Saturday, July 3, 2010


Would you like to do better on tests like the ACT? Who wouldn’t? You may need to reexamine your preconceptions about studying, testing, and interpreting test results in order to demonstrate your true potential.

Perhaps you believe your school success means that you don’t even need to study. You might believe that a few “cramming” sessions the week before will be sufficient. Perhaps you believe that preparing won’t help improve your score anyway. You might have convinced yourself that you “never do well in testing situations,” so why bother. You might even believe that the school you want to attend doesn’t place much value on test scores. You might believe that you can make up for a low test score through social popularity, sports success, extracurricular activities, or a family legacy.

To be blunt, these misconceptions may be the very reason for mediocre success. While any one or more of them might seem reasonable based on your past experience, relying on history to predict the future may limit your ability to improve on the past. A disappointing test result may be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This post looks at 4 preconceptions that might be holding you back.

TESTING MISCONCEPTION #1: Either you know it or you don’t.

There is a whole branch of philosophy that examines the question, “If you know, does it naturally follow that you know that you know?” As a philosophy major in college, I argued strongly that knowledge is not necessarily self-evident. As a teacher, I was continuously amazed to know the answer to a student’s question that I had never before thought about consciously. As a parent, I was sometimes disappointed to discover that something untoward that I had suspected would happen, subsequently did happen, indicating that my suspicion was actually knowledge.

Think about a course you took a year or two ago.....Geometry for example. Do you remember the Pythagorean Theorem? Chances are you do, although it might take some prodding to make the connection: "A squared plus B squared equals C squared," to find the hypotenuse and legs of a triangle.

Now, do you know the Distance Formula? ...the equation of a circle? ...the Pythagorean Identity from trigonometry? Since they are all just the Pythagorean Theorem in various forms, the answer is that you DO know each of these things. You may not have completed a trig course, but you already know one of the basic equations. You know it even though you don’t know that you know it. Sometimes a student will miss a question for lack of trying, thinking he or she doesn’t “know” how to find the right answer. The error is in giving up, not in the knowledge. Preparing for the test will highlight things that you know subconsciously and plant them in conscious memory.

The brain is like the maze of halls at school. There are many “lockers” that store information but lack of use may rust the lock needed to access the data. Review of prior knowledge can oil the lock and make it easier to get to what you know. Prior experience with the way a question may be asked can help you find the locker that holds applicable information without meandering around the halls like a Freshman. Rehearsal of possible question topics can improve the speed with which you can get to the right locker during crowded passing periods and apply appropriate knowledge.

Preparing for a test like the ACT can improve your score by increasing your chances of using applicable knowledge at appropriate times with greater speed.

TESTING MISCONCEPTION #2: The ACT test score is the final goal.

Admittedly I am prejudice in my belief that the two concept sections, English and Math, are important topics well past Junior or Senior year of high school.

Knowledge of the basic grammar rules applied by the writers of the ACT in both the English and Reading sections can have major impact on success in college. Informal surveys have shown that appropriate use of the semicolon, for example, can unconsciously impress a teaching assistant reading an essay exam and result in a higher grade. (A similar impact may occur in the scoring of the optional Writing section of the ACT.) Application of simple rules like avoiding run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, and spelling of its-it’s allows a reader to follow your argument with less confusion, making your writing more impressive.

Many colleges require as many as 6 math credits for graduation and give a math competency test before allowing a student to take a college level math course. By maintaining high school math concepts, you can avoid the need to enroll in a remedial class at full tuition and zero credit. Especially for those who are not “math friendly,” precluding 1, 2, or even 3 additional semesters of elementary arithmetic should be a strong motivator for keeping up with the skills necessary for success in higher lever, required classes.

TESTING MISCONCEPTION #3: One study plan is as good as every other.

While some study is better than no study, no single study plan is effective for all students. You need to know 1) where you stand now, 2) what your goal score is, 3) how you learn, 4) what distractors will present hurdles in your study plan and on testing day, and 5) what will be tested.

The most important of these issues is how you learn. There are many ways to prepare for the ACT and other standardized tests, each with strengths and weaknesses. In order to select the method which will be most effective for you as a unique test taker, you need to realistically exam your individual learning style. Read the Normal Genius blog from 5/7/10, “Selecting a Study Plan for the ACT.”

TESTING MISCONCEPTION #4: The only purpose of the ACT is to get into college.

While it is true that most colleges use standardized test scores as one of many criteria for college admission, ACT scores can also play an important role in qualifying for SCHOLARSHIPS. Every point you can add to your ACT score improves the chances that the college of your choice will recognize your talents and potential, will see that you have an important contribution to make to the student body, and will offer a tuition subsidy or cash stipend. Other organizations also use the ACT scores to award scholarships that can be used for tuition, housing, or expenses.

Whatever the size of a scholarship, it represents 2 impressive distinctions. On the one hand it is a tangible honor for your persistent hard work. But more importantly, it is a gift from you to the people who have supported you financially and emotionally through the challenging high school experience and to those who will be paying the extraordinary college expenses. The kudos that accompany both distinctions are well worth a few weeks of additional study.

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