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The Challenges of Test Prep

When I receive a call from a client wanting to work together to prepare for an upcoming standardized test, more often than not, the client comes to me exasperated. After much time prepping on their own for the SSATs, ACT, SAT, or GRE, they have not received the score they were expecting and are left confused by the process.

Here are some of the lamentations I’ve heard over the years, followed by my perspective on what is actually needed for success.


"I got the practice book and did all the problems, but my score is not improving."

Unfortunately, just getting a practice book for an exam is not enough.

Not all test prep materials are equal. One must know which source material is most aligned with the actual test. Typically, material published by the test makers are most authentic versus material put out by corporate publishing companies.

Project Management. On top of just having the right practice material, students need to project manage their learning. While some college and upper school students have this somewhat developed, for middle school SSAT students, these skills are non-existent. Here’s how I manage a student’s learning:

  • Lesson Plan - We start with a diagnostic exam to see where the student is, then create a general lesson plan to teach the knowledge gaps within the timeframe we have together.

  • List of Topics - Knowing what to study is a big part of prepping. From working with students over the years, I’ve distilled a list of topics that I know a student needs to learn for each test and systematically teach each skill on the list. For example, here’s an SSAT checklist of topics:

  • Metrics Analysis - Tracking data is crucial to analyzing progress while identifying any pain points preventing progress. Not only is it important to capture practice test scores, it is equally important to consider how much time is spent per section of the exam. Getting a high score in double the allotted time during a practice test is misleading and can lead to disappointment on the actual exam. Here’s a table I created to help one of my ACT students understand her progress:

As you can see, this level of project management takes a lot of organization and "stick-to-it-iveness." Moreover, detailed planning and unbiased assessment is often hard to do for oneself.

Testing Strategies

It could be that you’re spending too much time working out the same types of problems the harder, longer way. There are some tried and true testing strategies that make problem solving more effective. These will help not only with speed, but also promote agility of mind. We want you to be able to look at problems a little more outside-the-box than the way you were taught in school.


"I have a lot going on right now between school, work/extracurricular activities. It’s hard to find the time to study."

Students need the right support so that their study time is optimized.

It’s not easy juggling between school and other life activities like sports, hobbies, and extracurricular activities. And sometimes priorities need to shift. However, with the right support, students can make the most of the little time they do have. I encourage parents (for younger test-takers) and adult test-takers alike to do the following:

  • Time Blocks - Prioritize and allocate dedicated blocks of time weekly for study. It’s hard to study 30 minutes here and there between other activities, for most exam sections are at least 30 minutes long. A block of 1.5 hours might be a good starting point for someone looking to focus on a practice section, review their answers, and integrate new material. My tutoring sessions are typically 1.5 hours and I find this to be the most productive time frame for learning before fatigue sets in.

  • Dedicated Private Space - Create a private, quiet study space away from distractions, siblings, family activities, life obligations. If you can’t help but multitask while home, you may consider booking a study room at the school library. For younger test-takers, I’ve noticed that the parent’s presence alone can be a distraction. It would be better if the parent gave their child more privacy. A parent may also want to schedule siblings away from the house so that the test-taker has time alone to focus.

  • Tools - Make sure you have the right technology, whether it be headphones, a good laptop, tablet, hi-speed internet, paper, and pencil. Having the right tools will help you be more efficient with the little time you have.


"My exam is in 6 weeks, and I need to cram."

Cramming is never a good plan. When a student presents me with this scenario, the only way I’d work with them is if they are willing to make test prep their full-time job for those 6 weeks. Even then, it’s a dicey situation. The fact is, cramming is rarely effective because our brains need time to assimilate the information, often with repeated exposure.

Not having a long-term plan to learn test material deeply leads to rote memorization of select facts and a lot of “educated guesses,” which turn out to be ill-informed ones. Perhaps the problem was close to what was memorized, but it had a minor twist. This is how students come out of the exam feeling like they did well, but are shocked to later discover that they actually didn’t. They are able to recognize some kind of pattern, but are not able to apply their understanding to it.

I recommend students think not in terms of weeks, but in months when it comes to test prep. Some of my most successful test takers have worked with me for over a year.


"I need to get a good score so that I can get into a particular prestigious school."

Having this kind of pressure and expectation could really backfire. Rather than simply looking at the school with the best ranking, research to see which schools are the best environment for you or your child to thrive in.

As a test-taker, it’s important to know where you are now and how much improvement you can realistically make before the test. Closing the gap is attributed to time and effort applied. I regularly help students raise their scores from the 50th percentile to the 90th percentile, but not without a thorough initial assessment of their skill level and 10-12 months of working together.

Having unrealistic expectations and pressures from parents, peers, or self can lead to emotional and mental distress; this impairs learning and memory, rather than enhances it. Emotional wellness is not only crucial to keep a student motivated, it is linked to clarity of mind and higher mental performance, which is why I started working with some of my students in mindfulness techniques. Fear of failure and negative self-talk are common among some students who strive to prove themselves. Sadly, this also adversely affects their confidence when they encounter difficulties. Taking a step back to know WHY you think you need to attend a particular school in the first place can be the insight you need to take the pressure off.


While test prep may seem daunting with its many challenges, it is completely manageable with the right tools and strategies. With a dedicated environment, strong support, enough time, clarity of intentions, and emotional wellness, the challenges of test prep can be navigated and mitigated. Not only will this make way for desirable test results, it will also provide a positive learning experience.


Testimonial Liyan has been working with our daughter as her ACT prep tutor over the last year. We are very strong advocates for Liyan. She has an in depth understanding of our daughter's strengths and development areas and is highly collaborative and focused in the way she works with our daughter. A testament to Liyan is that a few months ago our daughter expressed the desire to try in person tutoring with a nationally recognized tutoring organization in Chicago. However after 6 sessions, she opted to switch back to Liyan as she recognized the significant difference in how she was being tutored by Liyan, who was fully invested in our daughter's development and success vs the tutoring organization where the relationship was more transactional. We recommend Liyan highly and would gladly serve as a reference. - Anonymous Parent (but happy to speak to potential families as needed)

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