“To cram, or not to cram?” That is the question for many test prep students.  As an SAT/ACT tutor, I routinely encounter students who try to pack as much work as possible into the final few days before their official exams. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the effort and interest level, and I’m glad they want to do whatever they can to score as high as possible. But from nearly a decade of observing students of all levels and backgrounds, I can say confidently that cramming for standardized tests is never a good idea.

I’ll start by being perfectly honest with you. I have crammed for quizzes and tests before… frequently, and sometimes with a lot of success. The question is not whether cramming can work —because in some situations, it certainly can—but whether the SAT and ACT exams are well-suited to the “strategy” of cramming.

To illustrate the types of exams for which cramming can work well, let’s take a look at three sample questions:

  1. What are the three branches of the federal government of the United States?
  2. Est-ce que tu _________ (past tense: parler) à ta mère aujourd’hui?
  3. Which economist is known for his discussion of the “invisible hand”?

You might expect to see the first question in a Civics class. The second question asks for a straightforward verb conjugation, typical of an introductory French class. And anyone who took Introductory Economics should spot Adam Smith’s well-known metaphor. What these three questions have in common is that they ask us to recall a succinct fact, one that can fit on the back of a flash card. What these three questions also have in common is that they won’t be on the SAT or ACT.

Let’s look at a second set of questions:

  1. What is the primary purpose of the author of passage 2?
  2. Susie buys a telephone plan that charges her a flat rate of $15 per month plus $0.10 for every minute she talks on the phone above 30 minutes per month. If Susie talks on the phone for 127 minutes in October, what is her phone bill for that month, in dollars?
  3. Write an essay in which you examine the speaker’s primary goals and analyze the rhetorical devices used to achieve these goals.

What these three questions have in common is that they don’t ask us to recall a succinct fact that can fit on the back of a flashcard. Instead, they ask us to process and interpret data in an intelligent way. And what these three questions also have in common is that they are precisely the types of questions we expect to see on the SAT and ACT. If you need to memorize a list of facts, cramming can work. If you need to effectively access and utilize a broad range of skills and knowledge, cramming does not work.

This is not to say that the SAT and ACT are not content-based exams; they are. However, the list of topics that might be tested is extremely long, much longer than the set of facts tested on a Civics, French, or Economics quiz. Take the ACT Math section, for example. For this section alone, ArborBridge has more than 290 different lessons teaching the vast variety of skills needed to answer the 60 questions on the exam. Realistically, how many of these can you master in a night or two of cramming, without the requisite time to practice and internalize each skill?

Staying up all night the night before the SAT or ACT might slightly increase the amount of material you are comfortable with, but the stress and fatigue will hurt your ability to efficiently access your knowledge on test day. ArborBridge tutors work with each of our students to develop a specific plan for the final few days before a test. We focus on the core skills that are most frequently tested on each exam, and we make sure that our students have a positive outlook. These two factors far outweigh any benefit from last-minute cramming.