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Preparing

By Dr. Ellen Fithian - Updated September, 2016

For many high school students, taking the SAT or ACT feels overwhelming - like battling Goliath armed with only a number 2 pencil and a calculator.

Students - and sometimes even parents - often subscribe to the fatalistic view that you can’t improve your SAT score because it’s basically an IQ test. Think about this assumption for a minute, though. First of all, the SAT measures learned academic skills, not native intelligence. But even if it were an IQ test, don’t you suppose you could improve your performance by knowing exactly what types of questions you’d encounter and taking practice tests ahead of time? Why else would they keep those tests under lock and key? Common sense tells you that familiarity and practice lead to improved performance on just about any standardized test you can name.

Key Point: Preparing for standardized tests works! Most of the students I've worked with who've gotten great SAT or ACT scores spent a substantial amount of time preparing.

What’s the Parent’s Role Here?

Several years ago, after giving a talk to a group of high school parents, I received an e-mail from one of the mothers. She asked me to resolve a disagreement with her husband regarding their son, a junior who would be taking the SAT several months hence. Her husband believed that preparing for the SAT was the son’s responsibility and that he should prepare on his own. However, the mother felt sure that, left to his own devices, the son would do little prep work, so she wanted to hire a tutor. She asked me whom I thought was right.

My answer - “You’re both right.”  I agreed with the father that the son should take responsibility for preparing for the SAT, but I also agreed with the mother that if he wasn’t going to do it, they should hire a tutor. Unfortunately, the SAT plays an important role in college admissions and the awarding of scholarships, so I think parents should do whatever they have to do – within reason – to get their kids to study for it.

How Should A Student Prepare?

Suppose your daughter were a serious swimmer trying to qualify for Junior Olympics. What would her coach's approach be? Would he sit her down to have a serious talk about the importance of the trials and then send her off to practice on her own? Not likely, yet this is precisely the approach most parents take toward SAT prep.

A much better strategy for a coach to implement would be to map out a schedule of practice before the trials, including specifying when and for how long an athlete would practice each day. Next, work with the swimmer to teach proper techniques and address specific weaknesses. Third, make sure the athlete practices swimming in circumstances similar to those she will encounter in the trial, and finally, talk to her about the importance of being well rested and psychologically geared up to do her best on the day of the competition.

Translating this approach to studying for the SAT, I suggest a four phase program:

Plan how the student will tackle the task. Help him identify a specific time to allocate to SAT work. Otherwise it's unlikely to actually happen, given how busy most teens are.

Prepare: This is the step that's analagous to a swimmer trying to perfect her strokes. With respect to the SAT, it involves learning about the different types of questions on the SAT, reviewing math content and the like. (Not sure of the best way for your teen to hone her test-taking techniques? Keep reading.)

Practice: No matter how diligently students study, they are unlikely to do their best unless they have taken practice tests under timed circumstances - the more the better.

Perform: Finally, many students underestimate the performance element involved in getting a high score. The SAT is a grueling marathon - beginning at 7:45 on a Saturday morning. For an optimal performance, a student should refrain from partying with friends the night before - or even stopping at Chick Fil-A for a pre-game breakfast. After preparing and practicing for weeks or months, a celebration with friends has been richly earned - but save it 'til after the exam!

 Different Strokes for Different Folks

Hopefully I've convinced you that your teen needs to engage in a systematic program of study. But how exactly? Should he take a course, use a tutor, study independently with workbooks? Here are some factors to consider when selecting a strategy:

  • Your teen's beginning score: 

High Scores on Both Sections: If your daughter is starting with high 600s on both sections of the SAT and is aiming for high 700s, she may not be well-served by a complete SAT prep course. Much, if not most, of what’s covered will be material she has already mastered – and therefore a waste of her test prep time. If money is no object, a tutor would be a good choice, but if finances are limited, she can also do well with independent study of workbooks or test prep software. An excellent resource for SAT prep is the Khan Academy software. Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to provide free, individualized test prep complete with practice tests, extensive instructional videos and a large bank of practice problems. The key caveat is that, like any test prep approach, it's only effective if a student commits to using it.

Uneven Profile of Scores Across Sections: If your son scored 760 on Math and 510 on Evidence Based Reading and Writing, a complete SAT course will also be suboptimal for the reason mentioned above; most of the math content review will be unnecessary and his time would be better spent preparing for the other section. An individualized approach involving a tutor, workbooks, or software would be more efficient.

Low Scores on Both Sections: If this describes your daughter’s scores, she probably would benefit from a complete, classroom-based SAT course that will cover all content areas thoroughly.

  • Cost: Tutors provide individualized instruction along with monitoring of student progress. Hourly rates for a good tutor can be steep, but each hour of instruction is highly customized to the learning needs of the student. 
  • Time: Many busy teens find it difficult to find an organized class that they can fit into their already overloaded schedule. Independent work or tutoring can be the only viable option for some such students.
  • Learning style:  Software programs are ideal for students who enjoy working on the computer. Other students prefer classroom-based group instruction or working alone at their own pace or with a tutor. When applied diligently, all of these options can work well.
  • Self-discipline: Unfortunately, purchasing a workbook does not constitute test prep, so unless your son has the fortitude required to spend several hours a day independently reviewing test content and taking practice tests, this pathway will be ineffective for him. You know your own child, so don't let him devise a test prep strategy based on wishful thinking.

We've talked a lot about things teens can do to get ready for the SAT, so it's only fair to dole out some admonitions to parents as well.

‘Twas the Night Before Testing: Parenting Dos and Don’ts

Don’t

Engage in any kind of conflict. Your daughter is probably stressed, and may be abrupt or downright rude, but resist the temptation to respond in kind.

Raise any unpleasant issues. The night before the SAT is not the time to tell her you think she’s spending too much time with her boyfriend.

Do

Strive to create a relaxed environment during the evening. Plan a nice dinner followed by a soothing, low-key activity—watching a movie or reading for pleasure. Help gather up all the things your son will need to take with him the next day and then make sure he gets to bed at a reasonable time—but not so early that he can’t sleep. Finally, reassure him that one of the few good things about the SAT is that there are plenty of opportunities for do-overs. Best of luck to your kids!

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