How Should My Student Prepare for the SAT and ACT?
How Should My Student Prepare for the SAT and ACT?

You may think that getting great grades and having plenty of extracurricular activities in high school is your student’s ticket for admission to a great college and substantial financial aid. It is, but it’s only part of the equation. Test scores count heavily. This may not be fair but it is a fact of life. Look at it from the school’s point of view. Almost every applicant has good grades and plenty of extracurricular and community service activities. A high test score could be the factor that tips the balance. Another issue to consider is the school’s reputation. The scores of incoming students are usually public knowledge. If the average scores are low, the school is not going to be considered selective.

Maybe you’re not worried about getting your child into the Ivy League. You just want your student to get a good education at State U. Good test scores are still important. High scores often equate to full tuition at many state schools. Imagine your student graduating from college with little or no student debt.

The good news is that test scores can be improved by preparation. The bad news is that two weeks before the test is not the ideal time to start. There are three standardized tests you need to be prepping your student for. These tests are the ACT, the PSAT and the SAT.

The ACT is a test designed to measure a wide range of subject matter taught in schools. It has 215 multiple-choice questions and takes about three and a half hours to complete. Add another half-hour if the optional writing test is taken. The ACT is given six times a year.

The SAT is another admissions test. It is designed to measure problem-solving and reasoning skills. It has multiple sections testing mathematics, critical reading and writing skills. There is also an essay section. Total test time is three hours and forty-five minutes. It is given seven times a year.

The PSAT, or practice SAT, is a test taken in fall of the student’s junior year. Designed as a practice session for the SAT, it is also used to enter students into the National Merit Scholarship completion. This test is often overlooked, but this can be a costly mistake. Even just getting to the semifinals of the National Merit Scholarships will usually qualify your student for substantial merit awards. Although it only counts when taken in the junior year, there is no reason not to have your child take the test earlier for practice.

Which test should your student take? The correct answer is all of the above. Most schools will accept either the ACT or the SAT. Often a student’s particular strengths will enable them to do better on one test or the other. Have your child take both, and use the higher score when you apply to colleges.

There are several steps you can take to improve your student’s test scores. First, sign your child up for advanced academic classes, preferably starting in middle school. The SAT and ACT both measure skills and knowledge that take years to develop.

Second, encourage your child to read. The best way to increase vocabulary is to read. Don’t worry too much about the level or content matter. If your child wants to read the latest teen vampire novel, let them. Newspapers and magazines count, too. Vocabulary flash cards are helpful, but they won’t replace reading as the most effective vocabulary builder.

Third, get your child to practice, practice and practice some more. The more familiar your student is with the test format, the better they will do. Practice eases test anxiety. While simply retaking the test often results in some improvement in scores, targeted test preparation is more effective. For example, the ACT and the SAT differ when it comes to guessing. There is no penalty on the ACT for guessing, so students should never leave anything blank. On the SAT, .25 is deducted for each wrong answer. If the student can eliminate one or two choices, they should guess. If not, then they should leave the question blank. These are the kind of valuable strategies that your child needs to know.

Classes are available in some areas, but quality classes are quite expensive. You are also tied to the class schedule. Self study guides that allow your student to work at his or her own pace are often more practical. If your child begins early, they can take their time, mastering one skill at a time. If time is tight, they can cram in as much as possible.

Big, well-established companies like Kaplan usually offer the best study guides. They have been in the business for a long time, and know their stuff. Kaplan’s QuizBank has over 1000 practice ACT questions in it. 123 College provides Kaplan study materials as part of their student subscription.

Don’t let your student go into these vital tests cold. The more test preparation your student does, the better their scores will be. Encourage your child to take both the ACT and the SAT at least twice. This takes some of the pressure off. They know they have more than one chance to do well. Be sure and have them take the PSAT as well. It’s good practice for the SAT and their only chance to win a National Merit Scholarship.

Guiding your child through the maze of college applications can seem overwhelming. 123 College can help you through that maze.