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

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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.