Prep Materials and Environment

Prep Materials and Environment

Study Steroids: The Perfect Tools and Environment

Elite testing performance isn’t just about your math and grammar skills. If students don’t have comfortable, clean, well-equipped studying environments, they’re not equipped to raise their test scores efficiently. Giving your child a proper place to work on his test prep is essential if you want the best results possible.

Here’s what you need to know about setting up that environment:

1. Don’t let your child study in his bedroom. If you study productivity, you’ll quickly learn that the bedroom is the worst possible place to get work done. People who work in home offices are always encouraged to work outside of their bedroom, and possibly at a Starbucks or some other external location, and for good reason: bedrooms are rife with distractions and psychological land mines.

Two reasons why the bedroom is the worst place to study:

A) Bedrooms contain every imaginable distraction I’m about to warn you about. Guitar, TV, magazines, iPad, Facebook Chat, computer, etc… There are simply too many distractions in the bedroom.

B) Bedrooms create “Environmental Confusion.” When people work where they sleep, they end up working less efficiently and sleeping less peacefully. The human brain operates by context. Have you ever felt your heart start pumping faster as you’re walking to the gym, but before you’ve actually started working out? You experience this because your brain starts sending signals to your whole body that you’re in “gym mode” to best suit what it anticipates as your needs.

Same thing goes for studying – if you sleep where you work, your brain doesn’t know whether it should be gearing up for mental exercise or gearing down for sleep. You end up with a sub-optimal brain pattern for both activities.

Get your child out of her bedroom and studying somewhere else immediately.

2. Cluttered spaces lead to cluttered thoughts. Wherever your child chooses to study, make sure that it’s as sterile and uncluttered as possible. Countless studies have shown that when you work in a cluttered environment, your cognitive capacity diminishes. Some have shown that creativity is enhanced by a messy desk, but the SAT and ACT require the exact opposite of creativity – they require rote, hyper-linear thinking.

A lot of people think that having a “nice view” where they work will help them to relax. In fact, looking at a view while you work can drastically diminish your productivity because your brain has to process and ignore extraneous information. While you should be focusing on your work, your brain can’t help but continually take in the scenes and activity outside, which puts an unnecessary load on your processing capabilities.

Strangely enough, people who work in sterile, boring environments actually report that they’re happier and more engaged in their work. When you work in a clean space with few distractions, your brain fully “buys into” the activities it’s working on. Humans are always happiest when they are fully absorbed in whatever they’re doing. If you completely eliminate clutter and distractions, you’ll put your child in what is known as a “flow state” – a mental state in which the activity currently being worked on is the only part of his or her consciousness. This state leads directly to remarkably fast progress.

Some tips for creating a “flow study” environment:

-Give your child a large, unadorned desk or workstation to use. Make sure that there’s NOTHING on the desk that isn’t necessary for his or her studying (loose paperwork, knick-knacks, decorations, etc.).

-Have your child face a wall rather than a window while he studies.

-Have your child study in a room with the fewest peripheral distractions possible. The fewer objects, artwork, decorations, etc. that he has in his 180 degree, front-facing field of view, the better.

-If at all possible, make sure that noise is kept to a minimum. Don’t watch loud television programs or vacuum in the next room!

3. Completely eliminate distractions. Point #2 was all about getting rid of visual distractions. This point is all about getting rid of psychological distractions.

There’s no way to completely kill distractions, but a few are seriously prime offenders:
-Cell phone
-Radio/music (except for 60 beat-per-minute string/piano music, which we’ll talk about later)

The cell phone is especially important. When your child is studying, have him leave his phone in the other room. It’s incredible how distracting cell phones are for most students. The solution is to get rid of them. If your child complains that “he won’t be able to see texts from his friends,” respond with: “why are you texting with your friends when you’re studying for your SATs/ACTs?” That should do the trick.

This is so important I need to say it again: get rid of cell phones during study time. There is NO REASON why your child should have his cell phone in the room during a study session.

TV also has no place at all in the study environment. Get rid of it. If people are watching it in other rooms, tell them to turn it off. Your brain automatically locks onto TV signals, which is why it’s so easy to mindlessly watch the boob tube for 5 hours in a sitting.

Next, try to make sure that your child either studies without music, or, even better, studying with the right kind of music.

Your mega-brief guide to study music:

-Music with words is incredibly distracting. As humans, we automatically engage with the spoken word. When we hear someone singing or speaking in our language, we want to pay attention. Our brains are hardwired to do so. Any music your child listens to MUST be wordless. Songs containing English words are incredibly distracting, and lyric-based music drastically reduces mental performance.

-Bass and drum beats disrupt the thought process. Your brain operates on rhythms, and when an artificial rhythm is introduced, your brain can’t help but lock on – usually with a very deleterious effect. This, combined with the lyrical content, is why rap music is arguably the worst music in the world for studying.

-The best music is 60 beat-per-minute music based on string instruments or the piano. Without getting into the science, which is very extensive, suffice it to say that this precise type of music alters the brain waves and has been shown to increase retention and focus by up to 250%.

Here are two playlists that you can suggest to your child that will make a huge difference (and I recommend putting them on while you work as well – you’ll be blown away by what they do to your level of focus):

Six-Hour Classical Music Playlist:

Eight-Hour Study Playlist:

Finally, eliminate all traffic. Walking through the room non-stop, or having your child study in the kitchen while you’re cooking a meal, is not optimal. Try to disturb your child as rarely as possible while he studies. I realize this might be seen as a paradox: he can’t be in his room, which is his most private area in the house, but he can’t be distracted outside of his room either. Remember that it’s not going to kill all his progress if you walk by him a few times, but you should try to adhere by these rules as much as you possibly can. Be courteous and have all siblings and house members limit their noise and activity during your child’s studying time and you’ll see better results.

4. Make sure the designated study space is well equipped. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted waiting for students to find their pencils, their calculators, their books, etc. You should pick a designated study space in your home where your child has everything he or she needs readily available.

If your child studies somewhere else, such as at the library or a local coffee shop, make sure that you have a “go bag” with everything he needs.
Here are the things that a properly equipped student can’t do without:

-All books and texts that he’s currently using
-Plenty of writing utensils
-A calculator
-A watch and/or timer
-Flashcards (any student familiar with Green Test Prep and my methods will be very aware of just how large a role flashcards play in the test prep process)

If a student has all of these things, he’ll be able to launch right into studying. Make sure that these things stay at the desk if your child studies at home, or that they go right back into his bag if he studies out of home. This sounds like an obvious step, but you’d be surprised; I have students who need to “find their calculator” at the beginning of EVERY session.

5. Make sure the study space is well lit and comfortable. Invest in a high-quality desk lamp and a nice chair. Uncomfortable and depressing work environments lead to decreased motivation, attention, and retention.

If your child is squinting and crouched over every time she studies, she’ll start associating this uncomfortable positioning with her test prep (and all of her homework in general). This isn’t good. Your child should, at the minimum, have a nice desk chair, a big, clean desk (at the right height compared to the chair), and a bright lamp directly overhead. If you provide this minimum of comfort and ergonomic setup, you’ll get much better results.

6. Clocks and timing are important. As you already know, students are most motivated when they can break large tasks into chunks. With that in mind, I highly recommend that your child use the “pomodoro technique.”

Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato,” and this technique is thus named for the tomato-shaped kitchen timers you’ll find in most restaurants. The pomodoro technique is simple: set one hyper-specific goal for a very limited period of time, then set the timer and work on that one thing, and that one thing only, until the timer runs out.

Harvard Business School recommends this for all entrepreneurs as its #1 time management technique, and I use it religiously when I work. Let me give you an example: let’s say I have six major projects to work on during a given day. I used to get overwhelmed easily, and since my time management is totally up to me (I set my own schedule), I used to be confused as to what I should focus on and for how long. I would toggle back and forth between tasks aimlessly, and at the end of a 12-hour day, I’d feel like I didn’t really get much done. Once I discovered the pomodoro technique, this all changed. I’ll say: “For the next 18 minutes, I’m going to work on curriculum development – at the end of the 18 minutes, I can do something else.”

I find that for those 18 minutes, I’m focused like a maniac. It gives me the “deadline feeling” – I really feel as if I only have 18 minutes to work on something I care about, so rather than languishing in the fact that I have so much more to write, I instead feel pepped up and motivated, and try to “beat the clock.” And since it’s only 18 minutes, I don’t feel overwhelmed because I know it’ll be over very soon. Once that 18 minutes is up, I reset the timer, and decide to re-code my website for the next 12 minutes – it’s remarkable how much coding I get done in those 12 minutes, and how engaged I am by the process.

Have your child use a timer when he or she studies. He can say, “for the next 16 minutes, I’ll do nothing but work on these percentage problems.” When he’s done with that, he can say, “for the next 20 minutes, I’m going to do nothing but read this primer on grammar and look at all the different examples.” Etc., etc.

When you use the pomodoro technique to break time into chunks, you not only get more done more efficiently, but you also feel more motivated and excited while you do it.

If your child uses my online SAT and ACT prep program, Green Test Prep, this process will already be baked in. As you know from my previous guides, consistency is key, and small, consistent study sessions are the real way to achieve SAT and ACT success. My course allows students to study in small, isolated, hyper-focused chunks. If you choose to go with a different prep method, just be sure that your child observes this philosophy.

If you make sure that your child has access to the resources above, and follows the processes described thus far, she’ll amplify her progress significantly.

As I said, you won’t be able to do all of these things all of the time. But it helps to know the ideal. If your child can adhere as closely as possible to these guidelines, she’s going to do much better.


Whether you work with my online system at Green Test Prep or some other program ,there are a few tools that I view as essential. First, you need the best possible practice tests and practice problems. After over a decade of experience teaching these tests, and trying every single book on the market, these are the texts that I’ve deemed most worthy of your child’s attention. The full list of books can be found here or click on the link below:

The Best Test Prep Books!

Don’t start your child on any SAT/ACT program until you have these books in hand. He’ll be using them almost every day. If you’re wondering why I haven’t written my own practice problems and practice tests:

The only practice tests your child will be taking are real SATs or ACTs directly from the Official College Board and Official ACT books. I don’t want your child taking “approximations” – the tests he’ll be taking, and the scores he’ll be getting on them, are real. If your child gets a 1500 in the College Board book, it means he would have gotten a 1500 on the actual SAT. If he gets a 33 after completing a test from the ACT book the score is indicative of what his actual score will be on test day.

However, when it comes to practice problems, things are different. Students should save the real, official tests for their diagnostic exams (if you haven’t already read about the importance of regular, timed, realistic graded diagnostics, I recommend that you do so here). They should build their skills on a day to day basis by using challenging, relevant practice problems from the best books available.

Why I didn’t write my own practice problems: Barron’s, McGraw Hill, and Princeton Review have spent tens of millions of dollars developing their own practice problems, and have full-time experts designing and improving them on a daily basis. Furthermore, many of the people on their staffs have developed material for the College Board and ACT in the past. They’re legit, to say the least. I use my time learning how to use these practice problems in a beneficial way for my students, and leave the problem creation to them!

Aside from these books, there are only a few more things you’ll need:

SAT/ACT Prep Shopping List

1. A calculator. The SAT/ACT allows students to use a graphing or scientific calculator during the Math section, and I highly recommend taking that allowance.

While you can use any calculator allowed by the SAT /ACT(the full list is here, and this goes for both the SAT and the ACT:​testing/​sat-reasoning/​test-day/​expect/​calculators)

I recommend using the granddaddy of all SAT/ACT-friendly calculators:

The TI-83 Plus Graphing Calculator

This thing is incredible, and, while a bit expensive, it’ll save your child a lot of time and stress when he/she takes the exam.

2. Blank flashcards Lots of them. If your child uses Green Test Prep, he’ll be crafting nearly 1,000 flashcards over the course of his program. They’re a simple, essential tool for improving performance.

Any flashcards will do, but I prefer ones with lines on one side and blank space on the back.

Additionally, you might want to grab some rubber bands or organizational boxes (boxes are better) so that your child can keep his flashcards organized into piles. After a week or two with my system, he will have a LOT of them.

3. Tons of pens and pencils. The more the better. This might sound ridiculous to include on this list, but I can’t tell you how often my students run out of pens and pencils, or can’t find the only pencil they own.

Not that much of a shopping list! If you have good books, lots of flashcards, something to write with, and the right program, you have everything you need to achieve test prep success.

Your Child is All Set!

If you follow all the advice in my previous guides, if you set up the proper environment, and if you get all the tools above, you’ll have everything you need to launch into this process! Congratulations – you’re on your way toward college success.

However, there is one more issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible: special accommodations. If your child doesn’t need them, and has no history of learning disabilities or special situations in school, you can skip the next section (in which case, I highly recommend that you check our guide on picking the right prep system for your child). However, if you know your child needs special accommodations, or think he or she may need them, read on!

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