I’m a low scorer. Can I TestSmash too?


Indeed, you are going to have to do some TestSmashing.  If you are already in the upper percentiles of whichever test, TestSmashing is just a little nudge, activating a perspective on the tests you are probably halfway to figuring out yourself already.  If you are a low scorer, TestSmashing is going to be hard.  Really, really hard, but not in the way you might expect.  Instead, it’s hard because you have to change how you think about yourself, the test, and how to solve problems.

I’m starting to develop a program for low scorers to turn themselves around and dramatically improve their scores.  If anyone wants to be a beta tester for this program, contact me and I will give you a pretty steep discount for a 4-session package to lay the foundation for a more successful experience with the test that is between you and your dreams.  This isn’t test prep, its prep-for-test-prep stuff that will, I think, save you tons of time, money and agony in the long run if you take some risks and about three weeks up front.

In the meantime, some rules of the road for a low scorer:

  1. Be realistic and set your goals carefully.  Dramatically increasing your score (say by at least 150 or 15 points, depending on the test, particularly if you are starting below the 50th percentile) is going to take time.  It isn’t going to happen in a few weeks.  If you’ve already signed up to take the test in less than 2 months, I would cancel.  Even if it means delaying your applications by a year.  Painful, I know, but you need to
  2. …be patient.  This kind of change won’t happen overnight.
  3. You MUST find a way to transition from the self-concept “I am bad at tests” or, god forbid, “I am not smart enough to do well” to “I happen to have performed badly on some tests in the past, but I am working hard and will master the mistakes I used to make.”
  4. You MUST be prepared to acknowledge that you don’t know what you are doing, and that the approach you have taken so far isn’t working.
  5. Find a way to protect your ego through this process.  Do something joyful, creative and fun on a regular basis during this Test Smashing period of your life.
  6. Be sure this is what you want.  If it isn’t, it is an awfully time-intensive, ego-bruising activity to embark on if you don’t actually want to go to graduate school (or college).

Managing your study time

Time management is another hurdle that can trip up the aspiring test smasher.  It’s also a life skill that is well worth attaining.  Fortunately, I can outsource a lot of my recommendations for how to manage your study time to the Pomodoro Technique, which has a great, free .pdf version of the book on the website.  There are also free apps for those of you who want to manage your studying on your phone or tablet.

The essence of the pomodoro technique is working in disciplined, timed chunks.  I use it in the rest of my life to do my academic writing, and it has transformed my productivity.  The basic time unit, a “pomodoro,” is 25 minutes, but if you are going to use this for test preparation, you need to make one modification to the technique: your time unit while studying will be the length of the section on your test. This way, you will get used to the pace of your test — a section unit of time will be a very known quantity, you’ll learn an accurate sense of where you are in the unit, and you will know exactly where in the block of time your attention flags, etc.

For GMAT takers, use a 35 minute pomodoro.  Your GMAT sections will be 2 pomodori: 70 minutes of intense focus, plus 5 minutes of mental rest/slippage.  For GRE takers, the sections are annoyingly of different length.  You should pick the length of the type of section that gives you the most trouble, so your pomodoro will be 35 minutes if you are weakest on the verbal sections, and 40 minutes if your real difficulty is math.  SAT takers should use 25 minute pomodori, and LSAT takers 35 minutes.

Another great aspect of the Pomodoro Technique is that it helps you make great use of relatively short periods of time.  You can always find a way to squeeze a 25-35 minute block out of your day, right?  If nothing else, setting your alarm that much earlier is not an outrageous idea.  Which leads to the next point:

Study every day and never more than 4 pomodori (unless you are taking a practice test). 

Really.  You can’t learn the kinds of practices you need to absorb into your bones without frequent repetition, and your brain can’t take a huge amount of the intense focus you will be applying during your study periods.  So six hours on the weekend isn’t going to cut it.  It is a waste of your time!  Both too much time at once, and not enough time over the week.  Now, I also don’t really recommend you study for all four pomodori every day of the week, unless you are trying to do this all in 2-3 weeks (not recommended).

Instead, I would take your first pomodoro of the week and spend that time looking at your calendar for the week.  What do you need to accomplish this week?  Let’s say it is mastering Reading Comprehension, and you are studying for the LSAT.  Then plan your week:

Sunday: 1 planning pomodoro for the week.  1 RC diagnostic pomodoro, where you take an entire RC section in the time it would take on the test just to see where you are.  1 pomodoro going through your answers, and annotating the questions you got wrong and the questions you got lucky on.  Also figure out if you need to speed up to answer all the questions or if you can afford to slow down.  1 pomodoro reviewing my recommendations on RC and slowly working through a maximum of one passage’s questions, taking as long as it takes to prove which answer is the correct one.  Check your answers, diagnose the nature of your mistakes.

Monday: Set the alarm earlier than normal and do 2 pomodori before your day starts.  Spend both doing the slow, agonizing practice of proper RC, always proving your answer is correct and closely analyzing and recording the nature of any mistakes you make.

Tuesday: You have time in the morning for one pomodoro, and another in the evening after dinner.  For the morning, spend the pomodoro doing a practice game and a handful of arguments, just to remind yourself of what those questions are like.  As you work, consider whether the RC practice is helping you with the other question types.  Check your answers and note why you made any mistakes you made.  In the evening, spend your pomodoro reviewing the notes you have taken so far this week.  Are there common themes among the questions you get wrong?  Are you trying to fight a battle with ETS over whether unacceptably clunky answer choices could possibly be correct?  Are you giving in to temptation to read the entire passage?  Whatever the result of this reflection, you must prioritize changing your approach for your next practice session.  After this evening pomodoro, go take a walk, even if it is just around the block.  Smell the air, stretch you limbs, enjoy life, think about how you are excited to change your methods.

Wednesday:  You have time for four pomodoros in the middle of the day today, so start out with another diagnostic pom where you do an entire section in the right time length (try to stay focused on the changes you need to make in your approach).  Then spend a pomodoro checking your answers, and journaling about where you are still getting answers incorrect and about how you are managing your time.  If you are starting to see big changes in your accuracy rate, do one pomodoro of RC practice, maybe trying to see how little of the passage you can get away with reading, then one pomodoro of the other question types.  If you are not seeing big changes yet, you need to slow way down and spend a pomodoro where you write down every thought you have about each answer choice and what disqualifies the four wrong answers.  Do this for as many questions as you can in a pomodoro, but don’t be upset if it is just one or two.  Then do it again for the last pomodoro of the day.

Thursday: Today is a busy day, so you can’t spend much time studying.  All you do is set your alarm early, and do one pomodoro of RC questions the very first thing of the day (a fantastic time for learning).  Be sure to leave 5-10 minutes at the end of the pom to review your answers carefully and take notes on your mistakes.

Friday: Another busy day, so you do a diagnostic pomodoro first thing, and nothing else.  You don’t even check your answers, but you are getting to the point where you know you are getting almost every question correct, and are pretty sure which answers are the most likely to be wrong, if any.

Saturday: You’ll do 4 pomodori today, but in two groups.  In the morning, the first pom you use to check your answers from yesterday — are there any surprises?  Also review your notebook from the week.  How many bad habits have you smashed?  Are you still struggling with accuracy or is all there is left to do is learn to increase the pace?  Can you move on to another question type?  Spend the second morning pomodoro doing a focused practice on the issues you are struggling with.  For example, maybe you can find a way to shave a couple of seconds off of each question by having a clearer process that you always follow?  Are you really only reading what you need to read?  Once you have proven a correct answer, have you moved on or do you waste precious seconds in self-doubt or unnecessary double-checking?  Go about your afternoon activities, then when you come back to your last two pomodori of the day, spend the first on another full section and the second checking your answers and planning what more needs to be done on RC to have it smashed.  You should always plan on maintenance, but maybe you still have a lot of bad habits to get past….

Throughout the week, you should be exercising, enjoying friends, limiting alcohol and sleeping lots.  These will all help you keep your ego healthy, your mind sharp, and you ability to self-reflect wide open.

Also, note how much time is spent assessing and planning.  Mindless imprecise practice is only going to waste precious practice questions and your time.  If you are very focused and very reflective, you won’t need a whole lot of questions to make dramatic strides in smashing the test.

RC: Working an example II

The previous example covers your most typical question types.  But one question per passage usually looks at the passage as a whole.  I’ll show you how I handle those kinds of questions using the same passage as in the last post.  The question is framed here as “Which one of the following most accurately states the main idea of the passage?”

For this question, I start out by reading (some of) the first sentences of each paragraph.  I don’t need to read the whole sentence, necessarily, just enough to get the structure of the passage.  There are four paragraphs:

  1. “Intellectual authority is defined as the authority of arguments….”
  2. “In contrast, some critics maintain that whatever authority judicial pronouncements have is exclusively institutional.”
  3. “But, the critics might respond, intellectual authority is only recognized as such because of institutional consensus.”
  4. “The analogous legal concept is the doctrine of precedent, i.e., a judge’s merely deciding a case a certain way becoming a basis for deciding later cases the same way — a pure example of institutional authority.”

This passage is interesting because we get a lot of what the critics say, and not so much what the main argument is (though we can infer it is a pro-intellectual authority argument).

When I go to the answer choices, I notice something interesting: they all start out one of two ways

Although some argue that the authority of the legal system is purely intellectual/institutional….

While it is clear that either one is literally true, since there is disagreement over a dichotomy, we have to consider the point of view of the author.  Which side is the “some argue” on?  Well, it is the critics, of course!  And they are big believers in institutional authority.  See that?  Once we decide that, we can eliminate A/C/E without further consideration.

Then we have to pick between the final two choices, and here, because we got so much of the critics view to begin with, it is helpful to read the very last sentence:

The conflict between intellectual and institutional authority in legal systems is thus played out in the reconsideration of decisions, leading one to draw the conclusion that legal systems contain a significant degree of intellectual authority even if the thrust of their power is predominantly institutional.

Adding that sentence to our arsenal makes the choice between the last two answers clear:

Although some argue that the authority of the legal system is purely institutional, these systems possess a degree of intellectual authority due to their ability to reconsider badly reasoned or socially inappropriate judicial decisions.

It’s all about the “reconsideration of decisions,” baby!

RC: Working an example I

To give you an example of how to work a smashed reading comprehension question, I’m going to show you how to prove your answer is correct using question 13 from section 3 of the LSAT PrepTest 38 (2002).

  1. I do not read the passage.  I do allow my eye to stray over the first few words of the passage “Intellectual authority is defined…” and am very very glad I do not have to read or comprehend the passage.
  2. I read the question stem carefully.  “The author discusses the example from musicology primarily in order to.”  Okay, it is pretty clear that I’m going to skim for the word “musicology.”
  3. A quick roll of the eyes over the passage makes it clear that the word “musicologist” shows up in the third paragraph and only once.
  4. The sentence that contains the word: “For example, if a musicologist were to claim that an alleged musical genius who, after several decades, had not gained respect and recognition for his or her compositions is probably not a genius…” Okay, running out of steam here!  I don’t want to waste a ton of time on the verbiage.  Let me focus on the question stem again: what am I being asked?  The key is “discusses the example primarily to.”  Where does the sign post in the passage to the right answer point?  “For example,…” points to the sentence before!  That sentence reads “But, the critics might respond, intellectual authority is only recognized as such because of institutional consensus.”  This is the important bit: my answer choice must match this sentence.
  5. The correct answer choice reads: “illustrate the claim that assessing intellectual authority requires an appeal to institutional authority.”
  • illustrate: well, that is what examples do.
  • the claim: “critics might respond” with a claim
  • assessing intellectual authority requires an appeal to institutional authority: intellectual authority is only recognized as such because of institutional consensus: yup, both indicate intellectual authority being fundamentally derived from institutions.
  • QED

This one wasn’t even that infelicitous.

I must confess, though, there was an answer choice that called out to me!  It was “distinguish the notion of institutional authority from that of intellectual authority.”  The reason it called to me was that, in all honesty, I read the entire sentence that contained the “musicologist.”  The end of that sentence reads “the critics might say that basing a judgment on a unit of time…is an institutional rather than an intellectual construct.”  That sounds a whole lot like the answer choice, right?  The “For example” sign post, however, says that you need to base your answer to the question “discusses…primarily to” on what the “for example” is referencing.  Also, is it really distinguishing the notion or just an instance?

So, to recap:

  1. I followed directions by answering the question asked.  This helped me zero in on the “for example” cue.
  2. I paid attention to detail by proving my answer choice word-for-word and by noticing the sketchy “the notion” in the answer choice that called to me.
  3. I organized the information given to me carefully, by focusing on only the part of the passage that could contain my answer.  I then carefully matched that information with the information in the answer choices.

Barriers to Smashing this question type:

  1. It is hard to trust not reading the passage.
  2. It is going to take a lot of practice.
  3. You might see a dip in your accuracy rate.

Methods to overcome:

  1. Trust it anyway
  2. Practice, practice, practice.  Hundreds of passages.  Until you are getting them 100% correct.
  3. You will develop a sense for the tricks and traps they place for you if you practice enough, now that your attention isn’t cluttered with passages.

Reading Comprehension

‘Nough with the throat clearing.  Let’s talk question types.

I’m going to start with Reading Comprehension.  It tends to get short shrift in people’s study time, since they think “I know how to read!” but it is the one question type that is universal to all of the major tests.  It also isn’t measuring your ability to read.  Or comprehend.  And it is completely breakable.

There are two ways the test writers like to trip you up.  First, they want you to get the wrong answer.  Second, if you are going to get the question right, they’d like it to take a long time.  Don’t feed the test writers!  Refuse to follow their lures.

The cardinal rules of Reading Comprehension:

  1. Do NOT, under any circumstance, read the fucking passage.  It is a time sink put there to bore you to death and a low score.
  2. Read the question stem carefully instead.  Figure out what words or phrases you are going to skim for.
  3. Skim for said word/phrase.
  4. Read just the section that contains the word/phrase.
  5. Now consider your answer choices: you must prove your answer choice.  Every fucking word in the answer choice MUST be in the passage.  You must point it out to yourself.
  6. The correct answer is usually infelicitous.  It will usually be phrased in a way that you would never consider phrasing the answer.  It might even be written in a way that you have a hard time understanding.  But every fucking word will match what is in the text.
  7. There will be a wrong answer, which is clearly written, that almost matches the text.  There will be some slight deviation, though.  IT IS THE WRONG ANSWER.  Do NOT choose it.  It will sing to you, call you out.  Plug your ears and pick the ugly answer.

Once you learn to do that EVERY TIME, you will have smashed RC to smithereens.  No more wrong answers.  Yay!

What do you do when it is a question along the lines of “The primary purpose of this passage is to:”?  If it is an overview question, read the first sentence of each paragraph, and, possibly, the last sentence of the entire passage.  Each paragraph must be addressed in the correct answer.  There will be a wrong answer that beautifully describes the most important/interesting paragraph in the passage.  Don’t choose it.  It is the wrong answer.

Lots of students hate not reading the passage.  It makes them really nervous.  They might miss something.  They are right: they are going to miss most of the traps the test writers have carefully placed for them!  They are going to miss the lost time that reading the passage extracts from their lives!  Do.  Not.  Read.  The.  Passage.

My recommendation will be hard at first.  I don’t care.  Get over it.  Keep following the rules, and you will smash this question type.  You may already be scoring pretty well on RC, relative to some of the other question types, so it might be tempting to just keep up with your current practice.  DON’T!  Unless you are getting them 100% correct all the time and creating time to spend on the harder question types, you need to keep practicing reading comprehension.  This is one of the easiest question types to smash, so get out your hammer and free yourself once and for all from boring passages!

What do they REALLY test?

I said earlier that the tests don’t really test math or verbal skills.  This is why I have an ethical problem with these tests: they do their thing by trying to deceive and distract you.  Not cool, ETS.  On the other hand, the skills they do test?  They are handy skills to have, and will help you in school and in your job and in life.  People who cultivate these skills definitely have a leg up in life.  This is good news, ’cause you are about to start cultivating them, and I can promise you, it won’t be a waste of time.  Hard, maybe, but worth it.

So what are these secret skills?

  1. Following directions
  2. Paying attention to details
  3. Organizing your information effectively

“Say whaa?”  you say.  “That’s so easy.  Why aren’t I already at 800/180?”  Well, my friend, chances are you suck at this stuff.  Most people do.  Following directions?  We are, as a human race, catastrophically bad at following written directions.  Catastrophic because we assume that we can follow said directions, which means we try to give direction by writing.  (Have you ever tried to follow prescription directions?  How to exit a building safely in the case of fire?  Can you even follow a recipe?  Can you fill out your tax forms?  Correctly??)

Paying attention to details?  Even more hopeless.  People work in approximations.  They don’t want to think through things really carefully, and read every single word.  Hvea yuo sene tohse eaxmlpes wrhee teh ltetres aer all jmubeld?  We can read them anyway!  Which is cool, but it means we aren’t sweating the small stuff.  Great for lots of life, bad for the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/GRE.

Organizing your information effectively is a subtler skill than the other two.  It is what helps you overcome your instincts to gloss over important details or answer a question differently than the one being asked.  It is also, of course, what will crack open the analytical reasoning section on the LSAT (i.e. the LSAT games).  It also gets you most of the distance on data sufficiency questions (GMAT) and quantitative comparison questions (GRE and SAT).

I actually think that my previous career as a musician was instrumental to my being good at these tests.  When you are reading music, it is all about following directions and paying attention to detail.  Every dot on the page has lots of meaning.  You also learn to structure that mess of data into phrases, movements, musical forms, etc.  You see the structure beneath the variations.

So how do you study these skills?  There are no formulas to memorize.

I would first approach this as a practice, rather than as a finite set of skills.  Think yoga or meditation, not cramming for your calculus exam.  Awareness is the first step.  If you start studying for the GRE, say, by memorizing a bunch of geometry formulas, you are heading for a long, slow, unproductive slog.  If instead, you take some practice questions (written by the real test writers, please!) observe yourself as you go through the questions.  If you get a question wrong, was it because you “just made a careless mistake”?  ETS test writers lure you into carelessness.  That didn’t happen by accident.  Which piece of information necessary to solving the question did you gloss over?  Did you rely on your gut when you chose your answer?  Start making a list, and study it for common themes.

You can develop your practice in other ways.  Start working your way through intricate recipes, Julie & Julia -style.  When a recipe doesn’t come out the way it should, is that because of something you glossed over or an ambiguity in the recipe?  Annotate your experiences, look for patterns.  Play Sudoku and develop a process for solving the puzzles quickly that works for you.  Do LSAT logic games, even if you aren’t studying for the LSAT.  If you play an instrument or sing, learn new, rhythmically complicated pieces.

You are building a set of cognitive skills that are hard.  Be patient (think of the baby falling to his butt, time and time again, as he learns to take his first step) and stay focused on these skills everywhere you can.  Track the clarity that starts to emerge when you do those practice questions.

You must be so smart

When people say that to me, I have bite back the temptation to say, “And you must be so boring.”  Really, guys, intelligence is such a BORING topic.  If you want to compliment me on my courage or my integrity, I will go all gooey.  Compliment me on my intelligence, and I’ll either want to fall asleep or punch you in the face, depending on my grumpiness that day.


Intelligence is a trait that anyone reading this blog has in abundance.  If there are differences between people, the variation occurs at a not-interesting level.  It’s sort of like having a bank balance of $3,274,971.03 versus $2,974,817.71.  In both cases, you are fucking rich.  Drawing any kind of meaningful inferences about the wealth of either balance owner is ridiculous and BORING.

I have a niece who is not quite two yet, and she has mastered walking (and running!) and is in the process of learning to communicate effectively in English and Spanish.  While I think she is the awesomest little tyke on the planet (at least until I have kids), she is nothing special.  Any girl or boy her age is mastering the profoundly complex skills of walking and language.*  These require way more cognitive processing power than anything on the SAT, GMAT, LSAT or GRE.  I promise.  Even scoring an 800/180.  And each and every one of you has accomplished that!*  So why the hell can’t you do this?

Well, in addition to learning to walk and talk, kids learn artificial boundaries on their abilities.  This is a tragedy.  Teachers tell kids (who, remember, have just mastered the amazing skills of walking and talking) that somehow, they are “bad at math” or are “a little slow.”  Parents respond not by punching said teacher in the face (okay, that would be wrong, because solving problems with actual violence is wrong) but by getting anxious, yelling at their kid, setting lower expectations, medicating them, or whatever solution they see to this problem that isn’t really a problem.

The problem we should be trying to solve is the lack of patience, perseverance, creativity and joy in learning in the teacher and parents, not some sudden loss of the ability to claim new skills by the kid.  After little Johnny has sat down hard on his butt for the hundredth time after trying to figure out that walking thing, adults don’t turn to each other and say wisely “oh, well, I guess Johnny just isn’t good at walking.  I guess we’ll encourage him to major in screaming his head off — a skill he has shown great promise in from birth.”  Instead, we laugh and coo and cheer.  Johnny laughs (or cries a bit) and pulls himself up again (’cause goddamnit everyone around me seems to be going places.  I want to too.) and tries to move a foot forward, but doesn’t have his balance right and ends up on his butt.  Again.  Until one day, he takes his first step.

For the few insightful teachers who approach teaching math this way, the “slow” kids start doing college level math after a year of teaching that allows the kids an opportunity to find the inherent joy of math.  Read this: The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child to learn more.  (And yes, full disclosure, I make money from Amazon if you click that link and end up buying the book.)

So what does this have to do with test prep???

Standardized tests purport to take their takers, line them up, and order them on the basis of … something.  Now, the psychometricians at ETS would agree with me that these tests are not “intelligence” tests, but the schools sure do treat them that way.  So do your peers, teachers, and probably parents.  The very hardest thing I run up against when teaching students these tests are their fixed beliefs about their own intelligence and how much they can accomplish given their limitations.  Time and time again, I have found that they are perfectly capable of doing absolutely everything the test asks of them, but their belief that they are “just not good at math” or “just not good at taking tests” and that those traits are immutable makes them bomb the test anyway.

So, the very first thing you need to do to do well on your test?  Believe that you can and insist on smashing every single fucking question type into smithereens.  Don’t give up until you have.

* Of course, there are people who are born with limits and cannot learn to walk and/or talk.  This rant does not apply to them.  They are also probably not taking these tests.  If you were born with some physical limitation and never learned to walk for that reason, you are still fucking smart so go smash the test!