test preparation

The Value of Test Prep Part 4: Timing and Balance Matter

As discussed in previous posts in our Value of Test Prep Series, there is simply no substitute for a solid prep strategy, to ensure that your student performs their very best on college admissions exams or AP exams. To that end, no test prep strategy can be considered complete without a disciplined approach to timing and balance.

So, what exactly do we mean by timing and balance?

Timing in Test Prep

In order to avoid cramming for any significant test, it is advisable that students begin their test prep in earnest approximately 4-6 months ahead of their planned exam. For example, since most students will take the ACT or the SAT in their junior year, it’s beneficial to begin studying during the summer between 10th and 11th grade. Enlisting the services of an experienced test prep tutor the summer before your child’s junior year is an investment no parent will regret.

By embarking on valuable test prep sessions long before the actual exam date, students feel less stress, and are therefore able to devote their full attention to the material being reviewed. Rather than trying to absorb material from multiple subject areas all at the same time, by beginning the test prep process early, students can devote extra time to particularly challenging material.

In addition, by prepping over time, students are best situated to perform well during SAT or ACT review courses which are offered through our tutoring centers just before the actual test dates.

Balance in Test Prep

When it comes to creating a test prep strategy that will yield successful results, like all things in life, balance will prove to be key. To achieve balance, with a looming college admissions exam, or AP test exam, it is again optimal to begin the test prep process months in advance. Keeping in mind that college admissions offices are interested in seeing fully developed applicants, high school students need to showcase both academic proficiency along with extracurricular involvement.

Because college admissions officers take in account grades, test scores, and school or community involvement, it is vital that your student have every opportunity at their disposal to balance these three components. After all, if your student is an athlete, and their team continues winning, additional games or competition dates will be added to a traditional team schedule. Likewise, if your student is active in music or theatre, the potential for last minute rehearsals is a very real possibility, thus taking up additional weekends or evenings, leaving less time for test prep.

In effort to provide your child with every possible opportunity for success on critical tests, it is crucial that they have ample time to devote to preparing for these exams. Through beginning the test prep process well ahead of any scheduled exam, your child will be able to give their all to tutoring or small group classes, all the while being able to juggle their passion projects or extracurricular activities.

Make no mistake, when it comes to planning an Optimal Test Prep Program, an awareness of the importance of timing and balance simply can’t be undervalued.

At Achieve Academics, we recognize each student’s potential—no matter his or her learning style, strengths, weaknesses, or academic goals. Start off your student’s path to college on the right foot by preparing early and watch as your student reaps the benefits in the years that follow.

Achieve Academics, offers offer a variety of small group classes and one-on-one tutoring services that not only boost your student’s SAT, ACT, and/or AP performance, but also provide personalized strategies so that students stay engaged and proactive throughout their academic career.

The Importance of Good Nutrition Before the Big Test

When it comes to prepping for the ACT or SAT, plenty of teachers and parents emphasize the importance of test prep, practice tests, and quality study habits. Though they’re certainly not wrong, it’s just as important to remember to treat your body right in preparation for high-pressure exams like the SAT or ACT. After all, your mind is an organ at home in your body, so proper nutrition goes a long way to boost your brain before the big day. How can students take advantage of the power of brain food? Take a look below.

1.     Eat smart.

Nutritionists know that meeting your daily vitamin and mineral requirements gives your body and mind an overall boost when it comes to energy and performance. Both iron and B-vitamins are helpful in maintaining mental energy, so encourage your child to consume some of these power foods in the week leading up to a big exam: spinach, ground beef, kidney beans, whole-grains, eggs, and nuts are all excellent options.

2.     Skip the supplements.

Sure, vitamin C tablets can help a student with his or her daily dosage in a pinch, but biting into a real orange is a lot healthier and nutrient dense than a chewable tablet. Don’t let your child skimp on whole foods in the days leading up to the SAT or ACT. Instead, focus on full, mindfully-sized, and balanced meals that combine multiple, vitamin-rich food groups. Not only will it nourish your child’s body, but his or her brain will reap the positive effects, as well.

3.     Don’t underestimate a good breakfast.

You’ve likely heard it time and time again: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But don’t let your child convince him or herself that a donut and a cup of coffee are enough to satisfy early morning nutritional needs. Eating a nutritious and appropriately-sized breakfast sets the stage for optimum metabolic activity throughout the day, while keeping hunger—the great distractor—at bay. Try preparing a protein and vitamin breakfast, using ingredients such as eggs, a whole-grain muffin, bananas, and yogurt.

4.     Use snacks as a study strategy.

Maintaining blood sugar levels by incorporating a few varying nutritious snacks during studying not only help to keep your student on track during crunch time, it also makes sure that energy levels stay even. Especially students who tend to cram with the help of energy drinks or multiple cups of coffee, snacks go a long way in avoiding a blood sugar crash when the caffeine buzz wears off. A handful of almonds or a banana with peanut butter make great options for smart snacking.

At Achieve Academics, we proudly offer a variety of one-on-one tutoring and small group class options for students of all learning styles and academic goals. We recognize that successful study habits and test prep should be attuned to your child’s specific needs. Our holistic, tailor-made approach to test prep ensures that your child will master academic building blocks and study habits that will last a lifetime. As the SAT and/or ACT exam dates loom, keep in mind some of the techniques above to provide your child with the brain food necessary to ace his or her upcoming exam. 


Primary Concerns for Test Prep Instructors: Fixing Student Alignment

Standardized tests have been around as long as any of us can remember. Many of the parents of my students recall taking the ACT when they went to college. Of course, no one signed up for test prep services back then (the ACT was just this weird test you took to go to college). Yet for as long as the exam has been around, students still struggle with one issue more than any other when they begin practicing for standardized tests: they are unaware of the exam’s expectations. In other words, they have no idea what to expect on the exam, and as such struggle significantly when it comes to taking the test. This misalignment must be the primary, initial focus of any well-designed test prep program.

Students have a significant advantage in school that they do not have on standardized tests. Consider a standard Algebra II math final. By the time a student is studying for the final, he probably has taken at least three exams written by the teacher. The student is familiar with the teacher’s expectations, and he knows what the teacher will consider to be important on the test. Additionally, the student is aware of the realm of information to be tested on the final. Perhaps he was given a study guide. Even if he wasn’t, the exam will most likely cover information he learned in the previous 15 weeks. As can be seen, the student is well aware of what he will be expected to do on test day and thus can adjust his preparation accordingly. This significant advantage is absent when applied to standardized test preparation (at least at the beginning anyway).

I enjoy listening to the students’ justifications of their answers at the beginning of test prep programs. I have heard all sorts of incorrect justifications. Many times both my students and I end up laughing when the students realize how far off-base their explanations are from what the exam wanted them to do. The discussions below are conversations I have had with students that illustrate exam misalignment.


Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option D?”

Student: “Well, this was a tricky question, and I thought it was hard. However, Option D used the comma correctly, and the other ones sounded funny.”

Instructor: “I see. So this question is dealing with eliminating redundant writing, not punctuation. They are all punctuated correctly.”

Student: “Oh. That’s a thing? Well in that respect it’s clearly option D: that’s super obvious.”

Instructor: “You bet! Once you learn to look for it, it often is one of the easiest types of questions.”


Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option B?”

Student: “Well, it asked me to solve a system of equations, so I rearranged to solve for one variable, and then substituted that expression into the other equation. I solved for ‘y’ and then solved for ‘x’.”

Instructor: “Good. Except that it’s generally much faster to use linear combination instead of substitution on the exam.”

Student: “Oh. Yeah it would have been much faster to do it that way, and I wouldn’t have had to distribute a fraction, too.”


Me: “So, why did you pick Option C?”

Student: “Because I saw those words in the paragraph.”

Me: “Ok. But this question asked you to make a ‘reasonable inference’. As such, you must put the author’s words into your own. The words themselves are not important. What matters is the meaning of the words.”


Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option A?”

Student: “I guessed. I couldn’t find the information on the figure.”

Instructor: “Right. That’s the point of this type of question. They are expecting you to reach into the paragraph to get the extra information, and then pull it back to the figure.”

Student: “Oh. Ok let me read the paragraph then.”

It is evident in each example above that the student is unaware of the expectations of the exam. As instructors, our primary focus has to be to fix this misalignment. Students need to learn what the exam is expecting them to do on various types of questions so that they can adjust their study to meet those expectations. At the beginning of the prep, I don’t care if my students can’t determine the right answer; as long as they are aware of what the exam is asking of them on that question, the students stand a much better chance of improving.

So what do we do as instructors?

As instructors, there are a few things to keep in mind when fixing student alignment.

1. Have your students constantly explain their answers.

I always have students explain their justification out loud so they can hear themselves, and I can hear why they picked their answers. This allows me to fix any misalignment immediately. I don’t care if they are correct. I need to know why they picked their option.

2. Have the students label question types on the exam.

I often have students write the types of problems next to the problem number. This includes everything from “punctuation” and “verbs” on the English test to “inference” and “experimental detail” labels on the reading and science test, respectively.

3. Initially it’s not important if students don’t know how to do the material.

I have observed score increases for many students once the alignment has been fixed, yet content knowledge remains lacking. I have found that as long as students are doing the right

thing in the right scenario, scores stand a much better chance of increasing. Content development comes next.

4. It’s just like training a dog (not meant in a derogatory sense!).

Watch any dog trainer worth their salt and you will see one commonality: bad behavior is reprimanded immediately, and not after a minute or so. This is vital to teaching as well! Do one question at a time at the beginning and fix bad strategies immediately! The student must be able to recall how they did the problem, and then remember how they are going to fix it. (Obviously people have longer working memory than do dogs, so you can often have students do problems in small blocks of 3-5 problems and they will remember how they did each type of problem.)

Generally, that is enough. Usually by the middle of the prep program students are aware of what they should be doing. Their actual ability to do the material, however, is highly variable and dependent on the student’s level. But that often takes much more practice. The one situation we CANNOT afford to have as teachers is a student who says, “I didn’t really know how to approach that type of question,” at the end of his test prep. I always feel like I have personally failed the student as his instructor if this happens, so we must work diligently to prevent it.

Dr. Eric Smolensky is the Director of Academics at Achieve Academics in Plymouth, MN. He received his Ph.D in chemistry in 2012 from the University of Minnesota. Since then he has spent his time instructing students how to succeed not only in test prep but also in academics in general. He has taught test prep for three years and academic chemistry and math for eight years. Regarded as a professional enthusiast, he loves developing models of student learning to improve both student retention and test prep results.

The Value of Test Prep, Part 2: 3 Steps Toward Stronger Self-Discipline

Photo Credit: Bigstock.com

Photo Credit: Bigstock.com

Whether prepping for the SAT or ACT, an AP exam, or completing schoolwork, discipline is an acquired skill that not only gives students an academic edge, but ultimately sustains them for a lifetime. Many students might not realize that they already have a command of discipline. For instance, being part of a sports team certainly demands discipline. Most students take seriously their commitment to regular practices, learning plays and strategies, working out in the off-season, game prep, and more. Without discipline, a team can’t rightfully expect a winning season. The same is true in academics.

With that in mind, consider the following ways students can make discipline the centerpiece of their test prep strategy:

1.     Prioritize

Self-discipline has been famously described as “the difference between choosing what you want now and choosing what you want most.” In a similar vein, proper self-discipline requires students to think critically about their agenda, to determine how and when their time is best spent. It may be helpful for students to write out all due dates and deadlines, along with their associated tasks, in order to create a prioritized test prep schedule.

2.     Be Good to Your Body

Disciplining the mind toward test prep is a venture best aided by disciplining the body, too. Studying is optimized by the endorphins released during exercise. Likewise, staying active is a natural stress reliever, which makes it easier for students to enact discipline when the time comes. Nutrition also plays a pivotal role in brain and body preparedness. We’ve all heard of “brain food,” and it’s true that certain food items can boost clarity and recall, such as eggs, dark chocolate, fish, and even caffeine (in moderation).

3.     Create a Routine

Self-discipline is far easier to employ if a student is grounded in a regular test prep routine. In addition to crafting a prioritized study schedule, it’s useful to curate a routine that can be followed repeatedly, so that positive test prep habits are cemented and reinforced over time. What’s more, creating a routine puts students in the driver’s seat, ensuring that their test prep approach is tailored to their learning style, needs, and individual goals.

4.     Take Cues from a Coach

A surefire way to instill self-discipline in students is to enroll them in a small test prep class or pair them with a one-on-one tutor. Guided test prep gives students the tools, resources, and framework to establish their own good habits and routines. With built-in accountability and structure, one-on-one tutoring and small group courses work as incubators for developing self-discipline.

At Achieve Academics, we offer a variety of small group classes and one-on-one tutoring services that not only boost your student’s SAT, ACT, and/or AP performance, but also provide personalized strategies so that students stay engaged and proactive throughout their academic career.