advices to succeed at standardized tests

Standardized tests are reality of life and like I said in my earlier posts, I had my fair share of being tested throughout my life.  I failed and passed many times, made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot about them. I consider myself as a good test-taker now, except one issue: stress management which I will talk about it later. So here are my list of advices, before, during and after the tests:

general strategies:

  • Repetition, repetition and repetition. It is key to succeed on standardized tests – also in many other things in life- and best way to repeat the information is to take practice questions. Repeating same content via different questions is like attacking the same beast from different angles. It helps your brain to have a 3 dimensional map of the issue so on the day of exam, you point out the problem much faster and with great confidence.
  • Studying. You have to do the work! There is no short cut, no sugar coating to this. You have to read the material to learn the content so in the exam when they throw at you all that weirdly worded, tricky and sometimes unnecessarily long questions, you can deduct what they are actually asking. The essence of the question can only be derived if you know the content. No cheatsheets or memorization method will give you that agility. AREs are not like any standardized test where they ask you “What is this?”, “Define this..?” They want you to use your judgement to find the answer. And to be able to have that judgement, you need to know the essence of the topic. So, do your best at reading books that The ARE 5.0 Handbook provides for each exam. That reference matrix, is the (maybe even only) best thing in that Handbook. Utilize it.
  • But how to read a book and retain the information? If you are complaining about not being able to retain the information that you are reading in the books, you are not alone. It is the biggest challenge of studying for these exams. As we established, NCARB doesn’t provide enough sample questions and we don’t have any other big company/association stepping in to produce tens of thousands of  questions per exam. So reading the books becomes your main study tool but retaining that much information is not easy. So what you should do, is to introduce some “active reading agents” in your study routine. The best way to actively read a book, meaning involving your brain into the process, is reading the book with a study group. An ARE book club if you will. In this method you find couple people that are taking the same exam with you with similar schedules. You all decide which books to read together and how much time you should spend per book. I would say give about 3 weeks for a thousand pages book. You all set a schedule, for example first week everyone agrees upon reading Chapter 1 to 6, second week 6 to 12, so on and so forth. At the end of each week, book-club meets and discusses/compares notes, questions, and topics that are worth to mention out-loud. When your brain knows that it will eventually have to explain what it is reading to a larger audience out-loud, it retains way more than usual. The pressure of public speaking, makes you remember and more importantly it makes you actually read. When you know at the end of each week, you will meet your friends and it will be embarrassing if you didn’t do your homework, you do your homework. This methods keep you accountable. I experienced the benefits of this method by joining after school programs during my mid and high school years and joining to Young Architect Bootcamp while studying for PPD and PDD. I think eventually it was the reason why I passed both of these exams.
  • If you don’t have a study group, or cannot  joint to one, the second best strategy is: taking notes, creating flash cards or even writing your own questions like me. Taking notes, rewriting what you read, pushes the limits of your brain. When taking notes, try to paraphrase what you read, do not copy the same sentence from the book to your notepad. Sketch it if you are more comfortable with it. But push your brain to rethink about it and come up with its own sentences. This will make your brain to involve in the active process of learning. As I explained before, I used this method by writing my own questions. When you write a question about anything, you need to come up with wrong answers too, right? In a typical multiple question with four options, only one option is correct. You know the correct information, you just read it. But you also have to think about what contradicts that information, at least three of them. And it makes you dive deep into the topic, think about it from different angles and really digest the issue.
  • You have to regularly repeat your notes, like on daily basis. All the active learning methods that I discussed earlier still needs “repetition”. Our first (golden) rule applies everywhere. Before you go to bed  at night, you have to repeat that day’s notes. And even pick a random day and quiz yourself from that random day’s notes too. You will see how much faster your brain is collecting that knowledge because you learned it in an active way.  Because now, you have an actual memory associated with that knowledge. When you were discussing it in the study group maybe someone made a joke about it. Or maybe when you were sketching it on your notepad, you found something unique about it. In either method, it is personalized for you. It is not a random information anymore, you have a history with that information now.
  • Do not memorize! Based on my experience 85% of ARE 5.0 questions (on any 5.0 exam) do not depend on memorizing. Yes, there are some things that you need to memorize (NCARB does not admit this but yes there are) like ADA dimensions, screw types, etc. but in general, most of the questions are much harder than basic memorized information. Personally, I am horrible at memorizing so that worked for my benefit but this feature of AREs also make them harder. You need to actually understand the content which requires more work.
  • Once you are done with reading and learning process, you circle back to our first rule: Practice (repeat), practice (repeat), practice (repeat). You need to solve all of the practice question you can find on the planet, over and over again until you score consistently 80-85% and above. I give a detailed list of all practice questions that I used (free and paid) in my; How did I pass PPD and PDD posts.
  • You need to be persistent about the whole thing. Try to internalize that failing or passing does not define you and they are both equally possible. Do not feel defeated or “less” when you fail. It is part of this process. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. You will fall but you have to learn how to get up and keep running. Who cares if you take an exam four times or six times or once to pass, when you pass, all are equally valuable passes. They are not gonna have a note on your license that says, she took PPD seven times to become licensed. You are doing something great for yourself. What if it takes couple years and multiple tries? It is your life, your time, your money and your investment. Believe me, you are doing something much better than watching Netflix for four hours every night unless you are also a scientist working on how to cure the cancer or a peacemaker trying to bring an end to the Syrian civil war. Believe me, working on getting your license is one of the best things you can do for your personal development. You are keeping your self up to date, active and young!
  • Don’t listen Debbie Downers! I know, most of your colleagues are not taking these exams and they are rolling their eyes when they hear you do. They keep saying: “it is not important” or “it doesn’t matter to have a license”. Well, they are wrong. It does. So, don’t give a damn! People who don’t try, also don’t fail. All of the great inventors of mankind, who carried us all to a step forward, failed many many times before they succeeded and it mattered right? If not, we would still be sitting in our caves trying not to freeze when it get cold:)

before the exam:

  • Try to sleep well, calm down and eat well. Make sure that nothing is actually and mentally in the way. Schedule your exam wisely, check your calendar and make sure that there is no conflict. If you have a stressful deadline coming up, don’t take your exam the week before or even right after. If your wife is due anytime, don’t schedule it until after the baby is born and sleep trained :)) Don’t eat outside, or order food couple days before your exam. Food poisoning is a real risk. Really pay attention to your personal life and work life before you pick a date. You need to be happy and healthy to be at the top of your game.
  • Do your homework and study the exam itself. How many questions you have? how much time you have? How many correct answers you need to pass? Be analytical about it. Math does not lie or hold sides, trust the numbers. It will give you power. For example, even if you get the easiest batch of question on a PPD exam, you can still get away with doing 38 incorrect answers out of 120 questions. Do you know what it means? It means, in every 3 question, you have the right to do almost 1 incorrect answer (0.95 to be precise). It is a confidence booster, remember this during the exam when you get a hard question after two good ones. Your answer can be wrong and you can still pass this test. And for the hardest test, things are even better. You have the right to mark 51 incorrect questions. So when you get a hard batch, during the exam, don’t let your mood go down. I know the exam makes you feel like : “You know nothing Jon Snow” But guess what? Jon Snow, may not need to know everything to pass. If you studied so much and still the exam feels so hard, it is probably a hard batch. It means you have right to have 1.28 incorrect answers in every 3 questions! Remember this math and don’t let yourself down during the exam. I love Ben Norkin’s post about how to be analytical about your exam, please read it if you have time.

during the exam:

  • Calm the F… Down! I am sorry but you have to learn how to deal with the stress. This is (in my opinion) the hardest and the least fare part of any standardized test. It is stressful no matter how hard you try. But keep trying. I heard some people get a massage the day before. Some do meditation. I will admit it, if I was a less stressful test taker, I would pass my exams earlier. But I was shi.ing my pants every time I went to the test center. I am looking back now and I feel stupid. It took me up until my 3rd take of PDD to realize that I was being childish and dumb by causing myself so much stress that made me want to use the bathroom in every five minutes (of course I didn’t) during my exams. On my last take of PDD, I told myself to calm down because I still had 3 years on my rolling clock which meant 9 more takes! NINE! Why was I shaky and scared? Why..?? Even if I failed then, I would still have NINE more rights to try and I was going to pass it at some point. So I went there super calm, I even did a little window shopping before I went to test center. I felt super powerful and relaxed. That realization gave me the biggest confidence in life and I finally passed my last exam that day. I went and actually tried some of those cloths after my test by the way:))
  • Do not spend more time than what you are given per question. Pick an option and go to the next question. Mark it as review if you want to go back and review it later but pick an answer.
  • Which takes us to the next big advice/mistake: Do not leave any questions unanswered. Just pick something. I don’t care, anything. Maybe you will get lucky, who knows?. That question is a miss for you anyway, what if you get lucky and pick the correct one. Your chances to get it correct are at 25%, in a 4 options multiple choice question. 25% percent is a great chance, compared to all the lotteries that you have played in your life. You spent your money on lottery tickets knowing that your chances of winning was 0.0000001%, why hesitate to gamble when your chances are at 25%. Take advantage of the flaw of the system. I repeat: DO NOT EVER, NEVER, EVER leave any questions empty, even if they ask you a question in another language and alphabet! It makes me flame up when I hear people left questions unanswered cause they didn’t know the answer. Please don’t do it!
  • Develop a strategy. Some people start with case studies, others with multiple choice questions. Decide what works best for you. It may take couple exams to set this right, it is ok. Again no body is rushing you, you can take this exam again. Don’t panic yourself.
  • And lastly, try to fish for clues and hunt for repeating words between question and given options. Synonyms are something many question makers love. They give you two different word or concept that essentially mean same thing, one in the question and one in the answer and voila! That is your correct answer. By using this method, you can even answer 10% of questions correctly on a Welding License test:) Especially if you have no clue about the question or the options, make an experienced guess on the repeating or synonymous words and concepts. For example, if the question is stressing “sustainability” repeatedly then your correct answer or answers all should have some sort of sustainability concern. Anything that is “environmental”, “low carbon” or “long-term effects considerate” is your answer.

Hope all these strategies help you to better your test-studying and taking game. Pleas keep me posted if you utilize this strategies and see some benefits as I did.