By Mark Skoskiewicz
For most students (and many parents!), standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are stressful. They are also more than a little misunderstood.
By dispelling common misconceptions about these exams, you can help your daughter or son prepare more effectively and perform better on test day.
In general, high school students and their parents place far too much importance on test scores. Yes, they are important. They are important because research shows they tend to predict success in college, and because the quality of a high school curriculum, or a particular high school class, can vary so much. As a result, colleges need something standardized so they can compare applicants. That’s why they use the ACT and SAT.
However, your student should know that academic performance is the strongest driver of college admissions success: i.e., the depth, breadth, difficulty level, and grades in high school classes. The GPA comes first. After that, admissions committees consider other key but less important factors such as test scores, activities, essays, community service, and recommendations.
“Many colleges, including Wake Forest, are now test-optional, which means each applicant may decide whether or not she would like her standardized tests considered in the admissions decision. Regardless of whether or not scores are submitted, the high school record remains the most important factor in the admissions process. Even the highest standardized test scores fail to compensate for mediocre academic achievement.” — Martha Allman, Dean of Admissions, Wake Forest University
This is not to say that students shouldn’t prepare conscientiously for the ACT or SAT. But understanding that it’s not the be-all and end-all should relieve some stress and this, all by itself, can lead to improved performance. Students who work hard, take difficult classes, and earn a high GPA set themselves up for success. Scoring a few points lower than their peers will not doom an applicant. Instead, the ACT or SAT is just an opportunity to further strengthen an application.
This commonly held belief just isn’t true. Most of what students encounter on the ACT and SAT reflects specific math, reading, and writing skills they have already learned in school. General academic performance will, in many cases, predict performance on standardized tests. Students who have worked hard and earned A’s are in great shape to do well on the ACT or SAT.
The misconception comes from the fact that — in addition to explicitly testing math, reading comprehension, verbal reasoning, and writing skills — both the ACT and SAT take basic or foundational concepts and ask test-takers to apply them in ways that can seem tricky. The tests also try to measure critical thinking and problem solving ability, abstract skills that are built into all high school subjects rather than taught in a particular class.
Why are tests constructed like this? Writers of standardized tests aim to ensure that test results do two things: 1) reflect whether a student can excel at college-level coursework, and 2) create some variation among applicants so admissions committees can understand how much better one performed when compared with another. Excelling in college requires a mix of concrete and abstract academic skills (not to mention softer interpersonal and communication skills that these tests don’t address!).
So, when the SAT or ACT presents a “strange” problem that requires applying a core mathematics skill in a creative way, it’s measuring critical thinking and problem solving abilities in addition to the targeted math skill. This isn’t to say that your student needs a high IQ to answer it. Students just need to have an understanding of the target skill fully developed in their brains, stay calm, and think creatively about ways to reach a solution.
It might sound trite, but practice really does make perfect. Timed practice tests should be a continuous element of your student’s ACT or SAT preparation plan and there is no reason to wait.
A student might review all of the practice problems in a given test prep book and feel confident, but be very surprised by a poor practice test score. If this first practice test comes three weeks before the exam date that could be problematic. Applying a concept under time pressure without the benefit of a book is very different from reading how to do the problem and feeling as if you understand it. The only way to truly know where you stand is to take timed practice tests. Time and stress management on the ACT or SAT is, for better or worse, part of the key to scoring well.
Don’t worry! Remind your student that the confidence that comes from having taken 10 practice tests will far outweigh any potential dip in confidence he or she may feel by taking a practice test and not doing so well early on (before fully reviewing all key concepts). The key to test prep success is to take a practice test, diagnose conceptual strengths and weaknesses, study concepts, do practice problems, and repeat!
The ideas introduced here are explored in depth in my Amazon Kindle eBook, Plan, Prepare & Perform: A Strategic Approach to Test Prep Fueled by Expert Tutor Insights and Scientific Research on How We Learn. Download a free introduction and summary here.
About the Author
After spending three years as an economics tutor at Indiana University and then earning his MBA from Northwestern University, Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru, an education start up focused on helping students improve academic performance through customized study plans, better study habits, and 1-1 instruction. MyGuru recently acquired Viking Tutors, a tutoring company offering affordable ACT/SAT prep. He recently published a book on how simple mindset shifts, customized planning, and specific study habits can lead to improved performance on standardized tests called Plan, Prepare & Perform.
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