If you’re like most, then you take mock tests with following goals in mind: see where your preparation stands (or how much you score); test yourself in exam conditions; and hone your time management skills.

But top test-takers approach mock tests differently. They go beyond these:

1. They focus as much on self-appraisal as on taking the mock test

They spend significant time (in many cases, as much as half the time spent on taking the test) to analyze their mistakes in the mock test. They don’t gloat over a strong performance or get depressed with a poor performance. Nitin Jain, who topped IIT JEE in 2009, articulates precisely this when he says, “I took assessments as a part of my learning and used it judiciously to find my weaknesses.”

Their focus is self-appraisal. Specifically, they ask:

  • Are the mistakes because of lack of clarity of concept? Or, are they silly mistakes?
  • Is there a pattern to silly mistakes? For example, when taking mock tests for GMAT, I used to commit disproportionately high number of silly mistakes in Data Sufficiency section of Quant paper. (This was mainly because the question prompt in these questions can be often confusing.) After seeing this pattern, I consciously slowed down when reading Data Sufficiency questions, and, as a result, brought down my count of silly mistakes to almost nil. However, many treat silly mistakes as just silly mistakes, and don’t analyze the underlying reasons.
  • Did they breeze through easy questions and had disproportionately more time per question for the difficult ones?

Top test-takers use mock tests primarily for self-assessment, for identifying their weak areas, and then addressing them.

Parallel from sport

Players at the highest level have coaches scrutinizing their every move in real as well as practice games to spot any area of improvement. Roger Federer doesn’t hire a coach to spar with in practice sessions; he has a coach to pinpoint, well, aspects of his game he can improve.

2. They create mini-tests

This is a common practice adopted by top test-takers. They create mini-tests outside of mock tests. For example, while practicing problems in algebra, they’ll pick 2-3 questions on the go, set the clock running, and answer as if it’s an exam.

Although it’s more or less a daily drill for them, it doesn’t take anything extra out of their schedule. They were anyway going to answer those questions. They just simulated test conditions for 20-30 minutes. That’s it.

Mini-tests helps you practice different strategies you plan to use in the exam on a daily basis, and, equally important, it builds immunity against test-anxiety. It battle-hardens you, in short.

Parallel from sport

Top players have mini-drills almost throughout the year wherein they continue to hone their skills and stay in top shape.

3. They take few mock tests longer than the actual test

Few top test-takers make some of their mock tests longer than the real test.

How does it feel when you drop driving speed from 80 to 60 mph? Slow, right. Feels as if you’re barely driving. And how, if you increase the speed from 40 to 60 mph? The exact opposite.

If you take few mock tests that are, say, four-hour long (you may add few questions to a full-length mock-test to make it longer), then a three-hour real test will be a breeze as far as lasting the course without fatigue and drop in concentration is concerned. An indirect advantage of this practice: you’ll be less prone to silly mistakes because of higher immunity against fatigue, a common reason behind silly mistakes.

No doubt, taking longer mock tests isn’t easy, but if you’re driven and want to travel that extra mile to excel, then go for it.

Parallel from sport

Players often make their practice sessions tougher than what they may face in a real contest.

4. They simulate actual test conditions

They take full-length tests without any aids (calculator and coffee, to name a few). Most importantly, they take mock tests at the time of the day when the real test is scheduled. This is often overlooked, but it’s important. For example, if your test is scheduled at 3 PM and you take mock tests in the morning, then you’re not simulating real conditions. You’ll be at a better energy and alertness level in the morning than at 3 PM, and when you face less-optimum conditions for the first time at 3 PM in the real test, you may struggle.

Parallel from sport

In the buildup to 2017 Indian tour, Australian men’s cricket team practiced in Dubai on pitches and conditions similar to what they expected to face in India. Tennis players do the same. In the buildup to Grand Slams, the most important tournaments in tennis, they play on the same surface they’ve to face in few weeks.