Almost all standardized tests, including the ACT and the SAT, feature two major sections: quant (or mathematics) and verbal/reading (reading, writing, vocab, sentence correction, and the like). The SAT has three sections, Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. The ACT has five: Math, Reading Comprehension, English, Science and Writing.
As part of an overall customized test preparation plan, you can and should incorporate skill building exercises that address these major areas into your everyday life, so that on any given day, you are doing something to build your skills naturally without even thinking about it. By reading intentionally for comprehension and practicing mental math, you can create short but powerful sessions of test prep that engage your mind quite frequently, and it turns out this approach is an effective, easy, and dare I say fun, way to prepare for these stressful tests.
Strategy #1 – read more (and more intentionally)
I tend to find that, paradoxically, the most stressed out students are those that are really struggling with the math section of the ACT or SAT. However, those that are truly lacking basic math skills can be the easiest students to help. Why?
It’s because the math section of the ACT or SAT can be broken down relatively clearly. You can document what concepts must be understood, facts and formulas to know, question types that are used, techniques to use to speed up calculations, etc., and methodically teach what needs to be taught. Progress can actually be made quite quickly, as long as the student lets go of any “I’m just not a math person” misconceptions that might be causing a mental block (see a discussion of this in this article I wrote on the “growth mindset.”
However, reading comprehension and sentence correction is a different animal. In a typical reading comprehension question, you must read a passage and then answer questions about it. The questions may ask you to point out the main theme of the passage, identify what types of statements the author might make based on what is written in the passage, re-write portions of the passage, or define words used in the passage.
Being good at reading comprehension requires a strong command of the English language and how to reason with it. MyGuru’s ACT and SAT tutors often describe the futility of trying to help someone build these types of skills in short amounts of time. They depend, in large part, on the amount, complexity, and nature of the reading and writing you’ve done since elementary school.
For example, consider this quote from one of MyGuru’s partners -
Many imagine that they can master grammar by memorizing some exhaustive collection of grammar rules, but of course, grammar cannot be learned purely in the form of quasi-mathematical rules. Part of good writing & rhetoric is the “feel,” a certain intuitive sense about what combinations of words work or don’t work. Some native English speakers may already have an “ear” for this, but others need to build this right-brain skill through reading sophisticated English writing.
Mike McGarry, Test Prep Expert from Magoosh. Mike has a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard, and over 20 years of teaching experience specializing in math, science, and standardized exams.
I am not suggesting that you can’t learn and practice to improve your reading comprehension skills, but it takes longer, and it’s generally more difficult, than for the quantitative portion of standardized tests.
A huge part of the solution is simply to read more.
Become the type of person that is curious about at least one story in the newspaper every day. Begin reading one new blog article each week, and one new non-fiction, or even fiction, book each month. Just do it, and you’ll build the skills that will serve you well on the ACT and SAT. You’ll slowly but surely become increasingly familiar with the English language and your ability to comprehend increasingly complex pieces of written work will develop over time, naturally, without any explicit test prep.
This means more than just staring at the page, cursorily reading an article. It means reading with your full attention, constantly checking your own comprehension and coming up with your own opinion on the material. Every time you sit down to do some of that challenging reading, you should be in a mental conversation with the author. You’re not reading for information; you’re reading for mental stimulation. Think about why the author wrote each word and your own reactions to the implications behind the text. After each paragraph, identify the theme, deconstruct the argument, and challenge the assumptions. If you don’t recognize a word, look it up.
Of course, to be beneficial, this strategy also requires that you have at least several months before your exam to implement the strategy!
In our next article, we’ll cover our second everyday test prep strategy, which is to do more mental math.
To learn more about these strategies, as well as how to develop a highly customized test prep plan that methodically builds your skills over time, consider downloading the first chapter (for free) of our soon-to-be-released eBook Plan, Prepare, Perform: A Personalized Approach to Test Prep Fueled by Expert Tutor Feedback and Scientific Research on How We Learn.
About the Author
Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru in 2009 to provide highly effective yet affordable 1-1 tutoring and test prep through a small team of expert independently contracted tutors in Chicago. Over time, MyGuru has become known not just for tutoring services, but also for providing research-based but practical advice for improving academic performance, as they’ve expanded to New York, Boston, and even Minneapolis.