Test Prep: A few tricks to beat the test?

I’m always stunned by the lack of clarity that people have about what test prep is and what test prep isn’t. Many people seem to believe that test preparation involves sprinkling pixie dust on a test-taker and waiting for the score to soar to new heights. Think about how often you’ve heard of “tricks” to “beat the test.” Now don’t get me wrong, I know it’s largely the test preparation industry that sold the nation this bill of goods (thanks Joe Bloggs), but the impact of this thinking is being compounded by the current atmosphere in education of over-testing, misuse of testing, and over-reliance on test results. This post will clarify “once and for all” what test prep is and what it isn’t. I hope after this post that I’ll never again hear the phrase “just a few tricks” combined with “get me a great score.”

“I just need a few tricks to boost my score.”

What test are we talking about?

First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about when I say test. I mean standardized admissions tests. These tests are very different from tests in class by the teacher and even from standardized statewide tests (which are generally “achievement” tests). Admissions tests are most often the target of those who hope for Tinkerbell’s Pixie Dust cures or the magical elixir of score improvements.

Admissions tests of this type (and there are a lot of them: SSAT, ISEE, TASC, COOP, SHSAT, SAT, PSAT, PLAN, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and even the MCAT) are in a category by themselves with a unique purpose and thus specific predilections and foibles. Admissions tests are not primarily designed to show what you learned. Instead, they are designed to (help?) predict how well you’ll do in some future educational space (the SAT, for example, is supposed to predict FIRST YEAR COLLEGE performance). This means they are by nature going to be different than the test given in school. This also raises questions about exactly what these tests show (they do show and predict something), and how reliable that information is, but that’s a different post.


What is test preparation? 

So now that we know a bit about what we are dealing with, we have to learn how to deal with it. Test preparation is the act of preparing for a test. That’s it. Shocking, I know. Most people would give you that answer and, unfortunately not much more. Or you may get the ubiquitous answer that test prep is “learning the tricks of the test.” However, those answers, while correct, are too vague, overvalued, and generally unhelpful (except for marketing a test prep business, in which case they are awesome!). So let me break it down for you, with specificity, nuance, and accuracy.


Test preparation is (in no particular order):

  1. Gaining familiarity with the directions, structure, question types, and timing of the test in order to build comfort and relieve anxiety on test day.
  2. Learning to use the specific patterns and tendencies of the test in order to answer questions more quickly.
  3. Reviewing the content that will be tested on the specific exam, in the way and to the extent it will be tested.
  4. Developing content knowledge to ensure that the test-taker knows all of the information tested and the exceptions to and nuances of rules that usually lead to mistakes.
  5. Learning how the specific test will present the information it tests, from wording of the question to level of subtlety to number of steps necessary to solve a problem.
  6. Learning personal habits and tendencies so you can control, mitigate, and prevent unnecessary mistakes during a test.

How much of the above list do you ever hear about? How many of those items do you hear in the news? In the marketing materials of test prep companies? Probably not much. It’s just not sexy to say, “our test prep strategy is to teach you stuff you should have learned in ways you didn’t learn it.” But that’s often what test prep is. It’s teaching. It’s teaching rules, formulas, and facts that the test-taker should have already been exposed to and then teach them the way it will be tested that they have probably not learned, and if you’ve never learned those things than it’s teaching you the things you didn’t learn. It’s most certainly not “teaching a few tricks,” or if it is than those few tricks will probably give you just a few points. Doubt me? Then give the following SAT-ish question a try:


Many cultures seek to —- morals to their young by using apologues and parables .


(A) vitiate

(B) defenestrate

(C) inculcate

(D) dupe

(E) cully


When you consider why you might not have gotten the correct answer (which is the third letter of the alphabet, oh and the question was intentionally written with harder vocab that the SAT normally uses), do you think it was due to some trick? Due to timing? Is it the multiple choice nature? Probably not. If you knew the meaning of all those words you’d probably get it right. Now clearly there are things you can do to improve your guess, but it would still be a guess. “Tricks” will often only allow you to make a better than 1 in 5 guess and for most people a 1 in 4 or 1 in 3 guess isn’t going to improve their score much (especially on a test like the SAT that specifically has a “guessing equalizer” built into the scoring).

The key to test preparation is figuring out what skills or knowledge the test-taker lacks and developing those skills, not measured against what you believe a student should be (so let’s not argue whether you think these tests should exist or are valued), but rather measured against a specific test and it’s limited knowledge base. The key to many of these tests is preparing, and preparing properly.


In parting I’ll leave you with this analogy.

Think of standardized tests as a round of competition on Dancing with the Stars. We’ve been dancing all our lives and some of us do it better than others. Most people will go on to live highly productive lives without learning to properly do an Argentine Tango, but if you want to go on Dancing with the Stars, you better learn to tango. And if you want to learn to tango so that the judges will call it a tango and give you high points for the tango, you better get a coach to prepare you. Not a person who’ll teach you what they think the tango is or what your parents have said the tango is, but for what the judges say the tango is. If you aren’t able to learn the tango it doesn’t make you a worse person or maybe not even a bad dancer, but it will probably keep you off of Dancing with the Stars.


Good luck and good prepping!

  • chrisrb

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    My students routinely improve from the typical 1600 to the 1850 range working entirely on test strategy and not one bit on content. It’s not uncommon for the 1600 student who takes 10 or more practice tests to score above 1900, without spending any serious time on test content at all!

    Here’s an example:

    Improving guessing odds is tremendously helpful in terms of improving SAT scores. The average student won’t know how to answer roughly half the 170 questions on the test. By learning to skip 40 impossibly difficult questions, she saves 8 points lost to errors (assuming 1/5 correct by blind guessing) and a TON of extra time (to say nothing of all the stress and headache she saves herself); by eliminating 2 or 3 choices and using guessing strategies on 40 hard questions, she’ll easily pick up 10 additional points. The average student, attempting to answer all questions (as average students assume they must do), therefore is likely to lose 18 raw points compared to the student who learns just two simple SAT strategies that take maybe 10 minutes to explain thoroughly: don’t do the impossibly hard questions, and eliminate/guess on the hard ones!

    That’s roughly a 180 point improvement, resulting directly from 10 minutes of strategic instruction … without one bit of arduous, time-consuming content work! Two strategies! 180 points! And that’s just the beginning. The math section is especially coachable, for instance.

    Or … you could learn 3500 vocabulary words (the Barrons list), review years worth of mathematical content, study a grammar textbook and do 500 exercises, and take your chances. How many hours? Compared to 10 minutes?

    The other factors you mention ARE terribly important: self-awareness to maintain intensity and avoid carelessness, discovering and tracking and reflecting upon the patterns in one’s errors, etc. … these are EXTREMELY important things to do. TONS of practice testing is also in order.

    But to say that SAT strategies and “tricks” don’t work is just plain NUTS.

    High scoring students (90th percentile and above) generally need to work mostly on content to further improve their scores … but for average students, with average levels of motivation, this is the WORST way to raise scores! The BEST way for nearly all students is to learn correct SAT strategy, practice applying it using real tests, keep track of what they learn and the types of errors they make and the specific strategies they forgot to use … and then practice some more!

  • Akil Bello

    Ignoring your posturing and pontificating, let me point out a few of the problems with your “arguments”

    1. Doing 10 practice tests does not constitute learning solely learning “tricks”

    In doing that many tests the students is spending a great deal of time familiarizing themselves with the actual content of the test. I’d offer that its almost impossible to do hundreds of question and simply focus on guessing. There is no way a student who does 10 practice test does not LEARN how to do things they previously did not. So though you may not be teaching content in all likelihood that student is learning content.

    2. Theory and practice are not the same thing.

    Your theory of this 10 minutes to “explain thoroughly” your magical approach to skipping and guessing is contrary to my 20 years experience at 3 companies, logic, and market evidence. If that 10 minutes was all that was necessary why is there a billion dollar industry that exists that runs courses for 20+ hours? Why are there tutors tutoring for a year to achieve gains in the 200 point range? Do you only tutor students who want a 100 point gain for 8 or so minutes?

    3. Guessing is oversold

    The likelihood of an average student being able to guess right on the hard questions as well as you propose is fairly low. The SAT has removed many of the historically obvious answers and it takes a certain savvy to guess these days. On the sample question I wrote I’d bet that most students could not eliminate any answers (or at best 1) unless they know the words so how would they guess? And time spent guessing would take time to intelligently eliminate choices.

    I’d also appreciate that when next you visit the blog you make a better effort at polite discourse and to avoid misquoting me (I never said that “tricks” don’t work).

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