For many people Fall means exam time. Whether it’s a standardized test to get you into grad school or college or simply a mid-term exam, it seems that once the leaves start to turn it means that it’s time to turn to the books. Some enjoy the challenge. Others dread the anxiety. Everyone wants to know how they can do better.
I’ve spent thousands of hours teaching in my life. A good chunk of that time has been focused on helping to prepare people for various exams including the SAT, the ACT and the GMAT (while working for Kaplan) and for various technology exams while working at a Microsoft training center. In addition over the years I’ve taken each of those exams as well as the PSAT, the LSAT, the CMA and Level One of the CFA. I’d like to share the top 10 “hacks” that I’ve learned over the years and taught to others in the hope that they might be helpful to you.
Hack #1 – Surround yourself with people who expect to score well. In my experience nothing will give you a better chance to score well then surrounding yourself with other people who expect to score well. Life works this way in general (the more successful people you surround yourself with, the more likely you are to succeed) but for some reason people forget about this when it comes to test-taking. If you’re looking to score 170+ on the LSAT you want to be hanging out and studying with others who are looking to do likewise. You’ll learn tips from them and be challenged as you study together in a way that you simply won’t be with people who have more humble expectations. And now with the Web it’s easier than ever to connect with people who have similar lofty aims.
Hack #2 – Block your study time. Almost all exams are timed. Yet for some reason most people they don’t time their studies. Blocking your study time serves two purposes. First, it puts you in more realistic exam conditions to what you’ll experience on Test Day. Second, it’s simply more productive. In Tony Schwartz’s excellent book The Power of Full Engagement he recommends breaks every 90-120 minutes:
The body, if you listen to it, asks you for a break every 90-120 minutes. We override that rhythm at our peril. If people are operating effectively and are following the natural demand of the body, it pays for them to take a form of recovery every 90-120 minutes.
Use a timer and block your study time and not only will it be more enjoyable, it’ll be way more effective.
Hack #3 – Research your study materials carefully. I’m shocked at how many people use crappy study material to prepare for their exam. You’re likely going to invest dozens or even hundreds of hours studying. Why would you not spend at least a few hours planning and researching your approach and materials? Sadly, many people find themselves wandering the isles at a Barnes & Noble and end up grabbing the book that “looks good”. Don’t do that. Go to Amazon and read the reviews. Talk to your friends who’ve taken the exam (preferably the ones who have scored very well!). Frequent discussion boards for your exam and ask questions there. And if you end up taking a test prep class grill your instructor about the best study materials (if he or she can’t give you intelligent advice you may want to switch to another class!). The time you spend upfront will be well worth it!
Hack #4 – Teach someone else. This is perhaps the most underutilized form of studying which is a shame because it’s one of the most effective. Perhaps the most effective. You’ve heard the adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else and that’s definitely true for test prep. I recently read the excellent book Disrupting Class which contained a great story about someone who discovered this to be true:
Dan recounted to us that as he began to teach accounting, “All of a sudden, I understood it! I had grunted through all those years as a student by sheer guts and willpower, memorizing all the rules. But I never understood why we had to do all of those things. As soon as I had to prepare for class and teach it, I understood it!”
The ideal is to find someone who’s preparing for the same exam and who hasn’t studied very much yet or is not expecting to score very high. Offer to tutor them for free. It’s one of the best ways to reinforce your knowledge of the material!
Hack #5 – Tuck studying into the cracks of your day. We’re all busy but most of us have little gaps here and there throughout the day where studying is possible. Over the course of a day all those gaps add up. Find creative ways to study during those gaps. For instance, preparing flashcards that you can put in your backpack is a great idea. Then the next time you’re in line somewhere break them out and do a quick study session.
Audio can be another great way to maximize your study time. There are audio learning materials available for many exams and even if there aren’t you certainly can create your own. Ideally you can get these onto your iPod or iPhone and listen while you’re in the car, at the gym, etc. I used this hack a lot when preparing for my CMA exams and it was amazing how much studying I was able to do without taking any extra time out of my day.
Hack #6 – Become an expert in the details of the exam itself. Over the years I taught many people who spent lots of time preparing for the exam without having much of an understanding about how the actual exam scoring and timing would go. Big mistake. If you’re going to do anything to prepare the first thing should be to know how the exam is administered. Is it pencil and paper? Computer adaptive? How long is each section? How does the scoring work? You should know the exam so well that you could write a blog post describing all the details that is completely accurate. All of that information is (usually) publicly available so there’s really no excuse for not understanding how the exam is constructed. This hack alone will mean a big difference between scoring well and scoring poorly.
Hack #7 – Utilize The Million Dollar Proofreader Hack. This one can be very effective, especially if you practice it ahead of time. If you’re taking a traditional exam (this doesn’t work as well for computer adaptive exams although you can adapt it), try this once you’ve completed all of the questions. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you open them pretend like you are looking at someone else’s exam. Now pretend that you’ve been given a task. For every mistake you can find on that person’s exam between now and when time is up, you’ll be given one million dollars. Go back in and dissect every question as if there were huge stakes on the line (given how much your score can impact your future, there probably are!). In almost every case you’ll find at least one mistake and often many more!
Most people simply get through the questions and stop and wait aimlessly for time to be called. That’s a big mistake. Don’t be like them. Go after those millions.
Hack #8 – Do dry runs. Here’s a secret borrowed from Olympic athletes. Do at least a couple dry runs before your big exam simulating the actual conditions of the exam as closely as possible. If you know your exam is going to be at 9 AM on a Saturday morning then starting a few weeks before do a practice exam on Saturday mornings at 9 AM. This will get your body and mind conditioned properly for the test and you’ll also find out what works (e.g., a good workout the night before) and what doesn’t (e.g., partying until 3 AM the night before) in terms of being ready to go.
For your dry runs try as hard as possible to simulate the conditions of your exam. If your exam is going to be on a computer do your practice exams on a computer. Try to do the timing the same as it will be for the actual exam. Basically you want to set it up so that when you walk into the real exam you trick your body and mind into saying “Hey, I’ve been here before. It wasn’t that bad.”
Hack #9 – Get a tutor. Why a tutor? Simply put it’s the most efficient way of being taught. If you sit in a class with a lot of people you’re likely only spending a fraction of your time learning stuff that’s highly relevant to you. With a good tutor you should be spending almost all of your time on challenging questions and problem areas specific to you. Classes aren’t bad per se but if you really want to hack your exam and get a top score an individual tutor might be a better route to go.
Places like Kaplan and Princeton Review provide private tutoring face-to-face. If you want online tutoring you can find it here and on an increasing number of other websites. craigslist is also a great place to find tutors. It’s amazing how many smart people hang out in the “Tutoring & Lessons” category there!
Hack #10 – Write the exam. This is probably the most advanced of the hacks. And it’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking to get that killer score that will get you into Harvard Law or Stanford undergrad then this is something you should definitely try. Here’s what you do…sit down and pretend you’ve just been given a job by one of the testing companies to write 50 questions for the next year’s exam (you’ll want to do this after you’ve done a number of problems so you’re familiar with the question types, structures, etc.).
By forcing yourself to write really good questions (and importantly, provide really good answer choices) your brain will work in a different way. You’ll start to lay “traps” for the prospective test-taker such as an incorrect answer choice that would be correct if a step in the problem were skipped. By writing questions in this fashion you’re going to be much less likely to fall into those same traps on test day. Writing questions like this can take a fair amount of time and mental energy but it’s an elite form of test prep that will give you an extra edge over the competition.
I hope you’ve enjoyed 10 Ways to Hack Your Next Exam. If you have other strategies for prepping for a test please post in the comments!