Testing for Private School Admission: The SSAT

the SSATIn the DC area, the SSAT is the most widely used assessment for students in third through eleventh grade for independent school admission. For the last nine years my company has administered the SSAT to hundreds of students throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. There’s no doubt that this assessment produces a tremendous amount of anxiety. Kids place a lot of pressure on themselves. They are well aware that the most competitive schools want to see strong scores. But in some cases, the adage “a parent’s stress is a child’s stress” is true. Although this test and other assessments play a role in acceptance, it’s vital to keep testing in perspective. There are many other factors that are more important.

Taking the SSAT in the Washington DC Area

The SSAT offers a national test once a month at local independent schools and testing centers from September through June. Parents can expect to pay $80 for the lower level test and $120 for the middle and upper level test. It’s also possible to schedule a Flex test with a certified testing center for an additional fee. A Flex test is scored the same as the nationally administered SSAT, but it’s given at a private testing location at the convenience of your schedule. The problem is that due to a new policy, there are very few Flex centers available, so finding a location to administer the test can be difficult. I now encourage parents to schedule a Flex or national test date a few months out because the centers get booked quickly. Although the national test can be taken as many times as the student wishes, the Flex test can only be administered to a student once per school year.

Timing is Important

The most popular test date is in December, but students can actually take the test as late as early January and still be on time with their applications. Scores are sent directly from the SSAT and do not accompany the student’s application. Parents can designate schools for their student’s scores to be sent to during the registration process. Be sure to check the website (www.ssat.org) and sign up just as soon as registration opens. It’s important that you don’t procrastinate on this part of the admission process.

The Nuts and Bolts of the SSAT

The upper and middle-level SSAT is a long test. It’s a three-hour-and-15-minute academic assessment which begins with a 25-minute essay. Although the essay isn’t graded, it is reviewed by the admission team so that they can get a sense of the child’s writing ability. The writing sample is followed by five multiple choice sections. In order, the five sections are Quantitative, Critical Reading, Vocabulary, a second Quantitative portion, and an Experimental section (not graded). Critical Reading is 40 minutes, the Verbal section and each Quantitative section are 30 minutes, and the Experimental section is 15 minutes. There is a 5-minute break after the essay and a 10-minute break after the Critical Reading section.

There are three levels of the test: elementary for third and fourth grade, middle for fifth through seventh grade, and upper for eighth through eleventh grade. Students with special needs who normally have accommodations through their school, such as extra time on tests, can apply for accommodations on the SSAT. These requests must be made ahead of time through the SSAT website and proper documentation is required. This typically takes two to three weeks, so be sure to plan ahead.

How the SSAT Is Scored

The SSAT is a strategy-based test, which is often very different from what a student is used to in the classroom. For correct answers, students gain one point. For incorrect answers, students lose one-fourth of a point. For answers left blank, there is no positive or negative effect, simply a zero towards the raw score. The fact that students are penalized for wrong answers greatly affects test-taking strategy on the SSAT. Students are not necessarily expected to answer every question, and many sink their score by rushing to finish questions they may not answer correctly.

The educated guessing strategy is a best practice for students. Here’s how it works: if you know the answer, fill in the answer and move on. If you don’t know the answer, but can eliminate two of the answer choices, take a guess. This puts your odds of getting the question right at one-out-of-three (five possible answers with two eliminated). A one-out-of-three chance is worth risking one fourth of a point since, statistically, you will gain points in the long run. If you do not know the answer to the question and cannot eliminate any choices, leave the answer blank. The ultimate goal of the guessing strategy is to answer all of the questions that you have the best chance at getting right while avoiding the questions that are likely to drag your score down. It takes some practice, but if a student can master this scoring strategy, she will maximize her score on the SSAT.

The total amount of points gained and lost creates a raw score for the test, which is then converted to a range between 200 and 800 points (similar to how the SAT is scored). When you receive the score report, you will see an SSAT percentile that tells you how well your student fared against the other test takers in the same grade and of the same gender. Scoring in the 80th percentile means that the student was in the top 20 percent of his or her demographic.

Take SSAT Scores with a Grain of Salt

In addition to the SSAT percentile, students in fifth through ninth grade receive an estimated national percentile, which is a comparison to other students across the country, not just to those applying to an independent school. As you can imagine, the national percentile score is higher than the SSAT percentile score, since students are compared to a wider pool of students from varying backgrounds. For example, a student can have a verbal score in the 53rd percentile on the SSAT scale and in the 87th percentile on the national scale. This creates a lot of confusion. Parents panic when they see that their child, who earns mostly As and Bs as report card grades, scores at a level not consistent with their classroom performance. Take these SSAT scores with a grain of salt; your child is compared only to others taking the SSAT. By nature, these students are going to be academically advanced when compared to a national sample of students coming from different upbringings. Although schools only look at the SSAT score, as a parent, consider both scores to get a better indicator of your child’s ability.

Learn more about the SSAT, HSPT, WISC, and WPPSI in my upcoming book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition.

Motivation and Test Prep

test prep

The fact is that parents cannot flip a switch to motivate their child. Rewards, especially in the form of money, often don’t work. Many students doing test prep for the SAT and ACT do not have a great deal of motivation to improve their scores. This is alarming seeing as admission test scores comprise 20-50% of the admission criteria at most colleges.

What parents can do is make the environment ripe for motivation. You can set up a schedule and a quiet, electronics-free place for your child to complete the assignments he receives as part of his test prep program. For every hour spent with a tutor, your child can expect an hour of homework. When students put in ample time and effort, scores will improve. And along with increased scores, you will often see greater confidence and motivation.

While internal motivation varies student to student and can come from many sources, consider these tips to motivate your student to improve his SAT or ACT scores.

1.  Open a dialogue about your child’s strengths and aspirations. 

At Educational Connections, we’ve worked with many families who seem to miss this crucial step, which is important not only for helping with motivation but also in figuring out where your child is going to be happiest and most successful after high school.

What does he or she want out of life? Sit down in a low pressure environment and listen. Figure out what it is your student hopes to achieve, whether it’s to become a video game designer, a professional golfer, an animal welfare advocate, or a Fortune 500 executive. Once you understand how your child feels, move to step #2.

2.  Ask your child what qualities of a college would help to further his or her goals. 

Don’t ask what college your child wants to go to because high school students rarely have any idea what college they actually want to attend. They likely haven’t been there, and they don’t know what it is really like. Focus on the qualities your child is looking for in a college and make a list of them. Avoid focusing on names or rankings. Some examples: in a city, strong nursing program, large and diverse student body, emphasis on environmental activism, study abroad programs, etc. When students feel that their wants are heard, they tend to view you as a teammate in the process and not the dictator.

3.  Make a list of 20 or so schools that share these qualities.

CollegeData.com has a wealth of information on colleges all over the world. The key is to focus on schools that will provide your student with ways to further his or her life goals. You can, of course, cross reference your findings with US News and World Report’s ranking system to find top-notch schools that appeal to your child, but going by name and/or rank alone is not a good idea. That is often how students end up at schools they come to dislike.

Start to implant the idea of “the dream school” in your student’s mind. Once your student is passionate about a school, many times his mindset toward test prep changes from one of checking off a completion box to actively working to improve.

In a nutshell:

  • Students are motivated when they have a vision of what they want to accomplish.
  • A clear path need not be defined, but having a general idea helps. You may have a daughter who loves animals. Could a career in veterinary medicine be an option? Your son loves video games and has a knack for graphic design. Perhaps a school with a great design or engineering program may be viable.
  • Take the focus off exact SAT scores and put it on having options of schools to attend that fit your child’s passions.

What Parents Need to Know about the SAT and ACT: Part II

As promised, here’s part two of my advice for what parents need to know about the SAT and ACT. For more advice, see my previous post.

“My son is taking the SAT in March because that seemed to be the time that everyone else is taking it.”

Planning a test date arbitrarily is a very common and a very poor practice that seems to have become widespread. Many people take the SAT to “see what score they’re going to get.” However, you can see what score you’re going to get by taking a proctored practice test in simulated testing conditions and not have the result count against you.  Also, we’ve seen poor results from these “dry runs” deal damaging blows to many students’ confidence.

Students should take the SAT when they are ready, i.e., they are scoring within 100 points of their goal score on consecutive practice tests. Don’t register for the closest SAT simply because that’s what your friends are doing.

The basic sequence for determining when to take the SAT (or ACT) is as follows:

1) Figure out your goal score.

2) Figure out your current score with a diagnostic test.

3) Figure out  your test prep schedule and how long it will (probably) take to reach your target score.

4) Pick a test date after that point and register for it.

5) Take practice tests frequently during the preparation process to gauge and measure progress.

6) Figure out the last possible date you can take the test in case progress is slower than anticipated.

“I heard some parents ask their students to do practice problems right before the test as a “warm-up.” This seems like a bad idea to me.”

Peculiarly, students seem to almost always score better on later sections than they do on earlier ones. A lot of this has to do with getting in a test taking mindset. Have your student bring 5-10 questions from each section of the test he’s taking into the test waiting area and have him solve them before taking the test. Ideally, these are problems that he has solved before. The idea is to “boot up” his brain so that he can start the test warmed up.

The day before the test should be used to relax and rest up – cramming does not work. However, the moments before the test should be used for thinking and logical reasoning.

“My student has done every last problem of test prep homework and the practice tests that have been assigned to him, but his score is stagnant. What is going wrong?”

We can all but guarantee that the answer to this issue comes down to the quality of a student’s practice. ALL PRACTICE IS NOT CREATED EQUAL. Tutors will work with students to direct their practice and hold them accountable; however, much of the potential for progress lies directly with the student.

To make significant progress, students must adhere to the following general rules of test prep practice:

1. Feedback is essential for learning. We need feedback in order to improve and learn from mistakes. Students must review all of their work on homework and practice tests, looking back to see what they got right, wrong, and why. Practicing problems without evaluating performance is a pretty futile endeavor. This is often the step that is missing from students’ test prep programs and, in many cases, academic careers. Parents and tutors can only do so much to hold students accountable and help them realize the importance of reviewing their work. Ultimately, students have take it upon themselves to not only complete the work but review it as well.

2. Focus on weaknesses. Students preparing for the SAT or ACT should be focusing the bulk of their time on the areas in which they are weakest. While practicing things that you’re good at feels good, doing so does not provide the same opportunity for improvement as practicing things you’re not so good at. This is one of the reasons frequent practice tests are so important – to use as benchmarks for assessing improvements and weaknesses.

3. Have a goal in mind for each practice section. Specific, actionable goals are crucial for directing an effective test prep program. Our tutors work with students to make sure that they understand the reasons behind their test prep efforts and what the more immediate goals are, e.g., mastering percentages and proving it by answering eight percentage problems correctly in a row. Specific goals lead to faster, more focused progress.

“Should I sign my daughter up for a group class or one-on-one tutoring?”

Though private, individual tutoring is a premium service, it provides students with a level of personalized, tailored instruction that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or small group setting. One-on-one tutors provide expert instruction and undivided attention, leading to greater engagement and a higher degree of accountability.

In order to accommodate a range of students, group classes will briefly cover all concepts and strategies equally, whereas a private tutor customizes sessions to focus on a student’s biggest weaknesses resulting in higher score gains than simply doing a comprehensive, systematic overview of everything. Group classes can provide structure to a student preparing for the SAT or ACT, but a private tutor can really drive score increases.

Start Preparing for the SSAT Now!

Will your son or daughter be taking the SSAT this fall for private school admissions? If so, right now is the time to start getting ready. Seriously…right now. Do not put it off. Too often we see families wait until it’s too late. The student takes a practice test in October when planning to take the test in December. The results come in and they are not stellar. At most, two months of crunch time remain to memorize test taking strategies, learn how to solve analogies, review long division, etc. Often, it’s not nearly enough time to fully prepare. Regardless of whether your student ends up needing test prep, I strongly recommend that he or she takes a full length practice test as soon as possible. Start preparing for the SSAT now!

The practice test will give you an estimate of your student’s score. It will allow you to determine any specific areas of weakness that may http://d1435t697bgi2o.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/mmw-standardized-tests.jpgneed attention before the actual test and plan ahead. Best case scenario, a high score will give you and your student peace of mind that your student’s SSAT score is not going to be a weak point in their applications.

Practice SSAT Test

We offer proctored practice SSAT tests at our Fairfax, VA office. However, if you are not able to visit us, you can purchase practice tests from the SSAT directly and have your student take a practice test at home. The SSAT sells a book on their website titled Preparing and Applying for Independent School Admission and the SSAT. Inside are four practice SSAT tests, two upper levels tests and two middle level tests. There are scoring instructions and conversion tables that allow you to get a rough estimate for your student’s percentile score. Visit www.ssat.org. Starting in August 2013, students will be able to take practice tests online through the SSAT website.

Your best tool for the entire private school admissions process is planning ahead. The SSAT is certainly no exception. Have your student take a practice test ASAP. If you have any questions about the SSAT, please feel free to email me at [email protected]. If you’re interested in scheduling a practice test with us, click the button below!

The Best SAT Prep in Northern Virginia

A parent inquiring about tutoring services recently asked, “How do you know you offer the best SAT prep in Northern Virginia?” I appreciated her direct approach. She did not have an arsenal of specific questions about materials, tutors qualifications, program structure, etc. Everything was summed up in one short question and the ball was in my court.

My response went something like this:

“That’s a fantastic question. There are many factors that make our service the best; however, I would say that the greatest values to prepping for the SAT with Educational Connections are the customized, one-on-one approach and the quality of our tutors. Quite a few of our test prep clients come to us having recently taken a larger group class that really didn’t individualize instruction to target the students’ weaknesses. To see measurable progress, knowing what your weaknesses are and targeting them are absolutely crucial. We accomplish this by starting every test prep program with a full length diagnostic test that students take at home. Tutors review this diagnostic with students individually to set goals and come up with a plan of attack for improving scores that concentrates on the student’s weakest areas in most cases.

We invest a great deal into ensuring that we secure the best test prep tutors possible. In addition to looking for college graduates who test prep tutorscored above the 90th percentile on the SAT or ACT in high school, we look for candidates whose skills are still sharp and who can score just as well if not higher on the tests now. We look for previous test prep experience and verifiable examples of success. Perhaps most importantly, our interview process requires candidates to model part of a test prep session so that we can gauge their teaching style and ability to motivate and communicate. Not only do we want them to be subject matter experts, we want them to be able to engage students.

Tutors are trained in our specific approach to test prep which includes content and strategy review and simulated test practice. This training covers how to best individualize instruction to students, how to motivate students to want to maximize their scores, and how to quickly recognize the most straightforward path to answers – an extremely useful skill on the college admissions tests.

We have also invested a lot into finding what we feel to be the best SAT prep materials. We use materials provided by Summit Educational Group which are not available to individual consumers. The course books and flashcards are designed to follow a natural progression of skill building. They present content clearly and concisely, not overwhelming students with material. We use only the College Board’s official practice tests for diagnostics and benchmarks as nothing else is more similar to the real test. We also give test prep students a Testing Timer™ watch which is a great tool for practicing pacing.

Finally, our program managers carefully review the session notes from each tutoring session to ensure that progress is on track and they check in with parents regularly to get feedback and make sure that expectations are being surpassed. They are also always available to address any concerns you may have as well as to provide support to our tutors.

We’re confident that we can provide your student with the best test prep available. How does that sound?”

The Problem with Measuring Problem Solving Through Standardized Tests

Standardized TestsIf I had a choice between a multiple choice test and an essay, I would choose the essay every single time. Honestly, I would choose probably anything other than the multiple choice test. I would rather stand up in front of a class of my peers and give a speech or work out a math problem on the board. Both of these risk complete humiliation, but to me they’re a million times better than bubbling in a scantron, just the thought of which makes my stomach churn.

Standardized Tests: You’re either right or wrong

My issue with multiple choice tests and standardized tests in particular is how final the answer is. There’s no room for explanation. I am not able to vocalize my decision making process or explain how I got the answer I did. The answer is either right or wrong; it’s all so black and white.

Standardized tests are supposedly designed to measure logical reasoning, analytical skills, critical thinking, and problem solving. But to me, the fact that the answer is either right or wrong negates an accurate measure of these skills entirely. Student A may have worked out the entire problem in length and made one small error, filled in the incorrect bubble leading her to get the entire question incorrect, while student B decided to randomly spell out “A-B-B-A-C-A-D-A-B-A” and just got lucky. The entire premise of not being able to explain the thought behind your answer is counterproductive to the education process entirely.

The concept of education and schooling has been around since 3500 BC, yet standardized testing was not introduced until the 19th century in Britain and the 20th century in the United States with the SAT being introduced in 1901. In the 112 years since the SAT’s birth, the role of standardized testing has changed dramatically in the United States. Once used solely as a supplemental measure, standardized tests seem to be gaining increasing importance in determining a student (and teacher’s) future. Skills such as articulation, debate, handwriting, and critical reasoning are going out the window in classrooms with teacher’s being forced to focus on the best techniques to pass the SOLs.

Teaching to the Test

These skills are being stripped from the curriculum and students are feeling the results after they leave high school. A new study showed that only 54% of students who enter a four year college or university graduate within six years. This percentage is even lower for African American and Hispanic students. The number one academic reason students fail: writing. In a skill that requires critical thinking, organizational thought, and articulation, over 28% of college freshman are deemed “deficient” – a rate higher today than it was in 1974. While students’ tests scores have increased on average 3 points since No Child Left Behind’s inception, their critical thinking and writing skills have gone out the window.

What Standardized Tests Lack

Bill Ayers put it simply when he said, “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”

The argument for standardized testing is often that it is an objective measure. While I agree with this statement, ultimately education is not an objective field. The teaching techniques that work for one student may not work for another. The way one student may think about a problem may be entirely different than the student next to him. One central theme to education is innovation or thinking outside the box. But how can students do that when their answers are limited to A, B, C, or D?

What Parents Need to Know about the SAT and ACT

I realized that I sometimes take for granted the amount that I’ve learned about the SAT, ACT, and test prep over the last few years. Thinking back to when I was in high school getting ready to take the SAT, it’s clear that I knew then 10% of what I know now. And my parents – the extent of their knowledge was the repressed memories of an obsolete test that cooped them up in a gym for 4 hours preventing them from doing whatever it is they did in the 70’s.

Misinformation and a lack of information surrounding the SAT and the ACT seem to be common among parents of high school students. But parents who are knowledgeable about the tests can drastically help their students’ chances of obtaining their maximum scores and increasing their options. Therefore, I’ve decided to write up responses to some common statements and questions that parents often have about college admissions tests starting with…

“My daughter scored about the same on practice tests of the SAT and ACT, so she’s going to prepare for and take both tests to see if she does better on one.”

Some parents and students think that this strategy is increasing the odds of maximizing test scores.  However, typically, this doesn’t result in students miraculously scoring better on one test. There is really no reason to prepare for and take both tests. By focusing on one test instead of two, you are allowing yourself twice the amount of time and twice the opportunity to maximize your score.

If your scores are pretty similar on the SAT and ACT, go with your gut. Most students tend to prefer one test over the other.

“My daughter got a 27 on her ACT the first time she took it. That’s a good score—well above average. We are happy with that. I don’t think she’ll take the test again.”

A “good” test score is relative. Part of any good test prep program should include coming up with a goal score and range, most of which is predicated on the student’s target schools. While there is not a set prescription for the number of schools to apply to, many college admissions experts advise around 6. This group of schools should include reach, target, and safety schools. Regarding test scores, you should be scoring well above the 75th percentile for your safety schools, preferably above the 50th percentile for your target schools, and hopefully above the 25th percentile for your reach schools. You may notice that schools often report the test scores of their incoming freshmen class as a range, e.g., 29-33. These are the first and third quartiles which should give you a sense of how your scores stack up against the competition. You can find this info in the College Search section of collegeboard.org.

If a composite score of 27 is not above the 50th percentile of your target schools, you need to reassess and plan to take the test again.

As fodder for the retort from your student that clearly 25% of students got in with less than X score, explain to her that those students probably fit into one of the following categories:

  • recruited athletes, musicians, or special talents
  • children of highly charitable alumni
  • highly sought-after minorities
  • students who scored very well on the other sections and have astronomical GPAs
  • incredibly lucky

Unless your student can bank on being included in one of these select groups, she needs to reconsider.

“My student is a good student—he’s just not a good test taker. Is it true that the ACT might be better for him?”

We hear this one all the time: “My student is not a good test taker.” While certain students do suffer from test anxiety, which is a serious issue, if your student is getting As and Bs in school, he can do well on either test if he prepares correctly.  There are a few characteristics that may suggest a student would perform better on the ACT, but being a “bad tester” is not one of them.

To use the SAT as an example, many students view it as an abomination, as an impossible to conquer obstacle. However, the SAT is just a logical reasoning exam that asks very simple material in very tricky ways. Taking the SAT is exactly like any other skill on Earth—anyone can improve and do very well with smart practice. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “good tester” and a “bad tester” – there are simply the people who take the time to figure out and practice the SAT and do well, and people with defeatist attitudes who don’t bother to put in the required effort to prepare.

“I’ve heard that the new SAT “Score Choice” policy means that students should take the test early and often.”

The SAT’s relatively recent “Score Choice” policy (which matches the longstanding ACT score reporting policy) gives students the option to select which scores they report to schools. Keep in mind that scores are reported on a test date basis only. For instance, you cannot send only your Writing score from one sitting and only your Math score from another. Which scores you report should depend on the school. Some schools only look a combined scores from single sitting; others will consider your superscore—the sum of your best section scores.  Also, some schools do not acknowledge “Score Choice” at all.

While the new policy removes some of the anxiety over retesting, it does not change the fact that most students will not peak on the SAT until spring of junior year or fall of senior year. Taking the SAT two or three times is still the appropriate plan for most students. Students considering taking the test as a “dry run” before January of junior year would be better served by taking a proctored practice test instead.  The feedback provided by a practice test is more immediate and more detailed. Aside from the cost and time involved, unprepared SAT performances can decrease a student’s confidence unnecessarily. Additionally, a student who took the SAT (or ACT) multiple times could be forced to reveal all scores if he or she decides to apply to any of the colleges that require entire testing histories.

More to come on what parents need to know about the SAT and ACT.

Test Prep and the Brain

I’m coming off a particularly stressful week. You know how that goes – the ebbs and flows of life. I began to really pay attention to how much the added stress and anxiety negatively impacted all areas of my life. It messes with attention, confidence, resiliency, and so on. Due to my own heightened awareness, I was particularly sympathetic to how much stress/fear/anxiety/whatever you want to call it affected a young man who came to our office last week to take the SSAT. That got me thinking about how much test anxiety is responsible for lowering standardized test scores.

The day a student takes a test such as the SAT is often an intimidating one. Small slip ups can have drastic effects on confidence levels which, in turn, decrease scores. Our tutor John just began working with a student in Vienna who had recently taken the SAT for the first time after reviewing some practice tests on his own. The student got halfway through the first math section, came to a problem involving an inverse relationship, and forgot what an inverse relationship was. The student later related that he got so hung up on the fact that he couldn’t remember this simple concept that it was in the back of his mind for the rest of the test. The result: His first SAT score was actually lower than what his PSAT score had predicted the year before.

We often get phone calls from parents whose students recently took the SAT after self-directed practice and froze up on test day. While self-directed preparation certainly works for some students, it is not the most productive rout for most.

Test Prep Anxiety

At the most basic level, the human brain can be split into two parts: the reptilian brain and the neocortex. The reptilian brain processes emotions, instinctual urges, and the “fight or flight” response. The test anxietyneocortex, which is unique to humans, processes rational thought and logical reasoning. While both parts of the brain serve their own very important purposes, they are not so great at working simultaneously.

When the reptilian brain is activated, activity in the neocortex shuts down. Learning, logic, and reasoning become of secondary importance to survival. And there is one thing that is predominantly responsible for activating the reptilian brain: fear.

When humans are afraid, nervous, angry, frustrated, or worried that their inability to remember what an inverse relationship is will prevent them from getting into college, the reptilian brain activates and stress hormones are released.

Essentially, much of the function of the brain is rooted in the needs of our ancestors of thousands of years ago. When early humans were confronted with a predator such as a saber-toothed cat, deciding on your options and then weighing the pros and cons of each would have gotten you killed before you decided what option number two even was. Instead, you run or fight. Simple as that. In moments of stress, the brain automatically inhibits logical reasoning and relies on instinct. As you can see, this isn’t the best recipe when it comes to doing well on a test such as the SAT which is based in logical reasoning. (As a digression, how the brain, which is hardwired for survival, deals with the stresses of modern day living is a fascinating topic.)

Managing Test Anxiety

By minimizing stress and nerves as much as possible when preparing for the SAT, ACT, or SSAT, students learn more, retain more, and increase their rate of progress. Obviously, there is an entire industry devoted to stress management, but here are a few ways to take what we know about our brains to get the most out of test prep.

1.) Start with what you already know.

While it is important to focus on your weaknesses to maximize test prep results, you always want to begin from a place where you’re comfortable. For example, if you’re trying to tackle the concept of misplaced modifiers, you should probably make sure you’re able to do some basic sentence diagramming. Even before that, you should make sure you know the parts of speech.

2.) Focus on the positives.

Instead of dwelling on how much you don’t know, focus on what you already know. There is a great deal of compelling research into the effects of positive thinking on performance. Remember that your opportunities to learn far outweigh your deficiencies.

3.) Review.

Repetition is key to retention. Every time you learn a new concept in your test prep, practice it, review it, practice it, review it, repeat. In addition to improving retention, doing this will make you more comfortable, reducing your stress levels.

4.) Take practice tests – lots of them.

Doing well on the admissions tests is just like any other skill. It requires a ton of practice. By taking a full length practice test every three weeks you will not only get in valuable content and strategy practice (provided that you review your results), but you will also practice in simulated testing conditions. Students who don’t take multiple practice tests before the real thing often deal with fatigue, attention issues, anxiety, etc. I guarantee that putting yourself through multiple practice tests will leave you better off than the vast majority of the other students in the testing room.

5.) Write away your fears.

Research out of the University of Chicago strongly supports dumping your fears onto paper 5 minutes before taking a test. Studies found that when students spent the few minutes leading up to their test writing out all of their anxieties, they scored better than their peers who did not.

Nobody said test prep is easy. However, you can train to reduce the likelihood that your primal stress responses take over on test day. It all comes down to smart practice and planning ahead.

ACT versus SAT: Which is more popular?

For the first time in its over fifty year history, the ACT has become the most popular college entrance exam in the country, beating out the SAT. Though the difference in the number of test takers was minor (about 2,000 students), the trend over the years is unmistakable. In 2006, 1,206,455 students took the ACT and 1,465,744 took the SAT. In 2012, 1,666,017 took the ACT and 1,664,479 took the SAT.

Why is the ACT more popular than the SAT?

For a long time, the SAT and ACT were associated with their own geographical regions of the country. If you lived in the Midwest, you took the ACT. If you lived in the East or West, you took the SAT. While these associations are still true to an extent, i.e., the majority of Midwesterners take the ACT, with nearly all colleges and universities now accepting either admissions test, students are afforded the opportunity to choose which test they take. The ACT’s prevalence is also aided by the fact that, due to the ACT’s shrewd marketing efforts, some states have mandated that all high school students take the test to assess school performance. For instance, North Carolina, a state that historically has had a majority of SAT takers will see that statistic drastically shift as the state now requires high school juniors to take the ACT.

As we have seen directly in our experience at Educational Connections, the majority of students also seem to prefer the format of the ACT to that of the SAT. The type of student who tends to prefer and do well on the SAT is deliberate, methodical, and a problem solver. The student who tends to prefer and do well on the ACT is focused, quick, and a master of material. The SAT requires test takers to work their logical reasoning prowess, while the ACT demands a quick pace and strong content knowledge.

Further reasons for the preference towards the ACT include:

• The ACT is scored with no deduction for wrong answers, which eliminates the psychological hurdle of strategizing on the SAT to avoid incorrect answer penalties.
• The ACT has, for quite some time, offered “score choice,” which has only recently been added by the SAT, meaning that bad scores from one test administration will not permanently tarnish college applications.
• The ACT’s content (reading, math, English, science) is more familiar to students than that of the SAT.

How to know whether to take the SAT or ACT

The most clear cut way to determine which test to take is to have a student take a full length practice of each test. Many students find out that they really dislike one test and at least find the other one bearable. Also, once the tests are scored, you can search online for a “concordance table” or visit http://convertyourscore.org/ to determine on which test the student may have scored better. The test scores and the student’s preference will be the factors that determine which test he will prepare for and ultimately take.

Also, it should be mentioned that it is usually a bad idea to prepare for both tests to see which score can be more maximized, unless there is a specific reason for doing so, e.g., the schools a student is applying to require different test. Figuring out which test is better suited to a student and focusing preparation efforts on that test alone give the best shot at getting the highest possible score.

SAT Critical Reading: Beware Bad Advice

If there is a section that the average student dreads most on the SAT, it is the Critical Reading. Why? Well, because of the “critical reading.” Try saying those words around any high schooler and notice the unconscious subtle curl of their lips.

SAT reading passages are usually dry, complex, and insipid (there’s an SAT word for you.) To contend with this, many students are recommended to employ “tricky” strategies for the reading passages to save time and preserve attention. Some of these tricks include reading the questions first, skimming the passage, and reading the first and last line of each paragraph. In short, these tips are awful.

The SAT Critical Reading section does not test your understanding of a passage’s plot; it tests your understanding of its meaning – a huge difference. Want to know how to get a better score on the SAT Critical Reading? Read the passages.

“But there’s not enough time to read the passage and answer the questions.”

The first excuse a student throws is that there is not enough time to read all the passages and get to the majority of the questions. Yes, pacing is a skill that has to be mastered on the SAT to get a high score; however, this doesn’t mean skimming the passages to gain time for answering questions. Again, the SAT tests your understanding of a passage’s meaning.  Students often don’t realize that by devoting adequate time to reading the passages, they gain a much better sense for the meaning of a passage thereby cutting down time spent answering questions while improving accuracy.

Let’s look at the test. The longest Critical Reading section is 24 questions and 25 minutes long. A sample section I’m looking at right now has five sentence completion questions followed by two short paragraph-long passages with two questions each, and two longer passages with six and nine questions, respectively. Let’s assume that the sentence completion section takes five minutes to complete (this is being very generous), leaving 20 minutes for the reading passages. In these particular passages there are 1314 words total. The average reading speed of a high school student is about 250 words per minute. (I’ll even slow it down a bit to 225 words per minute account for the extra focus required to get through the dullness of these passages and the length of the test.)  Therefore, the passages in this particular section would take just under six minutes to read. That leaves about 45 seconds to devote to each question – well more than enough time to read the question and answer choices, recall information, and even refer back to the text to make answer selections.

Why “Tricky” SAT Reading Strategies Backfire

What happens when students employ these aforementioned “time saving strategies” is that they get to the questions and, because they do not grasp the meaning of the passage, they end up referring back to the passage and reading select parts for each question, often more than once, so much that it would have been quicker to simply have read the passage in the first place.

These “tricky” strategies may help if you are reading to determine the plot line, but, again, you’re looking for meaning. SAT questions are going to ask you things that require contextual understanding, not a regurgitation of what is written. You’ll be asked about the authors’ attitudes, opinions, and assumptions; characters’ motivations; rhetorical devices; and main ideas. To do well, you must read and understand each passage fully. For the majority of critical reading questions, you should be able to provide your own version of an answer to every question without even looking at the five answer options.

So, if someone recommends a time-saving strategy for the Critical Reading section that involves anything less than reading the passages in their entirety: beware. Instead, prep time should focus on honing active reading strategies and understanding the meaning behind the passages.