Is Your Study System Broken?

What if I told you that you’ve been wasting virtually all your time studying for the SAT/ACT lately? Would you hate me?

What if I told you there was a way to improve your scores with LESS time? Would you want to know?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of students go about studying the wrong way, simply because that’s what they’ve been taught. It’s not your fault. It’s the system’s fault, but you’re still the one suffering because of it.

If your predominant way of studying is to do a few practice tests or sections, then go over the questions you got wrong, this article is for you.

If you mainly read over a few notes, watch some video tutorials, or flip through a stack of flashcards, this article is for you.

I want to show you a more effective way to study today.

In strength training, there’s a program called HIT (high intensity training)—basically, you push yourself extremely hard at the gym for short bursts at a time. The theory is that this focused training is better than lackluster training for long periods of time.

We’re going to do something similar but with a few tweaks.

Recently, I’ve told you the most important factor in prep is your mentality: how badly do you want it? I talk about mindset in detail HERE. Without truly wanting a specific high score, you’re simply not going to get there.

I also talked about the importance of knowing your enemies, the specific weaknesses and concepts you struggle with. Make sure you create a “hit list” of your enemies before you start any real review. I go through the exact process of doing that HERE.

Today is all about how to take your list of enemies and systematically crush them, one by one.

Why Most Test Prep is Broken

The reason the test prep industry gets a bad rap is because it is laughably bad at raising scores. Too many students and their parents have been swindled into paying thousands of dollars, investing months of time, and not seeing any significant gains.

To a large extent, that’s the students’ fault if they haven’t been doing the work, haven’t paid attention, or simply haven’t cared about test prep. But often, it’s the tutors’ fault because they aren’t using a system for REVIEWING, only a system for TEACHING.

To be clear, teaching these strategies is absolutely essential. There’s a reason I give away so many of my best strategies for free on my blog. I know they are useful, and I believe everyone deserves free access to solid strategies. But I also know they are NOT the main factor in improving scores.

The problem with merely teaching is that it neglects the most important part of mastering new concepts—REVIEW. There are countless books, videos, and classes that teach all the right grammar rules, math concepts, and reading strategies. Yet, there is zero emphasis on the need for STUDENTS to REVIEW those concepts, as opposed to listening to teachers RETEACH the same concepts.

See, reviewing and re-teaching are completely different things. Teaching is actively done by the teacher, which means the student is PASSIVELY absorbing the information. Learning is not a spectator sport, and studies have shown passive learning is the least effective way to learn. You only remember about 10% of what you passively hear.

I’m able to consistently get my students 300, 400, even 500+ (and in one exceptional case, 800) point increases because I stress REVIEW strategies over everything else. I make my students get their hands dirty and do the problems themselves.

If your study program consists only of taking practice tests/sections and listening to, reading, or watching explanations of the questions you got wrong, YOU’VE GOT TO STOP!

Why? Because it’s like trying to lose weight by stepping on the scale.

Here’s what I mean. If you have a goal to lose weight, part of that process is stepping on the scale to see how much you currently weigh. There’s no question this is important—to track your progress and gauge if what you’re doing is effective. But does getting on the scale help you lose any weight?

Absolutely not! Unless you plan to get on and off 1,000,000 times, in which case, you may lose a couple pounds. That’s not a lot of gain for a ton of work. I believe in leveraged prep, which means using the least amount of time possible for the greatest amount of gain.

Without dieting and exercising in between weigh-ins, your weight simply won’t improve.

Taking a practice test is like stepping on the scale. It’ll tell you what you’re currently scoring. If you analyze the questions you missed, it’ll even tell you what specific enemies or weakness you need to work on and which ones you don’t because you’ve already mastered them. Hell, practice tests will even improve your familiarity with the test’s format and build up your endurance. But what they won’t do is actually help you improve your score in any meaningful way.

It’s literally Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over in hopes of a different outcome.

If all you do is take practice test after practice test (or even practice sections), you might go up all of 50-100 points, often less. Whoohoo for mediocrity? Please, I refuse to let you only improve that little.

I’m in the business of getting you MULTIPLE HUNDRED POINT IMPROVEMENTS!

You might think reviewing the questions you got wrong on a test equates to dieting and exercising. In theory, it does, but the problem is, virtually everyone reviews questions in the wrong way.

The Right Way to Review

  1. Choose your target score and develop a relentless desire to achieve it. Without this do-or-die mentality, you won’t have the mental strength to actually implement the rest of this process. This is where most students fail—they simply don’t want to improve badly enough because it’s easier for them to rationalize why a lower score is good enough for them, even when they are fully capable of better.
  2. Create your “hit list” of enemies (concepts you are weak in) by scanning through your old tests, worksheets, practice sections, or whatever. Or if you simply know you’re weak at something, you’ve already identified an enemy.
  3. Focus on mastering ONE enemy at a time, then move onto the next. And I do mean MASTER, not simply practice it. You have to know EVERY in-and-out of that particular concept. Remember, the key to improving is to be a master at SOME concepts, rather than mediocre at ALL concepts. This is why, unlike companies who try to expose students to a little bit of everything, I often won’t even teach certain concepts. Spending precious time preparing for concepts that aren’t at the student’s appropriate level will actually HURT his score because they aren’t mastering more important concepts. Time is better spent on concepts that shows up more frequently.

But how do we master a concept?

First of all, recognize that reading/watching an explanation of a tricky concept or even having a tutor re-teach it to you DOES NOT MEAN you understand that question/concept now.

That’s because you only PASSIVELY absorbed the content. To really master something, you must GO THROUGH THE STEPS YOURSELF. That’s why after I teach my students a new concept, I have them re-teach it back to me. If their explanations are too simple or lacking precision, I will ask them WHY we need to take a particular step. You need to do the same for yourself.

After you understand the explanation, DO NOT move onto the next question yet. Instead, first try to re-teach yourself (or better yet, a friend who’s also struggling with this concept) how to do that question. Do not jump over any steps.

If you get lost or forget what step to take next, congrats! This means you REALIZE that you haven’t fully mastered the question yet. Congrats for not thinking that understanding SOMEONE ELSE’S explanations means YOU can do the problem.

You wouldn’t think that with other skills, right? Does watching someone cook mean you can cook? Does watching someone throw a perfect three-pointer in basketball mean you can do it? Does seeing someone fix your car mean you’re an expert mechanic now?

Of course not. So don’t think understanding someone else’s explanations makes you a master.

If you realized you got stuck explaining a particular step, or you forget WHY you needed to take a specific step, then go back and re-read/re-watch the explanation again. You can find pretty much any explanation online, or if you’re truly stuck, shoot me an email at [email protected]. I’ll try to help you for free.

After you understand the explanation again, try to lead yourself through all the steps once more. Remember, ANY fumble, no matter how small, counts as a failure. On these tests, there is no partial credit, so if you got everything right except you said that 10/5 = 5 (instead of 2), too bad! You got the question 100% wrong.

If that sounds harsh, it’s because it is. You MUST commit yourself to mastery and be completely unsatisfied with 99% correct answers.

When I was studying for the SAT math portion, I remember getting so upset at myself if I missed a single question, especially because it was ALWAYS a stupid careless mistake like finding the value of x, when the question was really asking for 2x.

This is why I also tell my students that it doesn’t matter if they finish the homework I assigned them. If they didn’t hit the desired target, they should try again and do more. So if I assigned a practice section with a target of missing no more than 2 questions, but they missed 3…guess what? That means take another section until they miss no more than 2.

This strict discipline is what separates the “great” from the “good enough.” Which side do you want to be on?

Another thing: sometimes students will know what steps to take and even in what order to do the steps, but they might not understand WHY. This is dangerous, and it means you’re not yet a master.

Especially in math, students are so used to memorizing formulas and using them just because that’s the formula for those situations. Well, formulas don’t come out of thin air. If you don’t know WHY the formula is set up that way, it means you won’t recognize when the circumstances of a similar question are slightly different (thereby making that formula WRONG to use now).

As you’re reviewing a question, follow these steps in order:

  1. Passively understand how to do the question. Watch or read explanations online, or have a tutor teach you.
  2. Try to do the problem from scratch again on your own. No hints or notes. Work through EVERY step.
  3. If you don’t remember which step to do next or don’t understand WHY you need to do a step, get an explanation from someone else again.
  4. Keep trying to re-teach yourself the entire problem until EVERY detail makes perfect sense.
  5. If you realize you are getting through the problem perfectly, but it’s taking too long…then you need to keep doing this problem until it’s second nature. I would say no more than 1 minute (maybe 90 seconds) per question, no matter how complicated.

I don’t mean keep redoing the same question 10 times in a row, but if you don’t get through it fully or quickly enough, make a mark that means “I’m not yet a master at this; come back soon.” Then do another question that deals with the SAME concept (so if you had trouble with a 30-60-90 degrees triangle question, find another one like that).

Come back to your original tricky question a few minutes later, an hour later, even a few days later. But COME BACK! You must be fastidious in marking which questions you have not mastered. Remember, there are only two categories: mastered and not mastered. If you try to make yourself feel better by creating “I Understood This 99%” categories, you are not doing yourself any favors.

Now, just because you finished one problem doesn’t mean move onto the next question you got wrong on your test. Every question is a different concept, so jumping around like this is a sloppy way of studying. We want to organize our review by CONCEPTS, not by questions.

So go find similar questions. Most review books or programs will have sample questions relating to the same concept. Go through the entire chapter and master ALL of the practice questions dealing with that concept.

Only move on to the next enemy on your hit list when you’ve truly mastered the current one. Do not try to multi-task. Doing a little bit of English, then math, then reading is suicide to your prep efforts because you are only becoming mediocre at everything, instead of a master at some things.

I’ll level with you. This review system is NOT easy, but it is effective beyond belief. It organizes your studies so that every moment is being used to its maximum potential, but it requires you to get ACTIVELY involved.

If you’re ready for hard work (with the RIGHT review method), you WILL see big improvements.

Good luck out there!

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