It’s easy to get trapped in an endless cycle of taking practice tests without stopping to carefully consider their results. Sure, taking practice tests will help you become more familiar with the exams as a whole, but the point of taking them should be to identify areas of weakness so that you can strengthen them and, consequently, maximize your score.
Breaking Down Practice Test Results
Some students believe that the mere act of taking practice exams is all that’s needed to boost their score, but this is not the case. Taking practice test without reflecting on the results robs you of the opportunity to improve even more. Reviewing test results and changing your study habits accordingly are more important than simply taking test after test, so make sure you take the time to seriously think about what the results indicate.
There are plenty of conclusions you can draw from your practice tests. Some problems are easy to identify, like repeatedly running out of time, while others can be more difficult to unravel, like missing questions due to weak math skills. Analyzing your pacing is a good first step: if you managed your time well and didn’t feel too rushed, you can move on to identifying common mistakes. If you struggled to finish a section, you should work on your time-management skills.
Once you finish considering your performance on the test as a whole, it’s time to look at missed questions and common errors. Sometimes it’s obvious where the broader issues lie. For example, getting top scores in verbal reasoning while falling behind with quantitative problems suggests that a greater emphasis on math is required. Keeping track of which sections are most challenging and which skills were missed most frequently is the next step toward improving scores.
Once you identify your problem areas, the next step involves deeper analysis. For example, noticing that you missed ten math questions and five sentence correction questions isn’t the important part: what’s key is breaking down those mistakes further. What SKILLS did each question test? Were all the math mistakes due to calculation errors or careless work? Did you answer the Critical Reasoning questions incorrectly because you read the passages too quickly, or do you have serious issues with certain question types? Thinking of missed questions based on required skills is the best way to improve.
Another way to approach incorrect responses is to sort them into three different categories. In one group, place all of the “careless error” questions that involved a silly mistake. In another group, place questions where a little more study on a certain topic is needed. In the last group, place questions that require challenging concepts that will take more time to master. By sorting missed questions in this way, it’s easier to identify strategies to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
The “careless error” questions are those that you should have answered correctly in the first place. Strategies such as double-checking math calculations or taking note of keywords like NOT or EXCEPT in Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions may be all that’s needed to prevent similar mistakes in the future. Even something as simple as reading a question twice to make sure you fully understand what is being asked can help eliminate silly mistakes.
The second category of mistakes is trickier. These are questions that need you to work on certain skills. Some examples include Quantitative questions in which a formula must be memorized or Verbal questions in which a particular grammar rule needs review. For these mistakes, extra review could include completing targeted practice questions, watching problems solved on YouTube, consulting a tutor, or any other strategy that lets you learn and practice those specific skills.
The third category of mistakes is best left for last, because these errors will take the most time to fix. When it’s time to evaluate these errors, you should practice some honest self-evaluation. Which is more useful: spending hours learning a handful of advanced topics, or building a strong foundation in the commonly-tested skills? The answer to this question will depend on your current skillset, your goals, and any time limitations.
Using Results to Tailor Future Studying
Once you reflect on your practice test performance, it’s necessary to apply these results to future preparation. Fixing careless errors are typically the easiest, so this shouldn’t take up a lot of your prep time. Building skills should be the most important part of your preparation. Maybe it’s necessary to review some basic math, or perhaps work on identifying premises in a Critical Reasoning passages. The key is not to keep taking more and more practice exams. Instead, use the information from your practice tests to find ways to improve. This the most effective way to use practice tests in your prep.
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