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Preparing for the ACT/SAT

Preparing for the ACT/SAT

For better or worse, the College Application process begins in Junior year of high school, a full 2 years before the student will start their first college class. Some students begin the summer after Sophomore year, and some even earlier. Each element of the process has to be addressed thoroughly and carefully. One of the most widely discussed aspects of the college application process is taking the standardized tests: The ACT (American College Testing) and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). The process of preparing for these tests will actually begin in the student’s Junior year, and even earlier for some.

In this article we will be focusing on general preparation for the tests. Next week, we will discuss how to choose which test to take. The tests are generally taken in the winter of Junior year, but there are many opportunities to take or retake the test.
So, what should you do to prepare?

Step 1:  THE PSAT

One tool that you will have is the PSAT. Almost all high school students take the PSAT during their Junior year, and while it has almost zero impact on college admissions*,  the PSAT can be quite useful to help students determine areas where they are weak and in what ways. The PSAT covers Math (with and without a calculator) and “Evidence-based Reading and Writing.” We should note here that “Writing” is more akin to what other tests refer to as “Language” or “English” in that it requires the student to read a passage and identify and correct errors. Apart from the scores themselves, the PSAT—as well as practice tests—may reveal academic areas to work on as well as non-academic areas, such as time-management, anxiety, or even filling in scantron bubbles and making clear notes.

Step 2:  START PRACTICING​

After the PSAT,  students should begin taking practice ACT and/or SAT tests. There are plenty of resources to take advantage of, both online and hard-copy. Since the ACT and SAT tests do get revised every few years, make sure that you are using practice tests that match the current format and scoring system. I definitely recommend practicing in a hard-copy format at least part of the time so the student has the chance to get the feel for all aspects of the testing process.

Notice I do not say “study.” The reason I say “practice” is simple: The knowledge and skills the tests will be assessing are those that should be learned in school. In the ideal world, the student is refreshing and reinforcingskills and knowledge they already have. Of course, the world is not ideal and there may be academic gaps that the student can identify and address through review and tutoring.

I want to note that in identifying “weaknesses,” I’m not simply discussing the broad categories, such as “Math” or “Reading.” In math for example, a student may find they have their Algebra and Coordinate Geometry down pat, but Plane Geometry needs to be worked on.

Step 3:  PICK A TEST COACH

At this point you may be thinking, “Hey, waitaminnit! You just said that there were lots of great resources available online and in books! Why would I want to hire a coach on top of that?” I admit that we here at MY Education Guru have a particular bias in this regard, but consider the following:

A Test Coach will guide the student through addressing their weak areas specifically and effectively. The amount of information available is overwhelming, and a Test Coach can effectively choose the best material and approach for a given student. Also, there are often different techniques promoted in different materials. A Test Coach working closely with a Student will identify which techniques work best for each student. Whether it is a matter of test-taking technique (like time management), being able to identify the type of question and therefore the type of answer needed, or simply keeping the student on track and motivated, a Test Coach can help in the following notable ways:

Reaching Target Scores

Look at your target schools or, if you haven’t decided on them yet, the types of schools you would like to attend. Learn what their test score requirements are and you can plan on a way to get to those scores. Then look at your practice test scores and set goals. The temptation here may be to glibly reply, “My target is as high as I can go.” But let’s be real here, you should not be be thinking about the scores you want, you should be thinking about the scores you need. A Test Coach can also create a plan to help raise those scores.

Motivation and Organization<

A Test Coach not only works with the student on the specifics of their testing, but helps keep the student motivated, offering encouragement and criticism as needed. It’s not hard to acknowledge that the parent-child relationship is complex, and there may be factors involved that make a student resistant to help from a parent. A Test Coach is a “neutral” presence in that dynamic and can guide the student without any baggage. As I wrote above, not only can a Test Coach create a plan with the student, the coach can make sure the plan is executed properly.

The Tricks of the Trade

Good Test Coaches spend a lot of time teaching students how to take a test. A very common difficulty students experience is identifying precisely what the question really is, i.e. what information does the test want you to find. Questions often require careful reading to figure that out. Similarly, there are effective shortcuts and processes to give a student a chance of getting a correct answer even if they are drawing a complete blank on the question. Often, time management will be an issue, which technique can address.** Some students suffer from anxiety or “freeze” when doing these kinds of tests. But fear not – there are tools to help address all of these issues.

Whether or not a Test Coach is involved, every student needs to take the testing process seriously. A point or two here or there may be the difference between Generic University and Sometown Community College.*** So get to it!

*PSAT scores are part of the eligibility requirements for the National Merit Scholarship, but are not considered for college acceptance.

**For example, on the ACT science test, students don’t need to read all of the information provided before beginning to answer questions.  Most ACT science questions relate to reading graphs and charts and extrapolating from those, so a cursory reading of the information is usually all that is needed to get started.

***No offense to the alumni of Sometime Community – Go Earwigs!

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