Hone your reading skills ahead of standardized tests
Dear Ivy League Guru,
I am a sophomore in high school and need some pointers on preparing for the requisite tests. I am taking the PSAT in the spring of 2016 and the ACT and the SAT in the fall of 2016. I want to do really well on the PSAT because the National Merit Scholarship uses these scores to determine winners and top ACT and SAT scores will be critical for my applications to top colleges.
What do you suggest? Student
The key to doing well on these tests is to focus on your critical reading skills. Math and writing are important but critical reading is usually the most difficult section of those tests to master. The key is in improving your verbal performance. This will help not only on standardized tests but in the classroom as well. The time you put into mastering reading skills will pay double dividends. One way to improve verbal performance is to increase your accuracy and reading speed. This takes a great deal of practice. I would suggest that you form the habit of reading challenging articles on a variety of subjects on a daily basis. You will find that The Wall Street Journal is one of the better overall publications to provide that challenge. They have outstanding journalists who are specialists in all fields — news, politics, economics, book reviews and entertainment. The stories are interesting reading and educational all at the same time. The following is what I call my "eat your spinach" advice: You need to learn to read for 100 percent comprehension. Read with a dictionary. Go as slowly as you need to in order to understand every word. This is not what you will do on standardized tests but you must train your brain to read with accuracy. When I tutor the SAT I often spend as long as an hour analyzing three or four test questions. Read like a lawyer dissecting a case. You need to understand how the question is written and why the next-to-the-right answer is not the right answer. I also insist that my clients know the correct definition of all of the words in the question — even if they get an answer right. If Dictionary.com were a key on my keyboard the icon would be rubbed off. Be sure to think about how the prompt sets up the main arguments and the main point of the passage. What are the solid facts vs. opinions and vague assumptions? Remind yourself that you have to stay focused if you want to avoid being tricked into choosing the wrong answer. After all, your discernment is what the test is designed to determine. As Yogi Berra said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." It ain't over until you get the right answer.