For over 20 years, we’ve been asked many questions about high school and college entrance exams, academic tutoring, and test preparation.
While we believe “tests are standardized. Students are not,” and therefore our answer is often “it depends,” our general guidance over the years has been the following:
For high school entrance, spring of 7th grade. For college entrance, spring of 10th grade
Earlier starts—rather than cramming last minute—allow students to space out and optimize their learning to maximize academic and test performance and, as a result, achieve more successful outcomes. In compiling and analyzing our own data of thousands of students over twenty years of instruction, there is a clear relationship between preparation time and performance. Students who start earlier can double their scores.
Preparation & practice time improve performance
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the claim that, whether in sports, music, or academic performance, 10,000 hours of practice is how long it takes to become an expert in something. Not only is this claim impractical in most contexts (10 hours a week for 20 years to get to expert level—yikes!), but its focus on quantity over quality obscures the true value of high-quality learning practice: a cycle of study, retention, performance, insightful feedback, modification, and improvement.
In fact, a study published in Psychological Science found that looking at quantity alone accounted for only 4 percent of the variance in performance in education. That said, we know Gladwell is correct in that having enough time to prepare matters; there is certainly a minimum amount of practice required to develop expertise. But why?
In her research on choking under pressure, discussed in her 2010 book Choke, former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and current President at Barnard College Sian Beilock highlights why having the time to practice matters: it reduces the burden of stress on working memory, so the capacity for thinking and problem solving is improved by mitigating the impact of anxiety during high-stakes events like high school and college entrance exams.
Beilock’s research can be located within a century of research on “the spacing effect:” the finding that long-term learning is promoted when learning events are spaced out over time, rather than presented in immediate succession. Distributed learning studies have consistently shown that spaced learning (versus massed or clumped learning) leads to better memorization of and performance with both simple and complex concepts.
Our research shows earlier starts can double growth
Students who begin preparation in the spring of sophomore year for a test they take in the spring of junior year or fall of senior year nearly double the growth of students who start the summer prior to or fall of senior year in preparation for a senior fall exam.
While this data represents average growth (and students follow very personalized pathways of learning), it does offer some direction: When preparing to perform well on a summative exam of grammar, reading, math, and scientific reasoning that spans multiple grades of curriculum, taking the appropriate amount of time to prepare positively impacts results.
Spacing out preparation—rather than cramming—offers the student a gradual, in-depth process of learning academic content and skills, so working memory functions more efficiently and performance stress can be managed down effectively over time.
In the end, when do I start?
We encourage students, when possible, to begin preparation in 7th grade spring and summer for high school entrance exams and 10th grade spring and summer for college entrance exams. Students will find that their earlier starts lead to more successful academic ends.
Academic Approach is located in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Winnetka, and Highland Park. For more information, visit academicapproach.com/smarthighschoolsr or call 847-495-2804.