How “Studying” is Actually Counterproductive

Tell me if this sounds like the way you study.

You pull out a practice SAT/ACT or problem set and start making your way through the questions. Some of them you understand; some of them you don’t. Either after every question or after every section or drill set, you check your answers in the back of the book or test packet.

If you have a book, you read over the answer explanations. If it’s a practice test, you try reasoning your own way through the question again to arrive at the stated correct answer. If you get stuck, you consult Reddit or Youtube or something for written or video explanations. You read or watch them. For the most part, they make sense. You nod your head having grasped the crux of the question now, so you move onto the next one…and the next.

After an hour or two, you feel like you’ve put in a good day’s practice, so you move on with your life. The next day or in a few days, you return for some more SAT/ACT studying. Wash, rinse, repeat.

After a week or few of practice, you’re feeling productive. Sure, maybe you skipped a day or two here and there, but you’ve put in significant hours of work overall. So you take the next practice test…looking forward to a nice score increase for all your hard work. You almost expect it.

But as you start doing the sections, a feeling begins to creep up. A particular passage seemed harder than normal. A few math questions felt trickier than you had anticipated. You got stuck between two choices on a few grammar questions.

Finally, you check your score…but it comes as no real surprise. There wasn’t much of an improvement at all. Maybe you even slightly (or significantly) decreased!

Any of this sound familiar?

If so, there’s probably a good reason why you didn’t see much movement in your score.

It’s not your fault. I studied in exactly the same way in high school. But that’s why it took me over 5-6 years to finally earn higher than a 1500 (out of 1600); I started studying for the SAT in 7th grade or so, but it took until my senior year to finally reach my goal.

And I studied HARD too–for hundreds and hundreds of hours. Maybe even over a thousand. It didn’t have to take this long!

The problem comes down to the way we study. See the study process I described above? That’s how the typical student studies. And it does work…eventually…after years. That’s what I call the “brute force method.” You just hunker down and drill, drill, drill until your eyeballs feel like they’re about to fall out from too many boring passages on American history, too many lines and algebraic equations, and too many graphs and charts.

But the thing is, studying is NOT the same as learning. The goal is never to simply study; it’s to actually improve. If you’re spending hours drilling through questions without a methodical, precise, and strategic approach, then you might as well not study at all–because your results are going to be about the same (truly). I can’t tell you the countless students who’ve felt utterly discouraged because after 10+ practice tests, their scores barely budged more than 50-70 points on the SAT or 2 points on the ACT.

Most students study in the way I described above because:

  1. Doing it that way feels productive (but it’s actually counterproductive)
  2. No one ever taught them the proper way to study

It feels like you’re making progress when you can legitimately point to the hundreds of questions you’ve taken, the multiple full-length practice tests you’ve completed, the hours and hours of review you’ve done by reading or watching answer explanations.

I was watching a fitness video the other day, and the main message illustrated the SAT/ACT problem perfectly as well. The personal trainer was explaining how it’s not the number of reps or even the weight of the barbells that really matters, but something called T.U.T. (time under tension, which is how long your muscles are contracted and under strain).

Too many beginners blaze through their bicep curls or pull-ups set, using the momentum from sudden jerks to get through the exercise. But that defeats the purpose of training, which is to put your muscles under sustained strain. It’s during those moments of stress that real muscle growth is activated.

It feels good to our ego to say hey, we showed up and we even did the practice. But the problem with the saying “practice makes perfect” is that it is absolutely false!

Practice never makes perfect…not when you’re doing it wrong. Only perfect practice makes perfect!

So how do we practice perfectly?

  1. Stop simply reviewing the random questions you got wrong on a full practice test or section. They’re all likely different concepts and different difficulty levels. Each question you got wrong only reveals ONE specific variation of that concept too, so even if you do learn how to do that one specific question, it won’t do a whole lot of good on the next test when you’re faced with variation 2, 3, 4 or 5 of that concept. Furthermore, jumping from one concept to the next in 5 minutes or so doesn’t lead to deep understanding of anything. Can you really master a full concept from just one practice question and a mere five minutes? Heck no!
  2. Identify your enemies (the confusing concepts for you)! This means categorize your mistakes by concept, including careless mistakes. There’s a specific way to eliminate careless mistakes, but it’s not about learning the academic content because you already understood that part. Once you’ve identified the sticking points for you, create a study plan that allows you to master each concept one-by-one. Never try to study for multiple concepts at once!
  3. Get a book (or several) or program that gives you multiple questions around the concepts you’re struggling with. Say you’re struggling with solving system of equations in math. Then you should go to that chapter on system of equations and master ALL of the practice questions there. Figure out all the possible variations, traps, and tricky things that can happen with system of equations.
  4. Go read/watch an explanation until you fully understand the logic. But don’t stop here! This is where most students stop. They think that if the explanation makes sense, then they are good, as if they suddenly know how to do the question now too! You don’t! You simply know how to understand someone ELSE solve the question.
  5. Once you’ve understood the explanation, also try to retrace your steps and logic to understand how you arrived at your original (wrong) answer. Analyzing what went wrong is just as important as understanding the correct answer. Did you make a miscalculation somewhere? Did you misunderstand a sentence in the story? Did you not know a key vocab word? Did you look at the wrong part of the graph? Did you misinterpret the question? Did you add your own interpretation to the story when it didn’t actually say that? Be precise about your mistake. Calling something a “careless mistake” doesn’t help at all because you need to know what caused the carelessness.

    If you got down to two answer choices (especially in the reading) but you chose the wrong one, it’s critical that you understand why your choice was wrong–and not simply because the correct answer is slightly “better” or your original choice is slightly “worse.” No! You cannot play the comparison game! You cannot think of any answer as better or worse than another answer. That’s the mentality that will destroy your ability to improve because then you’ll never truly understand why things are right or wrong. Instead, realize that an answer is simply 100% right or 100% wrong ON ITS OWN (not in comparison to other choices)! What was the one word, one detail, one logical flaw that makes your original choice wrong?

    If your book/video explanation doesn’t explain that, then you need to consult an SAT/ACT expert or someone who can pinpoint the exact problem with your original thinking process.
  1. Now that you’ve understood both why each individual answer choice is right or wrong, it’s time to REDO the entire question! This is the most important step of all. Simply understanding someone else’s explanation is passive learning, so you’ll barely remember 25% of it. That’s why I can explain a problem to a student (who fully understands every step I’m explaining), but seconds later, when I ask him to walk me through the problem again, he gets stuck after a few steps.

    You must get your own hands dirty by ACTIVELY solving the question again — without consulting your notes/explanations. If you get stuck, then go ahead and read the explanation again, and then redo from scratch. You must get through 100% of the question without any hints before you can consider yourself “done” with that question. Even if you made the tiniest mistake on the very last step, you MUST repeat the whole entire question. I know, it sounds harsh. But guess what? Countless students have understood 99% of a question and STILL gotten it wrong because of a minor error. And there’s no partial credit on the SAT/ACT!

    This process is by no means easy or quick. It’s hard, painful work because it forces you to actually LEARN, not simply study.
  2. When you’ve mastered that one question, you can move onto the next question and repeat the process above. Keep doing this until you’ve gone through the ENTIRE set of questions on the ONE specific concept you were trying to master.
  3. When you’ve mastered that ONE concept, now you can finally move onto the SECOND concept and repeat the whole process again. Keep doing this until you’ve mastered all the major concepts that show up most frequently on the SAT/ACT, then move onto the less frequently tested concepts.
  4. I’d say you can retake a practice test after you’ve truly mastered 3-5 or so major concepts in every section (reading, math, grammar, science). If you take it early, you probably won’t see significant improvement.
  5. After each practice test, review each individual question, sure. But also categorize your missed questions by concept type again. If you’re still struggling with the same concepts as before, it means you moved on from the process before you truly mastered them. So repeat the deep studying process above.

Now, I know, the problem with most books and answer explanations is that they are never complete. They don’t fully discuss the specific logical way YOU thought about it, so you have a hard time understanding what you did wrong sometimes. Or have you ever seen those terrible explanations by the test makers themselves?

Choice A (the wrong answer) might say: “The family was eager to see the new baby.” But the explanation will say, “Choice A is wrong because the family was NOT eager to see the new baby.” Like, okay, Captain Useless! You might have chose choice A because you thought the family was indeed eager to see the new baby, so simply being told the family was NOT eager doesn’t help you understand your mistake at all!

I’ve read all the major SAT/ACT books out there (and even many of the minor ones), so it’s atrocious how bad most of the answer explanations are. That’s why all of my SAT/ACT programs, whether it’s a 1-on-1 or a small group program, include unlimited access to me to get individualized help on specific questions/concepts.

I’m here to help you work your way through your thinking process and identify the exact moment your logic begins taking you down the wrong path. This is the secret to how my students see rapid and massive score improvements.

Rather than engaging in sloppy studying that feels productive but actually isn’t at all, they focus on understanding the tiny details and small logical fallacies they’re falling for. They find that personalized support to get over the conceptual (and sometimes emotional) hump.

If you’re looking for this sort of deep and precise guidance, then I’m going to be hosting a summer SAT small group program (10-15 students max) as well as my standard year-round 1-on-1 prep programs (for both the SAT and ACT). Want the details? Just comment below or reply to this email ([email protected]).

Leave a comment or question below

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2024 - Privacy Policy
Scroll to Top