If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know I’m all about precision prep and systematized studying. Most people have never learned how to learn.
I’d like to say that’s okay, but it’s really not. The thing is, no one really teaches us the proper way to learn. Our teachers can teach us math facts and grammar rules and literary devices for days, but we’re left to fend for ourselves when it comes to actually organizing the barrage of information.
How can we ensure we actually memorize all the necessary facts? How we can ensure that we can reason our way through curveballs when the situation changes? Is it possible to truly retain every new concept without forgetting old ones?
The answer is yes, but not with the way most students try to study. Sloppy studying leads to frustrating results, wasted time, and emotional scarring. People literally start to believe they are stupid if they’ve worked hard for years, only to never see any real success. This then creates a downward spiral that ends in their giving up or worse. They start to spend less and less time studying because in their minds they wonder, “What’s the point?”
If no one has shown them the right way to review and learn, then their negative self-talk is rightly justified.
Discovering the Right Study System
The first time I remember truly struggling with an academic concept was during my 7th grade summer. I was trying to skip Algebra 1 by taking the summer course at a local community college, but I had to drop out. I just couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to factor polynomials.
So I went up to my professor and told him I was going to withdraw from the class. He looked at me, disappointed. “Is it because you haven’t figured out how to factor?” He knew the precise issue I was giving up on.
“Yes,” I said. But there was more to the answer that I wasn’t willing to tell him. I didn’t want a B showing up on my transcript. I wanted to withdraw now, before it was too late, before the registrar would permanently attach a W (for withdraw) to my record. I couldn’t risk a blemish, so I quit the class.
But I didn’t quit on the topic. I still wanted to learn Algebra, just at my own pace, without the pressure of grades. My parents didn’t know I had dropped the class, so every day they continued to drop me off at the college gates. I’d then proceed to slip into a private alcove at the library, where I’d wrestle with factoring, functions, simultaneous equations, and much more for the next few months.
I tried to stay on schedule according to the course syllabus, but there was just no way. I fell far behind. For all intents and purposes, I had failed the course.
But I gained something during this time much more important on my overall journey of learning. I stumbled upon a system of learning that was so effective that I never studied another way again.
In essence, I had learned how to learn.
Mastery of a Single Thing
I discovered that true learning that stays with you—stuff you don’t ever forget—involved deep mastery of a SINGLE topic before moving onto the next.
The problem I had with factoring wasn’t the real problem at all. It was because the class was moving onto new concepts, so I felt I had to keep up and learn those new concepts while simultaneously figuring out how to factor. I hadn’t mastered a fundamental concept, yet I was trying to play above my level—all for the sake of “keeping up.”
In high school, I often wondered why many of my friends, who all claimed to have studied hard, continued to perform poorly.
Was it because they were idiots? Or because I was just a natural born genius? Hardly. In some cases, it was simply because I studied longer and stayed up later. I mean, at my school, lack of sleep was a boasting right (that’s how nerdy we were). But more often, it was because they weren’t implementing the same study system I was.
Before every big test, there was always an overwhelming number of concepts we had to learn.
Faced with learning so many different things, my friends grew frantic. They ran back and forth between various concepts, trying to plug the different holes. The problem was they were merely applying a Band-Aid to a bleeding artery.
By the time they had plugged a new hole, three other holes they had previously plugged had begun to leak again. I see this with students all the time today. They try to do a little of this, a little of that. The first thing I correct for them is to get them to STOP TRYING TO DO EVERYTHING.
It’s far better to fix one issue COMPLETELY before moving onto the next. Even if this comes at the expense of not learning a few concepts at all, it’s worth it.
On the SAT/ACT, there are certain concepts that show up 5x more often than others, so it’s better to master those and be absolutely clueless on a few harder concepts.
Studying is Not Learning
I want to make one thing clear: studying is not learning.
Studying is simply the method you use to learn, but the true objective is to actually learn. Certain study methods led to fruitful learning. Other methods led straight to study hell—where all your efforts are wasted.
To be clear, sloppy studying is different than laziness. Laziness is when you literally don’t try to study much at all. Sloppy studying is when you actually try, but you don’t have an organized way to review your concepts or gauge your ability. It’s when you believe simply reading over notes or taking a few practice tests is the way to go.
When it comes to SAT/ACT prep, there’s a whole industry out there that believes cramming students into a room every Saturday for a practice test is the way to go. It doesn’t work. I get so many calls from students who have tried these 20-week programs with 20 practice tests under their belts—they just haven’t seen the improvement they should have seen with that kind of time investment.
If you’re doing any of these brute force methods or sloppy study methods, I want you to stop immediately.
The best way to learn is actually stunningly simple, yet hardly anyone does it (much less teaches it):
- Identify what broad concepts you don’t understand
- Figure out what specific issues are causing you confusion—at which specific step do you get lost? Usually you will understand PART of the problem, but not all of it.
- Resolve those difficult, confusing areas.
- Redo from scratch ALL the old problems you missed unless you can explain them like they’re second nature (yes, literally the SAME problems…not similar ones, not questions related to it…the SAME problems).
- Practice, practice, practice.
The last step is the most misunderstood step. People like to believe doing more tests and more problems or spending more time is effective practice. It’s not. Not even close.
Repetitive Practice is Worthless; Analysis is Key
Effective practice means fine-tuning the areas of difficulty. That means trying something once, then ANALYZING what you could have done better. Just like training for a 100 meter dash. You don’t just run it, see you didn’t hit the time you wanted, then just go run it again.
Professional track stars will go as far as watching themselves on videotape in slow motion to see how they might shave milliseconds off their time. What angle did they position their feet? What leg should they launch off of? How should their arms be moving alongside their bodies?
Every detail counts. Every detail must be scrutinized.
SAT and ACT prep (and school in general) is like that. There are tiny details you’re not getting right, but to improve, you first have to identify them, then think about how you can fix them.
That’s why I don’t believe in blind brute force practice. Taking a thousand practice tests without consciously trying to change anything is just plain stupid. Without these fine adjustments, you’re going to get the same poor results, over and over and over again.
Free Gift For You
For the past few months, I’ve been quietly working on something BIG behind the scenes. It’s something that will help you identify the areas for the biggest bang for your buck. By that I mean I’m planning to release this 100% free—my gift to you.
But to gauge interest, I want you to leave a comment below if you’re interested in this.
I’m going to discuss which concepts you should focus on the most for each topic on the SAT, as well as reveal the most heavy-hitting strategies that will allow you to see the greatest score improvement in as little time as possible.
You’ll learn to systematically analyze your mistakes, root out your weakness, and master them.
You can say good bye to sloppy studying. You can finally stop wasting hours of time on ineffective learning.
There’s a right way to learn that allows you to know exactly where you stand, exactly what you need to do next, and exactly how to do it.