(. . . even though big test prep companies make serious money by telling you otherwise . . . )
If you go looking for test prep books at your local bookstore or on Amazon, you’ll see dozens and dozens of books that claim to offer practice tests you can hone your skills on.
As you might imagine, well-meaning parents and students buy these books in huge numbers, making lots of money for the publishers.
But there’s a problem: Practice tests made by third-party test-prep companies are useless.
Yeah, let me say that again: Practice tests made up by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barrons, McGraw-Hill, or any other test-prep publisher are useless.
Why You Can Trust Real Practice Questions From The Testmaker
The whole purpose of standardized testing is to measure the same skills over and over again in the same way, so that scores from different test dates can be reliably compared to one another. In order for this to work, the companies that design the real tests must use very exacting standards in the way that questions are constructed–if the questions were to evolve over time, the scoring data would be useless.
This means that every time a company like the College Board gives the SAT, or a company like the LSAC gives the LSAT, the company is laying itself on the line. Huge number of test-takers will put the construction of the exam to the ultimate test: If their results don’t correlate statistically with the results of all the test-takers who have gone before them, it won’t be long before the admissions people who rely on this data begin to realize that something has gone wrong.
If that ever happened–if colleges ever decided that a high score on the SAT didn’t correlate with anything, for instance–then the testing company would be in a very bad position. There’d be no reason for it to continue to exist.
The critics of these standardized tests would see to it that colleges stopped using them; in fact, one of the only reasons that the tests still exist today is that their results continue to correlate with things that schools consider important.
Why You Can’t Trust Fake Practice Tests From A Test-Prep Company
A test-prep publisher’s fake exams and fake practice questions never have to survive the same ordeals that real questions do. Nobody will ever officially administer a fake Princeton Review practice question to hundreds of thousands of test-takers and then rely on the results for an admissions decision. So Princeton Review can put absolutely anything at all in its practice tests, if it feels like it.
The result is that practicing with a fake practice test made up by a test-prep publisher might very well cause you to end up strengthening the wrong skills. (In many cases, you’ll end up working on things that literally can’t appear on the real test, like when Princeton Review’s practice PSATs reward you for thinking about the passive voice, or when Barrons has students work on advanced combination/permutation questions for the Math 2 Subject Test, or when TestPrepReview.com quizzes LSAT students with questions that are barely even written in English*.)
Remember that the best way to improve your performance on a standardized test is to improve your familiarity with the test’s design and its unwritten rules. And that’ll be pretty much impossible if you’re prepping with practice questions that might not follow the design of the actual test.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid this whole problem in the first place: Just prepare with real practice tests, created by the company that will actually administer the test on test day.
So if you’re getting ready for the GMAT, you should only use practice questions from the GMAC. If you’re prepping for the LSAT, then only use questions written by the LSAC. If you’re taking the SAT, then the College Board; if the GRE, then the ETS. And so on.
The testing companies will typically advertise that their books of practice tests are “official,” meaning they’re just like the “real thing” (because they are the real thing).
All of my instruction is always based on real practice questions, so you can always trust that what I’m showing you works on the real test.
So If you don’t learn anything else from me, please at least learn this: The only guaranteed effective way to prepare for a standardized test is with real test questions from the actual testing company. Period.
Think of it this way: If you were a pianist getting ready for a big concert, would you practice with a toy electronic keyboard? If you were a quarterback getting ready for the Super Bowl, would you practice with a football filled with water instead of air? Of course not. You’d practice with the real thing, because only the real thing is guaranteed to behave exactly like the real thing. It’s obvious in other areas of life. It should be obvious in test preparation, too. But for some reason, for most people, it isn’t.
One Last Thing . . .
Sometimes when I bring up the idea of working with only real practice questions, students object that they like to work with questions that are ‘harder’ than the real test. The idea is that getting used to something that’s harder will make the real thing seem easy by comparison. The company that seems to have the strongest reputation for producing hard questions is Barrons.
Prepping with something more challenging is actually a good idea in some types of athletic preparation or endurance preparation, but it’s a bad idea for test prep. In fact, it’s a horrible idea for test prep; in a lot of cases, reliably finding the easiest approach to a test question requires being aware that the test can’t require you to use a certain challenging technique.
Here’s how I often explain it to my students: Performing on the flying trapeze is significantly harder than mowing the lawn, but that doesn’t mean that practicing on the flying trap is going to help you get better at mowing, because mowing the lawn and being in the circus are totally different skill sets. In the same way, using a ‘harder’ fake test won’t necessarily help you with the real test, because the things that make the fake test harder often literally can’t appear on the real test, so the two tests are actually evaluating different skill sets.
Again: If you only use real practice questions, you can’t possibly go wrong and end up practicing ideas that couldn’t appear on the real test. If you use fake practice tests from companies like Princeton Review, you really might end up working on ideas that harm you on test day. So why take the chance?
Okay, one more last thing 🙂
While I still strongly advise you to use real questions from the real company that makes the real rest, I also strongly advise you NOT to follow that company’s advice when it comes to testing strategy.
The companies that make standardized tests don’t provide good strategies for those tests, as a rule.
There are two explanations of why this might be: the pessimistic one, and the optimistic one.
The pesssimistic explanation is that the testing companies know they’ll be in big trouble if everybody starts doing well on their tests, so they have an incentive to give out bad advice.
But I don’t hold with the pessimistic explanation. The more optimistic explanation is that the testing companies just don’t realize how their tests really are. They pour so much energy into designing the tests that they somehow never figure out all the holes in their product.
Whatever the reason, though, testing companies just don’t give good testing advice. So don’t follow it. Use the official practice questions and practice tests for practice, but don’t listen to the official explanations for those questions.
*TestPrepReview.com includes this “free practice question” on its LSAT site:
9. A rich business man runs a prosperous company. He is disappointed in his two children, Violet and Hazen, because he believes that neither of them presents the potential of having the ability to take control of his company, he thinks that both of his children lack common sense.
This belief formulates from the opinion that:
Such a question could never appear on the LSAT for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it doesn’t follow the rules of English. Why wrestle with this fake practice question when you can get real ones from the LSAC itself?