Sunday, July 27, 2008

Let's get started

Alright, so enough of the introductions, let's get started thinking about how you need to think in order to pass standardized, high-stakes, tests. Briefly, let me remind you that this is not a study guide for this exam or that certification. If you've got a GMAT ahead of you, go take a GMAT class or buy a GMAT book. If you want a Microsoft cert, go to school someplace that can teach you those skills. This course -- this blog -- will focus on the universal skills that are necessary for success in any of these situations: mental management, study skills, test tactics, and personal focus.

And so, let us get started with a little first things first: time. Arguably, time is going to be your biggest obstacle in finding success at this particular goal. Most standardized tests use time as a tool to manipulate test takers. Feeling the pressure of a running (and highly visible) clock, it is too easy to make careless errors and fall for trap answers that would seem obvious or silly when reviewed in peace.

But that time is for review later. This time is about your life, about the studying that you must undertake, the practice exams you must take, and the reading you might do. Long-term goals, like school admissions or professional certifications slip all too easily off of our priority lists in favor of the daily routine and the periodic crises. "I can't study tonight, I have to fix the garbage disposal." "I can't study tonight, the guys are going bowling!" "I can't study tonight, I have to get this report out to my manager by Friday..."

We'd never do these things at work -- we'd never tell our boss, "Sorry I didn't get that report finished on time, but the guys were going bowling." Well, not if we expected an invitation back to work in the morning.

By the same token, we might say "Sorry I didn't get that report finished on time, but my kid had to go to the hospital..." And unless it became chronic (or your boss was a jackass), you'd probably be welcomed back in the morning.

The thing is, we have a pretty natural sense of priorities in our lives. It may vary a little from person to person and from life to life, but in general we deal with immediate emergencies first and then move on down the ladder in decreasing order of immediacy of consequences and severity of consequences. Consequences of not completing a given task, of course. Effort to complete plays in to it as well -- we naturally tend to try and knock of easy, quick tasks first.

Studying for an exam has got everything going against it. It has, in most cases, a relatively distant consequence -- if you've started planning and studying early enough, that is! The penalty of failure is also, usually, "passive" -- a low score means not getting a new job or into school, rather than something immediate, definite, and negative. Like getting fired!

It is, therefore, always a struggle to put the vague goal of a test into the same rank of priority as 2am feedings, critical quarter-end reports, anniversaries, and bowling league championships. Or so we tell ourselves.


Not if you want to get where you want to go.

Instead, sit down with the boss, the bowling league, the spouse, and anyone else that this decision is going to touch. Tell them: "Hey, I've got this big thing going on and it is going to suck a lot of my time..." Tell them why this is important to you. Tell them why this is important to them. Yes, explain to your significant other why this will benefit the family. Explain to your boss how this will make you a more valuable employee. Explain to your bowling buddies how this will mean you can get them sponsorship for the next league championship.

Then give them a timeline. Depending on the seriousness of the relationship (the bowling team may not require this level of detail) lay out your proposed study plans, your goals, and your checkpoints along the way that will prove progress. And keep them posted, remind them why you aren't as available, and why they should put up with it. Share the good and the bad.

Then take it to the next level and sign the timeline. Put it down as a contract -- with cosigners (think spouse here) and witnesses. You aren't doing it for them. You're doing it for you. Because all of the goalsetting in the world is meaningless if you do let the little but immediate things get in the way. So there you have it. You've sworn on your love, your career, and the league's perpetual trophy that you are going to do this.

And now it is time. Time to do it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The high-stakes world

We live in a high-stakes testing world. Lets face it, for a whole host of reasons more and more of us face the prospect of life-changing, career-determining exams. Answer choices A, B, C, D, and E are there, staring us in the face, offering the prospect of fulfilling success or ignominious failure.

It used to be this was the domain of the college bound, the SAT was the big dog that defined our expectations of the nature and purpose of standardized testing. But now these exams are everywhere, at all grade levels, in all career paths, and at all levels of advancement and success.

High-stakes testing is a term usually bandied about to describe academic exams given to grade school children -- exams that have the potential to bar a child's advancement to the next grade unless certain standards are met. Since the establishment of the No Child Left Behind legislation, state high-stakes exams have spread across the nation.

But a similar high-stakes environment exists in the adult world. Certification exams, board exams, admissions exams, and placement exams can direct the course of a professional or academic career at any of a dozen points.

This blog is about these exams -- standardized, typically multiple choice, high stakes tests. It is also about how to pass them. How to study, how to practice, how to prepare and how to think.

I study these tests and I know them well. I know them like any good general knows his foe. I respect them for their challenges, for the ingenuity and care of their design. I enjoy, above all, the challenge of helping my students overcome the challenges posed by these exams, passing the roadblock and finding success.

This blog is about helping you with whatever testing challenge you might face. Topics may differ and details of strategy may vary but a common thread of tactics and mental management can help any test taker -- facing any kind of test -- find success.