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Navigating Test Prep

written by: Bhavin Parikh • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 1/24/2013

When a major standardized test is looming, you know you need to prepare – but choosing among the myriad available study materials can be confusing. To make sure you’re as prepared as possible, be sure to know your baseline, select appropriate materials, and study both content and strategy.

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    Prepping for Test Prep

    Many students go into preparing for a test like they would when beginning a new class. They think that the course and materials will all be lined out for them. And they believe that if they study from beginning to end, they will get the score they want. This isn’t for true most students preparing for the SAT, ACT, GRE or even GMAT. These are different types of tests, which will challenge your knowledge on many different levels. This isn’t simply a memorization and regurgitation exam. To excel at these tests, you must learn not just what to study but how to study.

    Follow these steps to get started:

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    Know Where to Start

    iStock 000013778747XSmall When prepping for any test, it’s critical to know your starting point. You may need to review the basics, like adding fractions, or you may be ready for more difficult subjects, such as quadratic equations. Determine your level for each section tested on the exam, and continue to build up your knowledge in each area.

    If you need to work on foundational knowledge in order to even begin studying for the test, find books or online resources that will take you through the basics. Learn, then practice. You should have a good grasp of these core concepts before taking on practice questions. If you don’t, you’ll become frustrated, and your practice will be a complete waste of time. One of our students, Matt, used this “Learn then Practice" approach. He would watch video lessons to learn the basics, and then complete practice questions to reinforce what he learned. He improved his GRE score by 12 points!

    If you have a strong grasp of the basics try the “Practice then Review" approach. First answer practice questions, and then review the explanations and the concepts behind the question. But only use this model if your foundational knowledge is very strong. You should be answering more than 60 percent of questions correctly before using the “Practice then Review" approach. And remember to review not only the questions you miss, but also the questions you get correct by guessing.

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    Take the Portfolio Approach

    There are plenty of study options out there, but a smart test taker will take a “portfolio" approach. You should use a combination of official guides and other sources.

    The SAT official guide is published by the College Board. For the GRE, study the ETS Official Guide, and for the GMAT, it’s the “Official Guide to the GMAT" from the GMAC. These are the only sources of questions from the test makers; however, they’re not the best at providing explanations or strategies. You’ll need to find other sources that can provide more information on how to best prepare. These will help you practice how to take the test by encouraging you to think about it in a different way. They’ll also provide a broader understanding as to why a specific answer is best.

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    Understand Your Individual Style of Learning

    When looking for additional sources, seek out study options that fit your style of learning. If you’re an auditory and visual learner, you may prefer video lessons instead of text-based lessons. For some subjects, like math, seeing a person work through a problem while hearing their thought process will help you learn the concepts.

    Many of our students haven’t taken a math course in many years. The test questions look like a foreign language until they begin to understand how to approach and solve math equations again. Justin increased his math score by seven points after watching video tutorials even though he hadn’t had a math course in more than 12 years.

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    Don’t Miss the Same Question Twice

    shutterstock 62245576 Regardless of the materials you use to practice, make sure that when you miss a question, you know why. Find sources that give you an “aha!" moment — that split-second realization that you “get" a concept. Simple repetition alone won’t improve your score, but studying the concepts behind the questions will.

    When it comes to test preparation, a diversified, portfolio-style approach will help you tackle the test from all angles, ensuring you have a good grasp on both content and strategy. Avoid companies that tout claims — like promising to improve your SAT score by 200 points in a week — that seem too good to be true. Focus on resources that provide you with good practice and great explanations so you learn concepts.

    All those “aha!" moments now will pay off later, when you release a contented sigh at the end of a test well-taken.

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    Bhavin Parikh is the CEO and co-founder of Magoosh, an online test prep company that provides video lessons and practice questions accessible anytime, anywhere for exams such as the GMAT, GRE, and SAT.