The SSAT marks many students first major standardized test, and at three hours and five minutes, it’s an outsized endeavor for most eighth graders. With the December 9 exam date fast approaching, we’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents: How should she study? How can he manage stress? To answer their questions, we turned to Emily Somberg, our leading Middle School tutor and SSAT guru, who shares her thoughts on navigating the exam with confidence, perspective and more than a small amount of sanity!
The SSAT is a major undertaking for most 8th graders. What’s your top line advice to parents trying to coach their kids through this stressful gauntlet?
It’s only one test but so many ways to review. So start by reflecting on what works for you. Often, students at this age are not yet self-conscious about how they learn. So I encourage a family conversation, with questions like: Do you like to study in a small group, or all alone? Do you learn best talking things out or reviewing a textbook? How can you use flash cards or review sheets to retain new information? When are you most alert, relaxed and ready to study? And how do we carve out time specifically for test prep?
Make a plan and then stick to it. Emphasize that consistency is key — 20 minutes three times per week is great — while cramming is a recipe for nothing but stress. If we can reframe the SSAT as an opportunity for students to develop and refine the kind of study skills that are so essential for success in high school, it takes away some of the immediate pressure and can make the preparation a more positive experience.
My student feels so rushed and can’t get to the end of each section. What’s your advice for time management?
Here, I think the simplest advice is the best advice: know the test. If you understand the instructions, and know the rhythm of the test, you won’t spend time puzzling over what the examiners expect and you free up a lot of mental real estate for the trickiest problems.
I play two games with my students. First, I tell them to imagine they’re an ER doctor: problems are coming in left and right, one has a broken toe, the other is in cardiac arrest. Whom do you heal first? I remind them to start with the easiest cases, because there are no bonus points for tackling the hardest and most time-consuming problems. Know your own weaknesses — which problems are in your sweet spot, and which are beyond your powers — and you won’t get stuck investing five minutes in a problem you can’t solve.
Second, we run time trials. I give them, say, six minutes to do ten problems. I warn them that my expectation is unreasonable, but deliberately so, because there will be moments on the exam when they need to decide quickly which problems to solve and which to pass on. I find it really helps them think about the rhythm of the exam — sometimes you have to sprint, and sometimes you’re on cruise control.
In short, time management is really about competence, calm and prioritization. Not just on the SSAT, but in life!
What are your favorite resources for self study?
I highly recommend Princeton Review’s SSAT study guide. It has six full-length practice tests (and SSAT practice tests are not easy to find). I also like that there are practice problems keyed to various content areas and study techniques–whether that’s word problems, vocabulary or how to employ process of elimination. In fact, the guide is so strong on study skills and test tips that we often prescribe sections to our SAT and ACT students as well!
I also love Quizlet. Students learn a lot by making their own study guides–it forces them to ask, what do I know cold, and where am I shaky? And they can play the quizzes on their phone for five minutes here and there, which helps prevent cramming. Check out Quizlet’s SSAT vocabulary list — my students who reviewed it diligently really did show tremendous gains in their working vocabulary–good news for the test and beyond!