How to Self-Study for a Standardized Test

For many students, preparation for a standardized test is best done under the guidance of a test prep expert. Other students, however, may be able to walk this road alone. 

If you have the time, discipline, and motivation to self-study for a test, by all means, do so! At the very worst, you can always reach out to a test prep expert or tutor when you hit a roadblock. Read on for our step-by-step guide on how to prepare effectively on your own.

The first step, no matter what kind of standardized test you are about to take, is always the same:

1.Take an official practice test.

Follow the appropriate link below to access a free practice exam from the test maker’s website:


Take this practice test as seriously as possible. Time yourself and take the test in a quiet area with no distractions. A realistic test experience will yield results that will be extremely helpful for planning your studies as well as a benchmark for measuring your progress. You’ll also get the invaluable benefit of experiencing the length and format of the test; these are often stumbling blocks not related to your knowledge of test content.

Note: For tests in the computer-adaptive format, we recommend taking a paper version of the test first to assess your content needs. Eventually, you will take a computerized version of the test (GMATGRE) to familiarize yourself with this format, but it’s most helpful to focus on content issues first.

2. Determine your target score.

Based on your initial practice test and the requirements of the schools or programs you wish to apply to, set a realistic score goal. Remember, score increases are difficult to achieve. Going from a mid-range to a high score can be challenging, but not impossible. However, don’t expect to go from a low score to a perfect one without an incredible amount of work over a long period of time.

3. Devise a study plan.

Invest some time up front in setting a smart schedule for yourself, and you’ll find the rest of the process will go much easier. Analyze your initial practice test results to identify your strengths and weaknesses in terms of content (do I consistently miss algebra or vocabulary questions?) and test format (are diagrams or sentence completions tripping me up?). Assess whether you have anxiety or timing issues, as well. Based on the patterns you find, put together a comprehensive curriculum that integrates a review of the topics you need to know for the test, skill practice, individual test-question practice, and full practice tests. Each of the test makers provides instruction and review for its tests and releases official practice materials. We recommend using these materials in self-study, as they will give you a realistic projection of your performance on test day.

Schedule out your review of the various test topics at a reasonable pace, and try to take a full practice exam at least once a month while studying. Be prepared to do a full test every week in the month before your test.

The planning stage may be where you spend an hour or two with a tutor or friend who has already successfully taken the exam. A little help here can make your whole experience much more effective.

4. Execute your plan.

Stick to your schedule and stay disciplined! After each practice test you do, re-evaluate your study plan to account for things you’ve mastered or new problem spots that crop up.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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