Before I started writing test questions, I had an idea of the process that probably isn’t too different from what most people think: a person sits down, writes a question and tests it out on a couple of people.
If things look good, the question gets published. If not, that person makes a few tweaks and the question is ready.
While this might be the case with many non-official questions, the official question undergoes a far more exacting process.
On the old SAT, for instance, questions would undergo as many as a dozen steps, being passed around from reader to reader, minor modifications being made along the way. Then, and only then, was the question added to an experimental section where it was tested on thousands and thousands of students.
This final step can be thought of as the science part of question creation, the first part the art of question creation.
The Science of the Question
What the science step does is compare different levels of students to make sure the question is valid.
How this is done exactly is really complicated, so I won’t get into it here. What I will mention is that not every question passes this test without some additional tweaking. In the end, the official question is a finely calibrated specimen.
Even then, the difference between official questions and non-official questions might not be that obvious to someone without much training. However, no matter who you are, you will benefit from using official material.
Non-official material, because it hasn’t been subjected to these rigorous standards, will often hinder your understanding of the complexities of the actual test.
A Few Caveats
1. Official material is limited
Though this wasn’t the case for the old SAT, this is the case for the new SAT. There are only eight tests that the College Board has released. You will have to use non-official questions to supplement your practice.
Two things to keep in mind: first, make sure that the non-official material is well respected. Second, make sure to stagger out the official practice tests, rather than burn through them all at once.
Here is one of those official SAT sample tests.
2. Official material isn’t always up-to-date
Official ACT prep tests haven’t been that difficult to get. There has long been the “red guide”, (previously called The Real ACT Prep Guide), which finally released its 4th edition in 2016. Before that, the guide hadn’t been updated since 2007.
Be sure to check the publication date of any material you use to study for the SAT or ACT, whether its official or unofficial.
The Moral of the Story
The bottom line is that official practice is invaluable. By taking official practice tests, you get to know the tests and understand how the test makers work.
Make sure that you sit down and take at least one full-length practice test before the big test day… your score will thank you.
About Chris Lele
For the last ten years, Chris has been helping students excel on the SAT and the GRE. In this time, he’s coached 5 students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris’s awesome blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog, and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.