Taking a diagnostic SAT or ACT is a critical first step to your standardized test success. The diagnostic exam pinpoints your test-taking strengths and weaknesses, so you can structure your test preparations effectively. Diagnostic tests establish a foundation from which you will only improve! So take a deep breath – you are already on the right track – and follow these tips to make your diagnostic test experience as useful and informative as possible.
Step 1: Finding an Official Practice Exam
Beware of practice exams produced by test-prep companies as opposed to the College Board. They can be chock-full of questions that do not accurately reflect the difficulty and style of those on a real exam. College-Board-administered questions have been previously tested on thousands of students to make sure they’re fair. Here are a few ways to find a College-Board-certified exam to use as your diagnostic:
1. The Official SAT Study Guide (10 real exams included)
2. College Board’s Online SAT Prep Class (10 different real exams)
3. Google “Official SAT PDF” (you’ll find a bunch just by poking around!)
Want to learn more? Check out this post.
Step 2: Taking the Diagnostic Exam
You should make your test-taking environment as realistic as possible, so it is best to wake up at 8am on a Saturday and set aside a full 4-hour block of time. Turn off your cell phone, remove other distractions from the room, make sure the room is cool and quiet, and use No. 2 pencils and a College-Board-approved calculator. Remember to set up a clock in clear sight (or better yet, use a stopwatch!).
Now it’s time to give yourself an internal pep talk, start the clock, and focus! As you move through the exam, annotate annotate annotate! Star questions that you find tricky, mark guesses with a “?” and jot down any other notes, such as how anxious/confident a question made you feel. Remember to time each section and mark which question you reach by the end of the allotted time. After you finish the test, go back and finish any questions you didn’t have time for. Answering all the questions, even after you run out of time, helps you get an accurate gauge for which areas you need to work on.
Step 3: Reviewing the Diagnostic Exam
There’s much more to the diagnostic than your score. By carefully reviewing your performance, you will understand exactly how to move forward with effective test prep. Some key points to consider:
1. Did you feel anxious at any point during the exam? Why? Was it because you were rushed? Because you felt uncomfortable with a certain type of question? Because you were struggling with your calculator?
2. Were you able to complete each section within the allotted time? Looking back, were there certain questions that were excessively time-consuming?
3. How did you react if/when you realized you were behind on time?
4. What types of questions seemed straightforward to you?
5. How many questions did you skip or guess on? What types of questions were these?
Once you’ve contemplated these questions, consolidate your findings into your strongest and weakest areas. This will allow you to identify types of questions that should give you a confidence boost, as well as those worth studying. Also, if timing or anxiety was an issue, you can make a plan to address these concerns as you continue practicing. Lastly, if you think that you have major weaknesses or anxiety, consider contacting a tutor to help you successfully sail through the rest of your preparations.
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