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girl-868785_1920The stress. The anxiety. The pressure to succeed. The weeks of preparation. The jarring, unexpected questions. The mental strain. The 4 interminable hours of performance that mean so much for your future. The restless weeks spent in anticipation of your scores’ release. The pit in your stomach full of clammy, nervous, self-doubting butterflies.

I think you get the picture: standardized test-taking is a grueling experience that everybody dreads. . So you’d think it would make sense to avoid any unnecessary obstacles in the preparation process. Except that’s not the case.  In my 5 years of teaching standardized tests, I’ve noticed that nearly every single student I’ve worked with has insisted on adding an  unnecessary layer of difficulty to the test-taking experience in the form of a refusal to adopt simple test-taking skills.



Keep It Simple

A few simple skills, can really make the difference between a decent score and your dream score. These are skills like:

  • Underlining key terms in Reading passages
  • Showing all relevant work in Math
  • Eliminating first and avoiding answer traps in English/Vocab passages

Following these processes for getting correct answers is what separate good test-takers from great ones. Granted, other factors like comprehension,  breadth of vocabulary, and math acumen all come into play, but of all the components to effective test-taking, the foundational skills are some of the most important and universally accessible.

Why Do Students Make It Hard on Themselves?

So why, I often as myself, do so many students insist on making this already tough process even more harder? Sometimes I attribute the phenomenon to pride: “I’m too old to still be showing my work like some kindergartner”. Others I characterize as faulty prioritization: “I don’t have enough time to read each question carefully, find the proof, make up an answer, eliminate bad answers, and pick the best one that remains.: Others still I chalk up to basic carelessness: “I don’t feel like underlining”  (this one is the worst).

Whatever the cause, poor test-taking skills can account for up to 100% of the mistakes I see on practice tests. Yes, truly, one-hundred percent. There are times when I see tests where every single mistake throughout the entire test is due to simple missteps like not underlining key terms. It is simple but tragic — like something out of a Greek play: a great hero with a tragic flaw who could conquer the world if he could just show his work. But s/he can’t. Sigh…

Perhaps students’ refusal to adhere to the fundamentals of good test-taking is a side-effect of the mysticism they attribute to those who do extremely well on these tests. They assume that the near-perfect score students don’t follow the same laws and magically conjure up great answers from thin air. But this could not be further from the truth; this idolization is a mental block that barricades multitudes of students from the scores they want.

Great test takers, in reality, are those who have incorporated these simple skills so seamlessly into their processes that they become second nature. There’s nothing supernatural about excellent test-takers; they just do the little things right all the time. And it’s for this reason that we introduce good test-taking skills on the first day of every class, and then continue to stress them in every single class thereafter. “It’s like they’re important or something,” is the joke I make so often I don’t even find it funny anymore.

If you want further reading on the importance of developing a good test-taking process, here are a few great resources:


https://www.wiu.edu/advising/docs/mastering_test_taking.pdf (page 6 through 10 especially)



Do well. But don’t forget to keep it simple.