Over the past 14 years, I have helped students achieve their goals on a range of standardized tests, including the following:
- SSAT and ISEE
- PSAT, SAT, and ACT
- SAT II Subject Tests
- GRE and MTEL exams
While my specific approach varies depending on the type of test and the needs of the student, the range of approaches do have common elements, which I outline below.
The first session typically involves the following:
- An introductory discussion with the student, which can include the parent
- A discussion of score reports from any recent exams or practice tests
- The development of a personalized study plan
- Initial practice with a discussion of takeaways
- A discussion of next steps
During this initial session, I talk with the student about any prior experience with this test as well as other tests, as well as any thoughts on what his or her strengths and challenges are. We also typically discuss the structure of the test, how the student has fared with time management on exams, strategies that are already in use, and likely areas to emphasize.
This discussion guides the development of our study plan, which includes a rough percent time to spend on each area over the course of our sessions together.
Most study plans involve several elements:
- Practicing specific problem types that show up as the most challenging
- Building the skills, understanding, and vocabulary needed to pick up points in additional areas
- Discussion and practice of common test-taking strategies
I find it's important to have a measure of flexibility in any study plan. For instance, we may swap a math-focused session with a reading-focused session depending on what types of problems the student may be grappling with in a given week.
Once we have a roadmap in place, we proceed with a series of sessions that involve targeted practice of item types we are focused on, reflective discussions, and skill building.
Test prep sessions typically involve the following:
- A recap of the last session
- A review of any between-session practice
- Listing out session goals
- Discussing test items
- Modeling an approach for a particular item type
- Discussing key takeaways
- Planning next steps
When reviewing between session-practice and establishing a set of problems to work on during a Zoom session, I encourage students to text or email me problems they are particularly interested in covering. These may include links to online exercises or photos of test prep book pages.
To help students process what they are learning, it's important to balance practice with reflective dialogue — so at various points during a session, I encourage each student to reflect on his or her own problem-solving process and think about what they are doing well, what they should work on, and if necessary, what an alternative route to answering an item might be.
Dialogue is exceptionally helpful if a student is stuck on a particular problem. While articulating an approach, students will often have an "ah-ha" moment during these discussions that helps them break through a wall, which is always terrific to see. To help students arrive at their own epiphanies, I try to help them keep their thinking flexible and consider multiple approaches.
I also work with students on extracting the key takeaways from a problem that can help them evolve their approach for similar item types going forward.
Sometimes, particular challenges come up repeatedly, such as second-guessing answers or running out of time on practice tests. In these cases, I check on these often and help my student develop strategies for improving in these areas.
When discussing a tricky passage, problem, question, or prompt, I often try to model an effective thought process for approaching it. For example, when delving into a new passage, I might read the first couple paragraphs aloud and articulate what I am thinking and what my questions are. When solving a problem, I might use the Zoom white board to list out the givens and unknown(s) and then begin to craft a roadmap of steps for solving it. My aim is for students to internalize these strategies, so after modeling one, I will usually give the student the opportunity to practice the strategy with a similar item or set of items. This way, they can develop effective habits of mind for approaching test items.
Concluding a Session
Towards the end of a session, we work on summarizing the skills and topics we covered, as well as test strategies to keep in mind, formulas to practice, or ways to approach particular item types. We then make a plan for between-session practice and adjust the focus areas of the upcoming sessions if needed.
I typically encourage between-session practice so that a student can continue building his or her test-taking skills and practicing what we have discussed. Often this practice shines a light on the trickiest types of problems, which we can then focus on during the session. In cases where a student has not done the planned practice, we discuss how to adjust the plan going forward, and what may be standing in the student's way of setting aside the time.
Ongoing reference sheets
Because test practice leads to encounters with new words or formulas, I often encourage students to keep an ongoing list of vocabulary, strategies, and formulas to return to both during and between sessions.
During the last few weeks leading up to the test, I typically have the student take either a full practice test or the practice sections related to the areas we have been working on. During our final few sessions, we address any remaining item types that still stand out as challenging, build in additional practice where needed, and discuss the strategies and habits of mind that could be most effective with them. In the week leading up to the test, I typically work with my student on planning some light practice and reviewing exam logistics. I also encourage my students to always prioritize getting enough rest during the several nights before.