Test prep with eyes wide open

By Robin Noble 

The December arrival of PSAT (Preliminary SAT) scores marks the unofficial beginning of test preparation season for college-bound juniors across the country.

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High School Parent | College Parent

Conventional wisdom has us parents reaching for our calendars and checkbooks, scheduling students for afterschool classes or private sessions with the tutor everyone raves about.

Not so fast.

Before you invest your money, and before your student invests her time and effort, give SAT and ACT test preparation some careful consideration. As with everything else in college admissions, one size never fits all. The timing, approach and financial outlay should be based on your student’s situation and goals.  Some points to consider:


Unlike when many of us applied to college decades ago, now both the ACT and SAT are accepted by virtually all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Your student decides which one to take and the right choice can play to her strengths. Although some students feel pressure to achieve good scores on both tests, that may be a wasted effort with surplus stress.

story-icon-bar-convo-3Some students opt to take both the SAT and ACT in the spring of junior year and see which score is better, then focus on retaking that test if needed. The ACT website offers a concordance table where you and your student can compare SAT and ACT scores.

“Taking both tests is rarely the best option,” said Brian Witte with Varsity Tutors on U.S. News. “They differ enough that your time spent studying for one will not likely improve your score on the other.”

The ACT employs straightforward questions, includes a science section, and covers trigonometry. The SAT has been dramatically redesigned and the “new SAT,” which will be administered beginning in March, 2016, may be more similar to the ACT than the current (“old” SAT). Nevertheless, they are different tests; find out more about how they compare, and what to expect from the new SAT, here.

How to choose? Try both. Free practice tests are available on the internet. Your student’s instincts will dictate which test she should focus on.

There are some states — for example, my home state of Colorado — where the ACT is given to all juniors in public high schools, free and with no need to register. Many high schools will offer a practice ACT, also free, a few months prior to the state-administered test. Your student shouldn’t pass up this kind of opportunity if it’s available. That’s one score in the bank.

Prep or not?

Once your student has settled on a test, the next factor to consider is the score ranges of the universities she wants to attend. Check the websites of her chosen schools for the average scores of accepted students. Is her score in the middle or lower part of the range? If so, test preparation might be a good investment. Moving into the upper half of the range could be advantageous to her overall application, especially when the competition is tight. If her test scores are significantly beneath the range, rethink those schools. It’s highly unlikely that test prep will increase her scores by leaps and bounds.

Prep options

Your student has selected a test to focus on and has a target range in mind. What approach will yield the best score gains?

Begin with eyes wide open. Test prep can help elevate her scores by improving her test-taking strategies and patching knowledge gaps, but typical improvements are modest. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has said that commercial test preparation on average increases scores by 30 points on the SAT (at the 1600 point scale), and less than one point on the ACT. However, NACAC also said that small distinctions like these can make the difference between being in or out of highly competitive schools. Where does your student fit?

If she is aiming for competitive schools and is in the lower half of their average score ranges, commercial test preparation or even a pricey private tutor may bolster her scores enough to justify the investment. Judging by the abundance of expensive test prep providers out there, the pervading wisdom seems to be that it’s worth a try.

Quote“Practice is so important. My son took two full-length, timed practice ACT tests. After the second one, he spent an hour with an experienced tutor who went over the results with him and shared some great test-taking strategies. When he took the ACT for real, his score was five points higher than the first practice test score.” — Parent of high school senior

If your student is like most, a reasonable practice effort is what’s called for, and there are many options. The goal is to ensure she fully familiarizes herself with the test, thereby increasing her comfort level and confidence.

For independent learners, Khan Academy is a great free option.  This online education system offers an extensive SAT preparation program with full-length practice tests and excellent video tutorials. The program includes challenging sample math problems and demonstrates solving strategies. Independent learners also can download an abundance of free smartphone apps for practice anytime.

If your student doesn’t do independent well, a large or small group setting may offer good benefits. Check into commercial test prep providers in your area, get recommendations from friends and sign on, but let your student lead the way.

My college-bound junior has decided to wait until late spring to take an SAT prep course offered by our school district. The small group intensive runs 13 hours over four sessions and costs $385. Her target schools (so far) post an average SAT acceptance range of 1800–2100. Her PSATs indicate she will be in the lower/middle part of that range so she has some work to do to, especially if she decides to apply to higher reach schools. But next semester will be challenging academically, and the thing she loves best right now — the ski team — runs through March. Her plan is to push through the season, focus on her grades and engage test prep a little later in the year, with some practice exams in the mix.

I’m good with that. My goal is to model a realistic and pragmatic approach, with her at the helm. I’m also comforted by facts, not hype.

“For the vast majority of high school students, the improvement provided by test preparation companies is unlikely to be worth what it costs,” said Jane S. Shaw, president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in the New York Times.  “If you have the SAT score that the College Board considers ‘college-ready’ (1550 out of 2400), many good schools are open to you.”

Remember, standardized test scores — though important — are only one part of the college application. Your student’s courses and GPA are what matter most. Essays, recommendations, and extracurriculars are factors, too, and may balance lower test scores.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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