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Updated 6/2/2022

As mentioned elsewhere in this guide, in 2021-22 most colleges have test optional or test blind policies, so it's not absolutely necessary for students to take an SAT or ACT test. That said, most will take the PSAT, and for top students this can lead to recognition and scholarship money, so it's worth spending some time preparing for it.

Obstacles to Acing Standardized Tests

First, 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. They don't know how to prepare or where to start, so parents can help by finding the kind of test prep that will correspond to a student's learning style, ability to self-regulate, and time constraints.

Other students labor under the false assumption 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.

How Should A Student Prepare?

A serious student's SAT prep process should simulate that of an elite swimmer preparing for a high-stakes meet. Serious athletes naturally hope to achieve their personal best time for a particular event on the day of the meet, but since you can never guarantee peak performance at any point in time, the next best thing is to achieve consistency of performance - i.e. reduce the variation between their time for the event on their worst day and their time on their best day. How do you go about accomplishing that? I suggest a three pronged approach. Note that I use the SAT as the test being prepared for, but everything that follows applies just as well to the ACT.

Preview: 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 format of the test, familiarizing yourself with the scoring rubric, and reviewing the different types of questions. 

Practice: In just about everything in life, practice improves performance. Spending time working through different types of problems helps students gain confidence, move through the test more quickly, and avoid careless errors and "traps" planted by the test makers. However, no matter how diligently students work through practice problems, they are unlikely to do their best on test day unless they have taken complete practice tests under timed circumstances. The SAT is a marathon, so preparing for it requires building stamina.

Perform: Finally, many students underestimate the performance element involved in getting a high score. For an optimal performance, you need to bring your A game, so please have your teen 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!

Prep Resources

An excellent resource for SAT prep is the Khan Academy software. Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to provide free test prep complete with practice tests, extensive instructional videos and a large bank of practice problems. With respect to the ACT, my search of the act.org website does not turn up a lot of free resources for students. Instead, links for test prep tend to direct the user to Kaplan, which sells a variety of test prep options, so if you're looking for extensive free prep, SAT seems to have ACT beat.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Beyond the free software mentioned above, there are many ways that a student can prepare for testing, ranging from full courses to workbooks to tutors. In deciding what's best for your teen, consider these factors:

1. 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. 

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.

2. Other Factors to Consider:

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. Further, a student who has significant gaps in his knowledge of math, for example, may need more extensive remediation than would be provided in a standard SAT review course.

Time: Very busy teens - say those who are serious athletes - may 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.

Learning style:  Learning styles and preferences differ. Software programs are great for kids who enjoy working on the computer, but some students prefer classroom-based instruction or working at their own pace with a tutor. 

Self-discipline: I've known a number of students to earn stellar scores based entirely on independent study of workbooks. If this sounds like your son or daughter, congrats! Unfortunately, if your teen lacks the fortitude required to spend several hours a day independently reviewing test content and taking practice tests, this pathway will be ineffective. A class might provide just the structure he needs. You know your own child, so make sure a test prep strategy is realistic. 

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. And avoid raising 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. Further, if his score is disappointing despite a diligent effort, he can always avail himself of test optional policies.

Best of luck to your kids!

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