How To Study For A Standardized Test

Last Updated on August 28, 2023

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How To Study For A Standardized Test

Studying effectively is a complex art, but here are the basics:

  1. Practice retrieval, not recognition. Don’t review notes. …
  2. Repeat and space your studying. …
  3. Understand first, memorize second. …
  4. Practice at least as hard as the test. …
  5. Start learning early, keep learning consistently.

There are plenty of different standardized tests: SAT, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT as well as hundreds more for specific classes, fields and specialties.

In many cases, the thought of preparing for big tests like this can fill you with anxiety, as you imagine going up against hundreds or thousands of other students in a high-pressure environment. Often these tests decide your fate as a future doctor, lawyer, accountant or student, so you know you need to take them seriously.

What is the right way to study for these kinds of tests?

Step One: Know Exactly How the Test Works

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know exactly how the standardized exam works

The first step is to really know, not just the material you need to learn, but the exact format and specifications of the test itself. How long is it? How are the questions asked? How important will speed be to getting a good score?

Become an expert on the test you’re about to take. Know your enemy before you face it.

There’s three ways you can do this:

  1. Buy premade test-prep guides. These are essential for big standardized tests since many people have already studied them endlessly and know how they work. Learning from a test-prep guide should be your first resource.
  2. Talk to instructors and graders. Talk to the people teaching the classes or who have graded exams in the past. They can clue you onto which things are important and what the test is trying to ask of you.
  3. Talk to other people who have taken it. While less reliable than a test-prep guide or teachers, other past students can give you insight into the format.

Step Two: Is the Test Measuring Knowledge or Intelligence?

does the test measure intelligence or knowledge?

The next step is to know any of the specific material the test is asking. Here you can see a divergence between the two types of standardized test you may face.

Knowledge tests are trying to see whether you know the things needed to pass. These are common in professions which expect all members to know certain things in order to practice. Lawyers need to pass the bar. Doctors need to show they understand medicine.

Aptitude tests are often intelligence tests in disguise. Rather than testing specific knowledge, these tests just want to know how much general knowledge you may have, so they can see how well you will perform in a further intellectual task. SAT, GMAT and other aptitude tests often cover huge ranges of potential knowledge, so they are much harder to study for.

For knowledge tests, the focus should be on acquiring the knowledge. For aptitude tests, you need to split your efforts between acquiring knowledge that can be acquired and focusing on mastering your test-taking skills to learn the test itself as well as you can.

Step Three: Know the Material

Master the material for your standardized exam

For knowledge tests, or aptitude tests which have specific, learnable components, your next step is to learn the material. This is like studying for an ordinary test, although the scope may be much broader if you have to cover a lot more than a single class.

Studying effectively is a complex art, but here are the basics:

  1. Practice retrieval, not recognition. Don’t review notes. Instead, cover up your notes and ask yourself what they say. Do practice problems for complex subjects. Try to explain the essence of big ideas for essay topics. Only look at your reference material after you’ve tried to answer it.
  2. Repeat and space your studying. Every topic you study should get studied more than once, and those times should be spread out over your total studying time before an exam.
  3. Understand first, memorize second. If something can be understood—because it has an internal logic or because is a more complex idea—then start there. Only memorize details of things once you understand their foundation.
  4. Practice at least as hard as the test. Does the test ask essays? Then don’t study with multiple choice. The act of studying should be no easier than the act of test-taking, with the possible exception of time pressure (which can be added in later).
  5. Start learning early, keep learning consistently. Pick a schedule for studying, and stick to it. A consistent, long-term studying plan will do more for you than any trick or hack applied last minute before a cram session ever could.

Organize all the things you need to learn and attack them systematically. If you’re dealing with a huge topic coverage, you may want to insert tests in your learning phase so you can get feedback about how well your efforts are on track.

Need more studying advice? I teach a six-week course on learning faster.

Step Four: Master the Test

Do practice tests until you ace them

In an ideal world, your mixture of studying the topic and practicing the test would be:

  1. Take a practice test immediately. This sets a benchmark for future progress and will show you the difficulty you face, even if you fail miserably the first time.
  2. Study until you feel about 50% ready to take the test. This is a subjective benchmark, but you shouldn’t wait to get feedback on your progress.
  3. Take the test again and see if you were right. If you were, you should have made noticeable improvements, over your initial attempt.
  4. Once you feel 80% ready, focus at least half your efforts just on doing practice tests. This is for two reasons:
    1. Doing practice tests *will* help you learn the material.
    2. They will be much more focused than general studying efforts, so you’ll start to master the test.

When you take a practice test, always do it under the conditions of the actual exam. That means you should have access to the same materials (or the be restricted from them) as well as operate under the same time pressure.

If time is a factor in the actual test, and you don’t do your tests under time pressure, you aren’t learning much about how you’ll perform on the test in real life.

Your goal should be that, as you approach the final exam, you should be able to estimate your grade to within 10% of what you actually achieve. This is because you’ll have done it enough already to know.

Step Five: Relax and Focus Your Mind

Focus and Relax Before the Test

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re about ready to take the test. You should have understood how it works thoroughly, mastered the material and taken enough practice tests to know your score within ten percent.
If you’ve managed to do this, most of your work is done. Now you just need to make sure you’re set up for peak performance on test day.

Start by getting enough sleep. At minimum, you should require yourself to get enough sleep the night before. If you suffer from test anxiety that might make it hard for you to sleep the night before properly, make this a minimum of three nights of proper sleep. That means no all-nighters, no last-minute cramming.

Next, practice a visualization ritual of taking the test. Imagine yourself sitting down and hearing the signal to start. See yourself flipping through the papers, writing down your responses. Picture facing questions that you have no idea what the answer is, but you calmly give your best response and move onto other sections.

This kind of mental rehearsal can help reduce the anxiety in the actual moment. If you experience a lot of test anxiety, you may want to actually go to the room you’ll be taking the test to try to imagine it as vividly as possible, and start practicing your visualizations earlier.

Ultimately, however, no visualization can replace the work of preparation. Confidence comes from knowing your competent. You’ll be competent because you learned the material. You’ll know you’re competent because you did practice tests. Start early, be patient and you’ll be sure to be successful.

how to beat standardized tests

5 Tips To Beat a Standardized Test

  1. Understand test formats. …
  2. Take sample tests. …
  3. Read up on the scoring. …
  4. Don’t go overboard on the studying. …
  5. Think about taking the test later.

As we get ready to head back to school, or go looking for jobs, or think about accreditation for our career of choice, it’s worth thinking about the tests that are coming up. Not so that we can worry about what score we’re going to get but so that when the big day comes, we can beat each of those tests.

1. Understand test formats

The thing about giving the same test to a whole bunch of people is that you have to make the questions understandable even for someone who will be taking the test cold. If a teacher is giving you a mid-term, she knows exactly what was covered during her lectures. But if a prospective employer is testing you on your computer skills, he has to make sure that the questions are written in such a way that anybody can walk in and understand them. That means that most standardized tests avoid jargon as much as possible. They also adhere to easy-to-use (and easy-to-grade) formats, like multiple-choice and true-or-false. Being comfortable with these formats gives you a head start.

2. Take sample tests

If you can get a sample of the test you’re planning to take — or even a few sample questions — take advantage of the opportunity. Just taking a dry run once through before the real test can raise your score significantly — knowing that the questions aren’t horribly scary and recognizing the question format simply makes you more comfortable with taking a high-stakes test. Luckily, getting sample tests is usually just a matter of asking. College Board, the makers of the SAT, for instance, offer free sample tests on their website. It’s more than a matter of comfort. Familiarizing yourself with the test can help you understand questions better and answer them faster, important abilities on lengthy tests.

3. Read up on the scoring

The thing that tripped me up about the ACT and the SAT is the different way in which the two tests are graded. On the SAT, you lose a quarter of a point for every question you get wrong. On the ACT, there’s no penalty for incorrect guesses. That means that on the ACT, if you don’t know an answer, you should always guess. The worse that can happen is that you aren’t penalized. On the SAT, though, guessing a lot can get you into trouble. If you have no idea on the answer, you’ve got a 75 percent chance of losing a quarter of a point, and those can add up fast. If you can’t eliminate one or two of the answers, it’s probably not going to benefit you to guess.

Test scoring varies greatly. It’s up to you to know how the test you’ll be taking is scored — and to figure out if guessing is really a good strategy if you don’t know the answer. If you will be taking a test that doesn’t penalize for wrong answers, though, there shouldn’t be an unanswered question on your test sheet. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

4. Don’t go overboard on the studying

I would never advocate walking into a test without having studied at all, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour studying. Even on bar exams, there are definite limits to the questions that will be on the test. There should be limits on how much you study, as well. In theory, you should have learned most of what you need to know for any given test in the class or course of study (like law school) proceeding it. Preparing for a test shouldn’t be a case of actually learning material — it should be more of a matter of reviewing it. That is an ideal scenario, of course. You may need to study quite a bit — but you should still spread it out. Cramming all of your studying into the few nights before the test is a sure way to let the test beat you.

5. Think about taking the test later

There is not a single standardized test that there is absolutely no chance of retaking. Sure, there is typically a high cost associated with retaking it, but it’s important to remember that taking the test again is an option. I taught SAT test prep in college and I had one student who kept getting entirely freaked out by even the thought of sitting down to take the test. What finally got her to the table was the thought that she really could take the test as many times as she had to. Her parents didn’t particularly like the idea of paying for multiple tests, but they told her that if she struggled the first time, they’d pay for a second try without question. Eliminating the high-stakes can do wonders for the stress that normally distracts test-takers. Think about it: even if you had to wait a year or two to put the money together for a second shot, you’d still have the choice to do so.

stress that occurs when a student is preparing for an assessment

According to the American Test Anxieties Association, “schoolwork” and “exams” are reported by students as the most stressful thing in their lives.

It’s easy to dismiss test anxiety as something that is simply part of being a student. However, left unchecked, the effects of test anxiety can take a toll on students.

In fact, students who struggle with test anxiety typically fall a half a letter grade below their peers. In addition to academic impacts, text anxiety can affect a student’s mental health, including lowered self-esteem, confidence, and motivation.


Test anxiety affects an estimated 10 million children in North America
Approximately 16-20% of students have high test anxiety
Another 18% of students deal with moderate test anxiety


There are a number of things that can cause test anxiety. Usually, these causes can be broken down into situational causes and mental causes.


  • The pressure of timed tests
  • Intimidation of taking tests in a crowded classroom
  • Poor study skills or a lack of preparedness
  • A history of stress related to test taking
  • Lack of understanding of the material
  • Previous poor test performance


  • Fear of poor grades
  • A feeling of lack of control
  • Fear of letting down others (parents, teachers)
  • Placing too much emphasis on single tests and exams
  • High expectations of his/her own performance
  • Using grades as a reflection of self worth
  • Poor self-esteem or negative self-talk


Even the best students can struggle with test anxiety. There are typically two types of students who are likely to have trouble with test anxiety:


Students who have high expectations of themselves or who are perfectionists are likely to struggle with test anxiety. These students tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves and have a hard time dealing with mistakes. This can easily lead to these students becoming overwhelmed during the test, resulting in their mind freezing or going blank.


Students who haven’t properly prepared for a test are also likely to deal with test anxiety. This usually happens because the student put off studying too long or simply does not understand the material. This can lead to low confidence when it’s time to take the test. And when students go into a test thinking they’re going to fail, it can lead to it actually happening.



  • Freezing or “going blank” during tests
  • Worrying about forgetting material while studying
  • Feeling like he or she has never done enough to prepare
  • A feeling of doom or fear of failure during tests or exams
  • Difficulty concentrating while studying for upcoming tests
  • Putting off studying for tests until the last minute
  • Performing well in class or on homework, but failing to do well when tested
  • A lack of confidence
  • Physical symptoms before a test


Once you have identified whether your child is struggling with test anxiety, you can start taking steps to overcome it. Our study skills tutors can help your child develop test-taking skills that help build confidence so your child can perform his or her best.

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