to anyone who is interested.
Lessons from Sports Psychology
Have you ever started doing something and it just felt right somehow? Mysteriously, your performance capacity has seemed to multiply overnight and suddenly you’re able to run faster/think quicker/perform better than you ever have before. Sports psychologists call this “flow state” or, more colloquially, “getting in The Zone.” As a lifelong athlete and musician, I’ve sought to reach that flow state on the basketball court and at the piano bench, but in my professional life, I’ve also sought to help my students find their flow on the day of the test.
The first step in increasing your chances of getting into the SAT/ACT Zone is changing how you think about yourself and test-taking in general—after all, no one ever got into The Zone by telling themselves that they couldn’t do it—so preparing for flow state performance starts with increasing confidence and retraining your brain to silence nagging self-doubt. While it’s essential to tune out or turn off the negative voices in your head, you also need to get as much practice as you can in order to making the unnatural and traumatizing process of standardized testing into a totally unremarkable part of daily life. By practicing in a calm and controlled environment, you can slowly transform something remarkable into something routine, thereby giving you the mental space to find The Zone.
Even the most experienced athletes can’t be certain that they’ll find their flow state during any particular game, but with lots of practice, good mental discipline and a constructive inner voice, they can increase their chances. The same goes for students doing standardized testing.