Putting the life back in science fiction

Standardized Test Preparation
August 16, 2012, 3:52 pm
Filed under: School, standardized tests | Tags: , ,

This is off-topic for this blog, but I’m putting this out because school is about to start. It’s advice that worked for me on the PSAT, SAT, and GRE, and it’s worked for others. It also happens to be a bit cheaper than taking a test preparation class. So if you are getting ready to take a standardized test, or know someone who is, read on.

Here’s the advice, for what it’s worth:
–If you want a good vocabulary, READ, especially books that use a lot of specialized or old-fashioned vocabulary. While I liked Harry Potter as an adult, much what passes for YA literature has simple vocabulary, on the apparent assumption that kids are stupid or something. In the long ago days of my youth (the 80s), YA didn’t exist as such, so I was reading adult science fiction and fantasy by the time I was 12. I’d advise the same. Historical romances are another good source, and so is Sherlock Holmes. By all means read War and Peace if you want (or any classic literature), but writers like L. Sprague de Camp delighted in using obscure words, and I learned their meaning from context.
–If you want math skills, do math, and find ways to enjoy it. Old-fashioned skills like drafting (aka drawing things to precise scale), and old-fashioned games like table-top role playing games force you to do a lot of this.

Detecting a bit of “Use it or Lose it?” Yep. The more often you use skills, the less you lose them. Get creative in this regard, and try to find ways to have fun with the skills. This goes for college courses too. If you can get a work-study job in a lab using the skills you want to develop, you’ll do much better on tests later.

That’s the long-term prep. It’s necessary, because if you haven’t read anything other than textbooks before you take the PSAT, you’re going to suffer on the test. Recreational reading (and recreational mathematics, and recreational science) are pretty much the only way I know to get really good, at least before you get a job using these skills. You’ve got to spend hundreds of hours to really master anything, and you don’t get that in school. If you have fun with what you’ve learned, then you get hundreds of extra hours “goofing around.”

Okay, let’s assume you’ve done all this, and you’ve got a test coming up.

First, hopefully you’ve got a month or two before the test. If you just registered for a test next week, what I’m about to say won’t help as much.

In general, tests have two challenges: speed and knowledge. You need to train each of these separately. From talking to a lot of people, speed is probably a bigger problem than knowledge. Many people don’t finish the test, even though they get every question they answer right. Standardized test taking is a specialized skill, and it doesn’t have many uses outside school, so you actually do have to train for it.

Knowledge first: Here’s a hint for cutting your studying by about 70 percent. Buy a book of old tests and take one of those tests, untimed. Put aside a weekend afternoon or an evening to do this. Grade the test. What you will find is that you’re quite good at some things, and need to work on other things. To cut your study time by 70%, concentrate your review almost entirely on the areas you need to work on. Yes, you do need to review the stuff you’re good at, but don’t spend much time on it, because it will waste your time. When most people review for tests (especially the GRE), they start rereading their textbooks front to back. This is a tremendous waste of time, because usually they read the first few chapters, stop, come back a week later, read the first few chapters, stop, come back a week later…you get the idea. Focus only on the subjects you’re having trouble with instead, and use the practice tests to figure out where you are having trouble.

My trick for improving speed was to buy a book of tests and take those tests, one section per day. Usually, the tests have multiple sections (up to eight per test) and each section is supposed to take 20 or 30 minutes. At first, you won’t be able to finish the section in time. That’s okay. Finish it anyway, after noting where you got within the time limit. Afterwards grade your performance, and use it to guide your studies (Remember, only study the things you are having trouble with. If you stop having trouble with something, stop studying it and go onto something else). Note that you’re only taking about 45 minutes per day on this, 20 or 30 minutes to take the test, 10-20 minutes to grade it. Doing this regularly also helps with test anxiety, because test taking becomes a normal part of your day.

What you will likely find is that, after taking one section per day for a while (a week or two), your accuracy will peak. For me, I always missed one or two questions per section, which is what I got on the test. A bit after that, your speed will peak, to the point where you can always get a section done within the time limit. At this point, you’re ready for the test. This is why it helps to start prepping a month or two before the exam. It gives you time to get your speed up.

I realize that test taking has changed, now that many tests are computerized. Fortunately, the basics I used back in the paper test days still seem to work online. Feel free to add other hints, comments, questions, or suggestions in the comments section, and pass this on to any student you know.


4 Comments so far
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The speed improvement method you used was exactly what I did for my GMAT back in the mid eighties. I used Barrons and took a test a day for nearly 2 weeks. Very effective for recognizing the pattern of questions.

Your point about reading quality books is important. I also want to add that I am surprised at how little science fresher science undergrads read. Somehow even the dumbed down SciAm seems to have escaped their notice. As for writing papers using crappy web sites as references…

Comment by Alex Tolley

For the GRE I didn’t do any verbal prep but did work through a test-prep booklet for the mathematics section. The general GRE contains (or contained, as of 2003) very little mathematical content that a new degree-holder would have recently encountered in coursework. It was more about remembering rules you learned in 7th grade geometry and quickly recognizing patterns. As far as I can recall there were no proofs, little or no discrete mathematics, graph theory, linear algebra, calculus, or differential equations, maybe very basic statistics.

Without the test-prep refresher, I probably would have done better on the general GRE mathematics section as a high school sophomore than as a recent university graduate with a BSc. The year I took the GRE they had just added an essay section to complement the small picture of “verbal” abilities painted from multiple-choice questions. Maybe they will add a more free-form mathematics section too some day.

Comment by Matt

That’s a good point I missed, Matt. When I did the biology GRE, I used my high school AP biology textbook to study and got in the high 90th percentile. As you noted, the math barely get into calculus, and certainly no more complex. While I can’t speak for other fields, my sense is that, if one is thinking about taking the GRE, holding onto one’s freshman textbooks is a good idea. I know many students like to sell their freshman textbooks back, but they can be used again to get into grad school.

Comment by heteromeles

These are all good test prep ideas.
I also give students a faux-test question sheet that psychs out the most common hidden clues in question/answer format; such as, an answer that, if correct, requires other choices to be correct.

Comment by Joan S.

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