Don’t Prep in a Bubble

I once had a student who couldn’t handle any background noise. He would flip out if he could hear a student in another room or someone talking on a phone in a different office or even a fire truck going by. Every noise was an excuse for why a training passage had gone poorly.

As a tutor, I’ve had parents plead with me to make certain that their child has no outside noises to disturb their SAT or ACT prep. They’re so paranoid that I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent their child to me for training with accompanying noise-cancelling headphones.

I’ve seen plenty of prominent tutors recommend that you find a quiet place to train. And, for the wiser ones, I think their recommendation means to find a place where your mom won’t start a dialogue (monologue, really) with you while you’re trying to do a practice test. Or, to find a place where friends or coffee-shop weirdos won’t interrupt you and share advice that they received from their third cousin (My favorite are those that want to tell you their testing horror stories. Thank you?). In those scenarios, those tutors are right, but they seem to be talking more about interruption than quiet. We certainly don’t want interruptions while we’re training, but is noise the same as interruption?

Noise-as-interruption is one of the principal difficulties that students will run across on test day. And the students who are least well-equipped to handle it are those who have trained in a bubble and expect that their private bubble will be there on test day. News flash for those of you who haven’t already figured this out: standardized testing isn’t about you; it’s about the multitudes.

If you can’t learn to handle background noise and oddities, you can find yourself in serious trouble on test day. My students who live in bubble-wrapped worlds and expect to find such a world on test day are sorely disappointed. Here’s a short list of noise-based interruptions that just my own students have encountered:

  • Three teachers having an extremely loud “conference in the room next door”

  • A teen in swishy pants who is nervously shaking his legs (thus swishing his pants)

  • A teen reading the passages, questions, and answer choices aloud to herself

  • A proctor loudly reminding a student that the scantron is where the answers go

  • Students testing in different rooms being released early and bellowing in the hallway

  • Radiators crackling with delight as they heat the testing room

  • Ceiling fans whirring and whizzing in maddeningly arrhythmic merriment

  • A teen rapidly tapping his foot in an attempt to speed up his reading

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. If you train in a bubble, you’ll certainly have an excuse after test day as to why your scores were subpar. But if your goal is to perform the best you can on test day, don’t train in a bubble because you won’t be in a bubble on test day.

Now noise might indeed be an interruption, but noise is such a frequent reality that it should be expected and prepared for to the point where its influence is minimized.

To give you an idea, one of my recent ACT students had a student behind him who read the passages out loud and tapped her foot. While the proctor warned the student, the student wasn’t kicked out after three warnings during the ACT Science section. No matter how much training he had undergone, the great and mighty mumbler-tapper definitely influenced his performance on test day. Because he was used to background noise at least, even if not to that extreme, my student managed to pull off an overall score in the 99th percentile and science section score in the 93rd percentile. I should note that this particular student had averaged between the 93rd and 97th percentiles on the science section in practice, so his performance on test day was within expectation. Not too shabby given the circumstances in which he took the test.

While this post has thus far been about noise, you should realize that distractions other than simply noise can come up. Noise, however, is one you can prepare for with the greatest ease. Don’t practice with noise-cancelling headphones and don’t completely isolate yourself in a library study room.

Whenever possible, I have my students take their final practice test in about the worst situation imaginable: small desks, irregular background noise, other students, and me as their morning’s proctor.

As an added bonus to this post, I’m including the four worst types of test-takers to have in your SAT or ACT. Obviously, a single individual can combine all of these horrible qualities into a foul stew of human awfulness, even unintentionally. Please don’t be that kid or any of the following people:

  1. The Read-Aloud Pro

Look, we get that you’re having trouble understanding the passage. And you might comprehend better when you hear things instead of read them. That’s neat. But the rest of us find our own reading and thinking disturbed by your individual convenience. When you see veins popping in the neck of the person in front of you, it probably isn’t roid rage. It’s probably a response to your mumblings. (Note: responses to the read-aloud pro might be similar to dispositions engendered by roid rage. Consider yourself warned.)

  1. The Rhythm Machine

Sure, drummers are cool. Tap dancers are cool. Your swishy pants certainly bring to mind kindergarten music class with its engaging egg shakers. And your tapping foot is a helpful reminder of how people then and now lack rhythm (aside from that one show off…). Here’s the thing: you aren’t cool. You are a pest. No matter how consistent your beat, your percussion will never be at the right tempo for your fellow test-takers. If you want to remind us of kindergarten, please bring to mind a more appropriate reminder—the restive nature of nap-time.

  1. The Smelly Kid

This person is literally the worst. We get that you want to look like you just rolled out of bed with nary a care in the world. And maybe you did. But for the sake of all that is good and decent, do you have to smell like it too? Now you might be thinking, this one is just directed at the boys. Nope! Perfume and cologne (and other body sprays) are equally unable to mask your morning stink. All they do is blend with it to make a creation that would make Frankenstein’s monster crinkle its nose. Take a shower and then you are welcome to put on a clean pair of PJs or sweats. Just don’t subject us to your stench.

  1. The Sick Sniffler (or Projectile Powerhouse)

I think you can figure this one out. Unfortunately, sick days do happen. If this is the case, please prepare. No one wants to hear your throat gurgle. We’d rather not focus our guessing prowess on when your sniffle will turn into a nose drip that drops to your desktop. And if you are the unlucky person who has a worse illness that is still contagious, please don’t show up to the test at all! It’s really hard to focus on the ACT or SAT when you’re wondering what the incubation period is for that awful-looking-and-sounding disease that is within four feet of your face.

With all of the above considered, just remember: don’t be a bubble boy (or girl)!