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How To Maximize Standardized Test Scores

by Rick Nau

It’s no secret that if you want to do well on a standardized test, you’ve got to prepare for it. If you’re getting ready for the SAT, you might be using The Official SAT Study Guide. ACT fans often work with The Real ACT Prep Guide. For the ISEE, many students use The Princeton Review and/or Kaplan prep books. You might also be taking classes from one of the major test prep companies or working with a personal tutor. 

Standard procedure is to keep doing practice tests until you’ve maximized your score. Then, when you take the real test, the hope is that you’ll match or exceed this score. But there’s one additional factor that needs to be taken into account–the test environment. 

When you take practice tests, the environment is usually quite friendly. It might be your kitchen table or your desk or a classroom at a test prep company. But when you take the real test, it’s obviously different. Test anxiety, illness, distractions and other unforeseen events come into play that might cause your real score to be less than your practice score. This means that to do your very best on the day of the test, you’ve got to be mentally prepared–or, as some people say, you got to be in the zone. 

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to mentally prepare, one that might surprise you. The secret is to draw upon the concentration skills you use while engaging in some of your favorite activities. You might compete in sports or play a musical instrument or take part in dance or theater performances. You might like to solve rubik's cubes or play chess or win at video games. You might love to climb rocks or to surf or to fish for trout in a swift-flowing mountain stream. Whatever the activity, if you want to do well at it, then you’ve got to give it your full concentration.

Take acting, for example. Once the play begins, you can’t allow anything to break your concentration. If a sound cue fails, you keep going. If your fellow actor forgets a line, you cover for him. If someone in the audience has a sneezing fit, you put it out of your mind. Whatever happens, you don’t allow it to affect your performance. 
Or soccer. If someone trips you or elbows you in the ribs, you shake it off and keep on going. If you try for a goal and miss, you keep on trying. If some of the spectators are heckling you, you completely ignore them. Whatever happens, you won’t let it affect your game.

What can I say about rock climbing? You’ve got to stay completely focused on what you’re doing or the consequences might be painful.

You can see where I’m going with this. If you stay completely focused during the test, in the same way that you stay focused while you’re doing the things you love, you’ll maximize your score. The trick is to think of a way to shift this focus to the test. This will require some creativity on your part. For instance, if you play sports, you might see each question as part of the game. If it’s baseball, then transform each question into a pitch. If it’s soccer, the question is the opposing player, the one you want to beat. If you’re a performer, you might imagine yourself as a participant in a quiz show or in a movie about a math genius (remember Good Will Hunting, or the television series Numb3rs?). If you’re a video gamer, then you might imagine the questions as obstacles you’ve got to overcome. Yes, it will take a bit of creativity on your part to make the connection–but make it. Only you can do it.

I can’t stress enough the importance of this technique. I know that it works because I’ve seen the results. I can’t tell you what’s going on in the students’ minds when they use it, but their scores go up, sometimes dramatically. They’re in the zone, and nothing’s going to take them out of it, including, but not limited to, some of the annoyances they’ve reported popping up during the test. Just for fun, I’ll list a few. 

1) A car alarm that keeps going off in the parking lot.
2) A nearby street crew fixing the street with a jackhammer.
3) A room that’s freezing cold.
4) A room that’s boiling hot.
5) A desk with a top that keeps rocking back and forth.
6) A proctor who keeps clicking away on her computer keyboard.
7) A test taker who keeps clicking away on his pencil.
8) A test taker that keeps sneezing and coughing.
9) A golden retriever that wanders into the room (just kidding–I made this one up). 
10) And on and on . . . 

As one student said, it’s all about attitude. If you bring a winning attitude with you to the test, then you’ll do your best.

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Inspiring Your Kids To Do Well In Math

by Rick Nau

A recent article in The New York Times had scary words for some parents who are trying to help their children with their math homework. Seems that if these parents suffer from “math anxiety” their children may end up doing worse in math than before. Or so a study of first and second graders published in Psychological Science indicates.

What’s math anxiety? It begins with this: You look over one of your children’s math homework problems, thinking you may be able to help, but you don’t have a clue about how to solve it. Then: Memories of your school days flood your mind. You’re sitting in math class, without the slightest idea of what’s going on, staring at a math test written in a bizarre language from an alien planet. Finally, the nightmare: You’re standing onstage in a play and don’t know your lines (which are also written in that bizarre, alien language). Except this isn’t a dream; and what’s worse, the audience is your son or daughter.

What now? Run screaming from the stage? Certainly not. Then what’s the answer? You know it already. You knew it when you helped your children learn to walk, to talk, to read, to spell, to tie their shoelaces, to throw a baseball, to swim, to plié, to play the trombone, to do a backflip, and a thousand other things. Never did you tell them it couldn’t be done. Never did you discourage them. You nurtured your children with a patient, loving, uncritical spirit that encouraged them to succeed, the same spirit you’re going to call upon to inspire them to succeed in math.

Good. Now that you’re in the spirit, it’s time for some basic instructions (which apply to all levels of math) on how to attack those pesky math problems. In order to avoid the irritating “his/her” problem, I’ll be using the word “children” throughout these instructions, though I’m obviously talking about working with one child at a time.

How To Help Your Children Solve Math Problems

Locate The Target Assignment: This will be the latest math assignment.

Set The Goal: The goal is to teach your children how to do a target problem in this assignment.

Select The Target Problem: This will be one of the examples you’ll find in the text or in the teacher’s notes for the assignment, one that is meant to guide you through the problem in a step-by-step fashion until you arrive at the solution.

Teach Yourself: Do this alone, not while your children are watching. You’ll have to practice (in writing) until you can do the problem without looking at the solution guide (no peeking).

Prepare Yourself Mentally: Like the last step, do this alone. Remind yourself that you’ll need to be patient. It may take your children three or four tries before they can do a problem. It may take even more. However long it takes, assume that each time they redo the problem, it’s the first time. Never say anything about how long it’s taking. Also, be ready for questions such as “when will I ever use this?” or statements such as “I hate math”  or “that’s not how my teacher does it.” This is normal. When it happens, remember to react with your own good sense of humor and keep moving forward.

Demonstrate: Write the target problem on a clean sheet of paper and walk your children through it, answering their questions along the way. Use a step-by-step method. Never skip a step. 

Guide: Have your children recopy the problem and do it on their own (in writing). If they don’t understand a step, help them along until they can make it to the next step. Keep working on the problem until you get to the end. Do this again and again until it looks like they can solve the question without your help. Remember, this usually takes three or four tries.

Test: Recopy the problem and have your children do it one more time (no help from you; no looking at their previous work). If they get it right, you’re finished with this problem. If they don’t, practice some more and then test them on the problem again. Keep doing this until they pass the test.

Retest: Make up a similar problem (one with different numbers) and have them do it. Do this two or three times until you’re convinced they’ve got this type of problem down pat.

Counsel: Tell your children to meet with their teachers one-on-one, to do more problems with them (in writing), and to bring their written work home. Don’t be surprised if this doesn’t happen. You’ll have to keep the pressure on—not too much, but just enough to make it happen.

Contact: Get in touch with your children’s teachers (email is perfect for this) and ask them what you can do to help your children improve. Tell them you’d love them to spend some one-on-one time with your children and to let you know how the meetings went.

Network: If your children are at higher grade levels, it may be that you’ll want to bring in a tutor to help. Speak with the teacher and/or with other parents to see whom they recommend. Remember, you’re adding the tutor’s help to yours.

Encourage: Convey a positive attitude to your children. If progress seems to be slow, be patient. Eventually, everything will fall into place.


There you have it. Once you’ve begun the process, you’ll find you already know it. You use it every day to overcome life’s hurdles. When they arise, you work hard until you find ways to overcome them. Doing nothing is not an option. Such is the lesson you want to teach your children. This will require an investment of time on your part, but in the long run the reward will be tremendous.


If you’ve got questions or comments about helping your kids do well in math (or any other subject), feel free to drop me a line. I’ll be glad to help.

Contact Rick


About The Author: Rick has been working with students for over 20 years, helping  them achieve their highest potential in math, science and standardized tests (SAT, ACT & ISEE).


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