I originally wrote this article as a guest post for CollegeRaptor.com.
Every fall I’m approached by a few eager students who are interested in test prep well before junior year. Middle school students, freshmen, and sophomores are often anxious over what’s coming down the road and want to get a jump on the work ahead.
“If I take one of your online test prep courses now just for practice, is that ok?” they ask. “I just want to make sure that I’m ready when the time comes.”
I love these students because they are gathering information early – which is awesome!
Planning early is great. But these early birds are a little too early to dive into a full-blown test prep program.
While it may not be the right time to begin preparing in earnest, there are 3 things that these students can do right now to set themselves up for success down the line.
Tip #1: Read…A Lot
The one section of the ACT or SAT that is hardest to improve in a short period of time is reading. The reason is that reading skills are acquired over time. Also, reading skills require continual practice to maintain.
Any standardized test is, at its core, a reading test. If you can’t process the questions correctly and quickly, you’ll struggle to answer them well.
Building and maintaining strong reading skills is important for testing, but the benefits of reading don’t stop at improved test scores.
There have been numerous studies that tie reading to myriad benefits, including stronger analytical thinking skills, reduced stress levels, and improved focus. Some studies have even suggested that reading early in life can help stave off Alzheimer’s later.
The best part is that it doesn’t matter what you read. It just matters that you read.
So, spice up your bookshelf with anything from comic books to YA novels to non-fiction on subjects you really care about. Set aside 15-30 minutes a day and dive in to expand your mind or have a good laugh.
If you’re lost and need some great book recommendations, be sure to check out Episode 56 of The College Checklist Podcast. While it was created with summer reading in mind, these books are great reads any time of year.
Tip #2: Shore Up Weaknesses
I originally had this point labelled “Get Good Grades,” but – in my experience – some students are able to get good grades without truly understanding the subject material.
You may have enough knowledge to get by or to earn a passable grade, but if it feels like you’re walking a mental tightrope in any particular subject area, it’s just a matter of time before you fall off.
To make sure our academics are as strong as possible, write down the academic concepts that you fear revisiting because you either don’t remember it well or never learned it well to begin with.
Then get help.
Shore up the weaknesses before those issues compound and create lasting learning gaps.
There are amazing teachers and peer-to-peer tutors at most schools who can offer free, personalized assistance. There are free online option too, such as Khan Academy.
And, if you need a little more help, there are tutors available online and in almost every city across the country.
In today’s world there’s no excuse for academic laziness. If you don’t understand something, seek out answers. They’re there if you take the time to look.
It takes hard work now, but it will set a firm academic foundation that will benefit you not only when it’s time to take the ACT or SAT but, much more importantly, for the rest of your life.
Tip #3: Get Curious
The students who improve the most through test prep are the ones who arrive with great reading chops, a solid academic foundation, and who view the world a little differently than most.
These students are more inclined to ask why ACT or College Board prefers a particular answer choice as opposed to how to answer specific questions using a rote formula.
From my vantage point, the students asking why instead of how are focused on one of the most important skills needed to improve ACT or SAT scores: flexible thinking.
These students understand that no 2 questions will be exactly the same from test to test and are interested in exploring the underlying mechanics of the question – the strings that ACT, Inc. or College Board is pulling – so that when the question shifts slightly, they will still be equipped to answer it well.
Unfortunately, by the time I start to work with students in their late sophomore or early junior year, they’re often so overwhelmed by the things they must get done that they are focused on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. A rote formula is appealing but, alas, not effective in helping us cross the finish line as successfully as we possibly can.
So how do we fight this very natural and understandable urge? How do we slow down enough to ask why instead of how?
We curate curiosity.
This may sound strange, but I assure you that this process doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) boring and will help students reap great rewards.
While there are things you can do in your academics that can help you (such as taking time for detailed review of incorrect answers from homework and tests), the best way to curate curiosity is to simply start asking “why?” more often.
Begin to wonder at the world around you, to ponder historical events, to engage with new people, and to live outside your comfort zone. These are great ways to stoke the fires of curiosity.
So cook a new recipe, volunteer at a retirement community or hospital, plant a garden, visit a museum, watch a documentary, or take a family road trip somewhere interesting.
Ask questions and seek answers. Go deep and keep learning when you’re outside the 4 walls of the classroom because students with a breadth of knowledge that expands beyond academics fare much better on the ACT and SAT when the time comes to test.
[BONUS TIP] Set Your Testing Timeline Right Now
While I don’t encourage getting started with testing & test prep before sophomore year at the earliest, you can make plans for testing as early 8th grade if you’d like.
To figure out the best time for you to take the ACT or SAT, check out Episode 42 of The College Checklist Podcast. In this episode, I walk you through 6 steps that will help you set up your perfect testing timeline.
It’s a great way to make sure you get started with testing at the time that is the best fit for you.
Until then, enjoy reading, get curious, and shore up your academic weaknesses. Fall in love with learning and, when the time comes, the ACT and SAT will be a breeze.