Taipei is rife with “test prep” cram schools – the kind of places where students sign up for short terms and lots of sessions in the lead up to the big test.

Test prep cram schools cover a range of tests – the SAT, TOEFL and TOEIC, IELTS, GEPT. All of them offer similar programs with similar goals. And they shove a ton of information and practice into students a few weeks, maybe a few months, before the test.

And I’ll be honest – this can be useful. Some schools are better than others, and by and large they can help students add quite a few points to their scores that they would not have been capable of earning on their own.

How cram schools prepare students for the SAT

But therein lies the problem: students practice until their heads hurt, and as soon as the test is done, they forget most of what it was they were learning. Cram, forget, cram forget. It is how testing works in Taiwan and how it will continue to work.

These schools also promise the sky. They claim, “we have the real test!” and are willing to teach it to the class so students supposedly know exactly what to expect.

Cram schools are experts at teaching students tricks. “Pay attention to this phrase because it means they are looking for this kind of answer.”

And what this produces are students preoccupied with test scores and who have little idea of what the test is for and why they need to take it in the first place.

Test Books

Cram school strategy

Why it’s bad

Cram cram cram

Students don’t retain information, come to hate what they are learning

“The real test”

The test is old, stolen, and official practice tests released by the test companies are more useful

Teaching tricks

Waste of time, not very useful, time could be better spent learning material

The thing about these methods is that students aren’t actually learning, and this sort of training has very little value.

The “real test” many cram schools claim to possess was stolen, and it was last year’s. They do not have the test you will take this year, and the practice tests that companies like ETS and College Board produce are just as effective as those used by cram schools.

Furthermore, the tricks taught at cram programs are good for a few extra points, but they aren’t really the focus of what these tests are looking for in a student, nor do you need to learn tricks if you simply understand what is on the test.

Finally, and most importantly, cramming is a terrible way of retaining information and developing confidence, expertise, and the academic skills these tests are meant to gauge.

The purpose of tests


Purpose of test


Gauges college-level reading comprehension, critical thinking skills, mathematical reasoning


Assessing student English proficiency for academic purposes, targeted at students hoping to study in N. America


Assessing student English proficiency for professional purposes, targeted at students hoping to work in N. America


Gauges English proficiency, targeted at students hoping to move to the UK or Commonwealth countries


Taiwanese English assessment gauging English proficiency, for Taiwanese hoping to use English professionally or academically in Taiwan

These tests are not arbitrary, nor is the point to try and game the system. They exist to determine whether students are capable of joining a school or organization. The point is to assess student skills and proficiency.

Students who are cramming are focused on scores, not the abilities those scores are supposed to reflect. If this is how you are preparing, and if you assume cramming and score-focused learning will be enough, you will ultimately be frustrated.

Anyone can enroll in a cram school, but if you don’t have the foundational skills necessary to pass, you probably won’t. And even if you do, that might actually be worse, because then you are only successful at tricking a test, not preparing yourself for the task ahead.

Englist doesn’t teach tricks, it teaches students the skills the tests are checking for

The type of learning and test prep that Englist promotes is different and it is better. Below are the things tests like the SAT and TOEFL are actually looking for. They are also the skills Englist teaches.

1. Long-term planning and foundation building

We ask that students start preparing for these tests the second they step into our classrooms. But we don’t necessarily teach students the test. Rather, we teach the writing, grammar, comprehension, and analytical skills these tests are looking for.

However, we do offer test and college prep programs that prepare students specifically for those assessments. Our strategy is the same with students starting prep courses at least a semester early, and sometimes a whole year before the test. Also, while we do offer test-taking advice, we don’t falsely claim to have the test students will be taking, and we are not teaching tricks, we are teaching skills.

2. Language mastery

One of the main issues students face on tests like IELTS or the SAT are a lack of English language skills. Sure, students may be in international programs, but those aren’t always so great. 

As such, beginning in our elementary level fundamentals classes, we teach both the mechanics of English as well as develop student reading comprehension, sentence composition, and speaking and listening proficiency. This continues through all of our courses, even through advanced writing or college prep. 

Old Books

3. Comprehension

Reading and listening comprehension are critical skills students will need in high school, university, and their professional lives, which is why these are significant components of tests like the SAT and TOEFL.

Beyond the fundamentals classes, Englist also offers Analysis and Composition class, where students are tasked with reading English language materials and then writing skillfully about what they have read. Furthermore, our TOEFL and SAT classes cover advanced reading comprehension practice targeted specifically at those exams.

4. Critical thinking

As we are fond of saying, critical thinking is a soul of good writing. Our basic, intermediate, and advanced writing classes are wellsprings of critical thinking and analytical training.

The reading section of the SAT and the writing section of TOEFL are specifically looking for critical thinking skills. We focus heavily on this skill set in both of those classes.

5. Writing

The writing components of the SAT and the language proficiency tests are tricky to say the least. Writing education is our speciality and all of our courses are writing-focused.

Developing independent skills for optimal success over the long term

When students come once a week over a significant period of time, they develop the skills necessary to feel comfortable when taking the SAT or TOEFL tests. They independently are able to engage the questions and tasks proffered by tests and can do so without having to resort to a bag of tricks.

Man on Mountain

In English there is a saying – “Don’t learn the tricks of the trade. Learn the trade.” We hope to exemplify this at Englist by giving students the skills that tests are looking for, rather than teaching them to game a system.

If you or your student are concerned about any test, including the SAT, TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, GEPT, or any other, get in touch with us for more information.

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