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What Are Test-Taking Skills Anyway?

By September 10, 2014October 21st, 2014ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests


This post was co-authored by two of Compass’ master-tutors and trainers, Flip Laffoon and Ashley Kramer. Flip and Ashley were asked to describe, in their own words, what constitutes ‘test prep skills’ on the SAT and ACT. With so many different methodologies and ‘tricks’ competing for students’ attention in test prep literature, we thought it would be helpful to outline some of the basics of the Compass approach.  

It’s Saturday morning, 6:00am. Shannon wakes up with a knot in her stomach; she’d been up studying vocab and math equations until 2:00am. She’s beyond nervous for the SAT today. She thinks this test will be the major determining factor in her future success and believes that she must use everything she’s learned in school to earn a high score. She decides to cram some more before racing out the door, leaving her entry ticket sitting on the kitchen table.

Of course, not every student wakes up with crushing anxiety; not every student tries to cram his/her head with every possible bit of knowledge. However, it’s indicative of the kinds of experiences students can have when they are under the misapprehension that the standardized tests are about demonstrating knowledge of content. In reality, these tests are mostly testing how well students can take standardized exams.

This means that a student’s approach to these tests is the most important factor in boosting their scores.

Just Like Training for a Marathon

Here’s the thing about college admission tests: learning how to take them is a bit like training for a marathon. Both require time, patience, drive, and discipline. Both also require a ton of stamina; while a marathon obviously requires enormous physical stamina, the college admission tests demand tremendous mental stamina. Both are also completely conquerable! By practicing in advance, students can build the stamina they need to make test day as painless as possible.

What kind of practice should students be doing? The key is to practice strategies for the test as a whole and for individual question types.

Reading for Detail

Reading for detail is the most important skill needed to do well on both the SAT and ACT, and fortunately, it is a skill that is learned over years in the classroom. Because these exams deliberately word their problems in tricky ways, reading for detail allows students to parse through the nuances and carefully choose the correct answer. That’s true of reading, writing, and math problems; all depend heavily on reading for detail.

Taking the time to become familiar with the test and its questions will aid reading for detail. The types of questions the SAT and ACT ask and the concepts they test don’t change much from one test to the next, so the more familiar students become with the types of questions and concepts tested, the more effectively they can spot the built-in tricks the test-makers employ and learn when it’s appropriate to choose an answer choice and move on.

Smart Process of Elimination (POE)

Most students are familiar with the concept of process of elimination by the time they take college admission tests. There is a difference, however, between the way many students approach POE and the way they should approach POE. To master smart POE, students need to be both thorough and honest.

Let’s take Critical Reading on the SAT as an example of how standard POE might work. A student reads the question, looks at the answers, and eliminates the ones that just don’t feel right. Perhaps he jumps around between answer choices, reading half of one answer and eliminating it because it has an unfamiliar word. This is lazy POE because the student is not certain of the answers he has eliminated. He’s guessing too soon.

Smart POE, however, requires our student to know an answer is wrong before he eliminates it. This means looking at answer choice A and reading it all the way through before deciding whether to keep or eliminate it. Then, he moves methodically to answer choice B, continuing through a first pass of elimination, wherein the ones he is certain are wrong are removed. He then takes a second pass at what he has remaining, turning back to the passage and reading for detail to find evidence that answer choices are incorrect. Finally, he makes a selection or decides to skip the question. This is smart POE because it is based on evidence, not gut feelings.

Practice Makes Perfect

Regular practice is essential for both running a marathon and taking college admission test. You wouldn’t wake up the morning of a marathon and expect to tackle it without training in advance. At least a few months of sustained, regular practice – especially full-length diagnostic tests – are what build the muscle memory to tackle such a substantial running challenge. The same is true for standardized tests: practicing strategies and learning the tricks will make the exam manageable.

This way, students will wake up on that future Saturday morning rested and confident that they can conquer the test!

About the Authors


Flip Laffoon

Flip received a BS in Theatre from Northwestern University and is a very proud Wildcat. After graduation, he began working in test prep and eventually joined Compass in 2010. He has nearly fourteen years of experience and has tutored hundreds (moving inexorably toward thousands) of students. Flip loves building relationships with his students and helping new tutors find their Compass footing.

Ashley Kramer

Ash Kramer is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Southern California. In 2012, she received an MA in English from CSULA. In addition to studying eighteenth-century literature and the history of science, Ash follows recent developments in pedagogical theory. At Compass, she helps to train new tutors and develop new curriculum.

Matty Steiner

Prior to joining Compass, Matty obtained their MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from UC Santa Cruz. They have over a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, having worked as an instructor, consultant, and keynote speaker on the topic of admission testing.

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