Why Practice Isn’t Always Perfect in SAT/ACT Prep

To reach their goals on these potentially life-changing tests, students need a combination of personalized and active learning. 

By Chandra S. Pemmasani, M.D.

We’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, but that’s not true. Perfect practice makes perfect. Without active practice, you’re not going to reach your goal. The same goes for preparing for college entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT.  

Most high schools aren’t required to offer exam-preparation courses, and ordering an ACT prep book from Amazon isn’t enough to achieve a quality score. When it’s time to take their college entrance exams, many students try to cram in all subject areas in a short amount of time. Without personalized, active learning, students hoping to get accepted into their dream schools might fall short. With the right mindset, long-term planning, and hard work, they can train for a high-stakes exam like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

Taking Ownership 

Some high school students struggle to prepare for entrance exams because they’re used to teachers telling them, “Read chapter four, then complete the five questions at the end of the chapter,” or, “Write a paper and include the following ideas.” For many of them, getting ready for the ACT or SAT is the first time they have autonomy over what they learn and, just as importantly, how they learn. 

Taking quality practice exams will familiarize students with the format of an exam, but learning the material is very different than developing the pacing and stamina they need to succeed on a timed test. High school students who want to go to college have to learn how to moderate themselves. Preparing for these challenging and potentially life-changing exams takes accountability and discipline to choose which activities they need to hone in on. One of the best things any ACT or SAT prep educator or program can do is to help students identify their weak spots, determine their goals, and plan accordingly. 

High-achieving students are sometimes surprised to find that they have weak spots at all, but the ACT or SAT are not barometers of whether or not you’re smart. They’re not IQ tests. Every student can improve their score on the ACT or SAT, but they have to put in focused practice.

Personalizing Your Prep

Personalized learning is all about creating an environment in which students can get exactly what they need from their learning tool. Whether that means focusing on a specific section or even a particular type of question, students need the ability to choose their pace and adjust the difficulty level so they can work their way up from their current state. If students don’t personalize their learning, they’ll waste time reinforcing concepts they’ve mastered rather than improving in areas where they need it the most. 

Quality college prep programs help by offering self-assessments and score predictors. With high accuracy, these tools show students what they’d likely receive on a test if they took it that day. They also provide data on which subject areas or individual skills within a subject area they need to practice the most. This initial information gives students a strong start for their self-paced practice.

Active Learning

Active learning is about getting students to engage in their own learning and to take ownership. Active learning results in students absorbing and retaining large amounts of complex material effectively. They’re no longer being delivered information; they’re seeking out necessary information, analyzing it, and understanding their own thinking. Decades of research supports active learning as the most effective way to prepare for any exam. It’s an approach that allows students to be involved and learn as they go. 

One of the aspects of active learning I most value is that it closes the gap between learning a skill and how that skill is going to be assessed on the exam. It’s one thing to learn a skill in isolation, and it’s another to learn and apply that skill simultaneously under actual testing conditions. If a student practices by working out a math problem and analyzes any mistakes they make, working out a similar problem when it’s time for the exam will be easier. When they show up on test day, they will be better prepared and more confident. It’s a seamless transfer of skill. 

The combination of personalized and active learning helps students reach their goals by empowering them to make choices about how and when they learn and providing them opportunities to really own that learning.

Chandra S. Pemmasani, M.D. is the founder and CEO of UWorld, an online prep resource for high-stakes exams that personalizes a student’s journey and helps them actively learn the skills they need to reach their target exam score.