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Practicing Deliberately for the SAT and ACT


Every SAT or ACT tutor is familiar with this request, which can come from students or their parents: “Can we take extra practice tests? I can come in every weekend between now and the test. Can you give me more tests to take at home?”

This question comes from a good place – the student wants to work hard and improve her SAT score – and it’s preferable to the alternative, which is a totally unmotivated student. However, is endless repetition of practice tests really the best way to prepare for the SAT or ACT? I’d argue not.

What’s wrong with taking as many practice tests as possible?

When this scenario plays out in real life and students crank out practice test after practice test, this is typically what happens: they have good intentions of grading the practice test and reviewing their errors soon after the test is over. But as usual, homework and extracurriculars get in the way and at best, the test is graded but not thoroughly reviewed. Then the next weekend rolls around, the student takes another practice test, didn’t learn from his mistakes last time – and lo and behold, makes the same errors again.

Here’s the problem: the longer this cycle of test-taking continues, the likelier it is that the student is actually practicing and reinforcing bad habits. If the student is prone to careless errors, simply taking numerous tests only trains him to make the same careless error over and over. If the issue is not understanding a specific concept – the remainder theorem, for example – seeing that question repeatedly won’t help him actually learn the concept. Repeated exposure does not automatically lead to improvement.

The best way to prepare for the SAT and ACT: deliberate practice

Enter the concept of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, as defined by author and performance-improvement expert James Clear, is “a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic…[it] requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”

Clear adds that “[d]eliberate practice always follows the same pattern: break the overall process down into parts, identify your weaknesses, test new strategies for each section, and then integrate your learning into the overall process.”

Rather than taking a test every weekend, a student engaging in deliberate practice would take 3 or 4 practice tests strategically placed throughout her SAT or ACT prep. After each test, she would review the correct answers and methodically work back through most questions she missed, looking for patterns and areas of weakness and learning how to do better on the next test.

The mechanics of deliberate practice in test prep

Can you practice deliberately for the SAT or ACT on your own? Of course, just like you can start a fitness regimen or train for a marathon on your own. With enough personal discipline, good information, and a system for getting feedback on his performance, it’s possible for a motivated student to train for the big test by himself.

However, most of us benefit from the expertise of a coach, trainer or mentor who can quickly spot issues with our approach, give specific feedback, and recommend course corrections. That’s the role of our tutors here at AJ Tutoring. Our tutors are experts on the SAT and ACT who can efficiently figure out how to improve their students’ scores with targeted feedback.

Test prep at AJ Tutoring includes completing several full-length practice SATs or ACTs, preferably proctored and timed at our office. During the following tutoring session, the tutor grades the practice test and reviews it with the student. We dig into the problems the student missed, looking for patterns and common mistakes, and find ways to keep those mistakes from reoccurring.

As we’re reviewing a student’s missed questions on a practice test, we pay attention to why a student is missing a question. Generally the missed question falls into one of two categories: a careless mistake or a content mistake (or sometimes both).

A careless mistake can take a few forms, but it often involves misreading the question or doing the math incorrectly. This is a problem the student knows how to do, but goofed on the mechanics. A content mistake, on the other hand, arises when the student doesn’t actually know how to do the math required by the problem. By discerning why the student is missing the problem, we get a step closer to addressing those issues on future practice tests – and on the real thing.

That’s the goal of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice done well means that students can take “only” 3 or 4 full-length practice SATs or ACTs and still be very well prepared for their test. And fewer practice tests means more free time for other important things – whether that’s schoolwork, sports, or just daydreaming and sleep.


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