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10 Tips For Doing Well on High School Entrance Exams

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

standardized tests

There is almost nothing as stressful as taking a standardized test – especially one that may determine which school you attend for the next four years. And if you’re an 8th grader in Chicago, a lot is riding on how you score on your standardized high school entrance exams.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what questions you’ll face when taking these tests, luckily there are a few tried-and-true strategies you can follow to improve your scores and reach your potential.

Here are a couple of the tips that we’ll be discussing in our upcoming Ultimate 8th Grade Test Prep workshops, starting Sept. 9 and 12, which prepare Chicago-area 8th graders who are about to take the NWEA MAP & SEHS (for CPS selective enrollment high schools), HSPT (for Catholic high schools), ISEE (for private high schools) and SSAT (for boarding schools).

  1. Guess on questions you don’t know & come back to them later (except on the NWEA MAP)
    One of the basic rules of doing well on standardized tests is answering the questions you know first. If a question looks too challenging, skip it. The questions are all worth the same number of points, so don’t spend your time wrestling with a question when you could be spending time on other questions you know. If you feel like you’ve spent too much time on a certain question, you probably have. Make an educated guess, circle the question so you can come back to it later, and then move on.
  2. Read the questions & answer choices carefully
    Don’t get something wrong just because you read a question wrong or went too fast. Make sure to read the questions all the way so you don’t get tricked. In reading comprehension questions, read the questions and answer choices even more carefully than the passages. Look out for words like “except,” “all but,” or “not,” which greatly affect which answer you should choose. In vocabulary questions, don’t let your brain trick you into thinking it’s a familiar word when it’s actually something different (for example: hollowed vs. hallowed).
  3. Look at ALL the answers before deciding on the BEST answer
    One trap that students fall into is settling on the first good choice they see without even reading all of the options. If there doesn’t seem to be a perfect choice, go with the best choice or, in math, rework the problem until you get a precise answer.
  4. Use process of elimination
    All the correct answers are there, you just have to pick the right one. That’s why it’s often easier to eliminate the silly options first and focus on what is left. This is especially useful in vocabulary sections where the sentence completion has more than one blank to be filled in. And in reading comprehension questions, eliminate the following types of answers:

    • Extremes (these usually have words like “always” or “never”).
    • Duplicates; if two of the answer choices are “happy” and “joyful,” it would be pretty tough to choose between them, so eliminate both.
    • Look for keywords in the answer choices that get to the heart of what that answer is about. Then determine if that key idea is mentioned or implied in the passage. If not, eliminate it.
  5. Double-check before moving on
    The ten seconds you spend double-checking could make a huge difference in where you end up going to high school and spending the next four years of your life, so train yourself to be 100% sure. For math questions, check by plugging in your solution to see that it works or by asking yourself if your answer makes sense. (For example, did you come up with a small decimal when the answer should be a huge number? If so, recalculate.)
  6. For math questions, solve in the easiest way for you
    Ever heard the expression, “There are lots of ways to skin a cat”? Well, there are lots of ways to approach a math problem, too. Solve in the easiest way for you:

    • Back-solve (solve in reverse by plugging in answer choices). This may be the slowest approach, but on the MAP test, time isn’t an issue. So, try it!
    • Estimate.
    • Draw a picture to visualize what the problem is talking about.
    • Write an equation.
  7. For reading comprehension questions, read the entire passage
    Don’t just skim! Make sure you focus on the main ideas of the passage, what the author’s purpose and tone is, and what the piece is really about. When you’re done you should be able to explain the passage in “kitchen logic,” ie, how you would describe what you’ve read when sitting around the kitchen table.
  8. In vocabulary questions, look for clues in the words
    One trick to deciphering vocabulary words is to look for clues, such as smaller known words within the longer unknown word. Example: “prophetic” has the word “prophet” in it. Or see if you can you identify familiar prefixes and suffixes, and use that meaning to narrow down your choices.
  9. Be well rested and fed on test day
    When you’re taking your high school entrance exams, you want your brain to be functioning at its best. To do that, make sure you have had a good night’s sleep and eaten a nutritious breakfast. Then during the test, keep yourself alert with plenty of water and snacks (if allowed in the room).
  10. Visualize success
    Don’t panic! Just do your best. Practice visualizing success and finding a way to block out all distractions before you start each question. Say an encouraging mantra or find another way to remind yourself to stay positive and focused.

Interested in learning more test-taking strategies? Sign up for our Ultimate 8th Grade Test Prep Workshops, starting Sept. 9 or 12!

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