How do you prepare for the SAT/ACT?

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We're often asked - what is the best way to prepare for the SAT/ACT?

The simple answer is by not spending any money. The nation's largest colleges and non-profit foundations, many of whom are deeply committed to improving student diversity in college admissions, are philosophically opposed to making test prep the exclusive domain of those families who can afford to send their children to these centers, cutting out millions of high school children who can't afford the same privilege.  For these organizations, it is all about providing equal opportunity to all students regardless of financial ability, an approach that is so American and a much better option than providing equal outcomes - like guaranteed college admissions, regardless of merit. 

Both the SAT and the ACT are attempting to stay relevant as there is increasing pressure from groups who chose equal outcomes to lobby for the elimination of these tests altogether. [Groups such as FairTest have exploited disruptions caused by Covid to convince more than 1,800 colleges and universities to go test-optional]. But there are many colleges that still require the SAT/ACT for college admissions, and when test scores are submitted, colleges will consider them as one more data point to make admissions decisions. Besides, test-optional does not mean test-blind.

On January 25, 2022, the College Board announced that the SAT will be going digital beginning in 2024. Taking a full-length practice test on Bluebook is one of the best ways to prepare for the real test.

The digital test is shorter because it relies on adaptive testing. That means the test changes based on the students' answers, with the goal of reducing the time students spend answering questions that are either too easy or too hard.All students will take the digital PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, and PSAT/NMSQT starting in fall 2023.

SAT Digital Suite. Image Courtesy: The College Board.

The Khan Academy, the College Board and the ACT Academy are outstanding SAT/ACT resources - so good that no other test prep academy even comes close. And all of these are free.
Even tutor-learner online sessions are now free at Sessions are currently offered for Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Precalculus, Calculus, Statistics, and SAT prep. Additional subjects may be added in the future. 
Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, partnered with his college friend, Shishir Mehrotra, cofounder and CEO of Coda. Together, with Mariah Olson, Drew Bent, and a handful of volunteers, they created In Jan 2021, the platform was relaunched and is now ready to scale to hundreds of thousands of students.

But if you are looking for additional hand-holding and project management, there are numerous commercial test-prep companies - for example, KD and Testmasters for in-person test prep and Magoosh or Princeton Review online - which help overcome the anxieties of families and children because test preparation is considered so crucial to college admissions.

Which brings us to two important points.  The first is that these timed tests are measures of scholastic aptitude and predictors of college readiness.  In other words, there's really nothing much that students have to study for.  Reading, writing and math are skills that are taught to them all through their school years, so the material should be readily apparent to them if they have been paying attention. The challenge for many students is to manage time on test day, and luckily, the Khan Academy has excellent suggestions for students to adopt. 

Not studying for, however, does not mean not practicing.  So you prepare for these tests more by practicing than studying.

This leads us to the second point.  What do you practice on?  If you're practicing for a big tennis tournament, you go hit balls on a regulation-size tennis court with real tennis balls and racquets.  Similarly, practicing SAT and ACT content with official questions is the only way to really prepare for these tests.  A Kaplan or Barron's practice test at best is a simulated attempt at the actual College Board test.  No matter how hard these companies try, they can never get it just right.  The degree of difficulty and the distributed intensity of the questions can never be as accurate as the official tests.

Let's review all of the tools which students have to prepare for the SAT. The most important book you need is the Official SAT Study Guide. The Khan Academy website is your best friend because it is the official partner of the College Board with outstanding technical features.

  1. If you link your College Board account with the Khan Academy account, the KA website will automatically detect which areas of testing you are weak in based on your performances on the PSAT.  And it will start serving up lessons and practice questions so that you can improve.  Even a private coaching academy will not give you such personalized service!

  2. You can set your smartphone or PC to automatically challenge you with practice questions every day at a certain time.  You set the frequency, the topic, and the number of questions. 

  3. There are loads of videos and review content if you are ever not sure about a topic area.  

  4. And then there are 10 full-length practice tests from the College Board so that you can really create test-day conditions in the privacy of your home.

    Timing the practice tests for maximum impact is crucial. Studying for the SAT during the summer and taking the test in August is the best solution because you do not have school obligations to interfere with test preparation.

    Say that the big Test Day is Aug 24. Refrain from taking a practice test the day before. You want to be fully relaxed and confident, so take in a movie or play your favorite video game on Aug 23. Also, never take two practice tests on consecutive days. You should set aside the day following a practice test day for diagnostics and comprehensive review - more on this in point #7 below.

    Your schedule should look something like this:

    Aug 24 - Test Day

    Aug 23 - Relax!
    Aug 22 - Diagnostics for Practice Test 10
    Aug 21 - Practice Test 10
    Aug 20 - Diagnostics for Practice Test 9
    Aug 19 - Practice Test 9
    Aug 4  - Practice Test 1

    Before taking the first practice test, you will have practiced your skills on the over 2,000 official questions on the Khan Academy website, including over 900 questions in Math. Each student is different - but you should plan on a minimum of 30 practice questions every day. Depending upon how many questions you routinely get right, and how much time you require to review video lessons to remedy those skills with which you're uncomfortable, plan on about an hour of diligent study every day. This is not a big ask - it's after all the dry, boring days of summer.

    If you plan to practice on every question (this may not be possible because of how the site allocates competency badges as you master skills for each test topic), this will theoretically take 66 days. So, working backward from Aug 4, you're looking at starting your test preparation on or about June 1, about 2½ months prior to the test date.

    This preparation window is standard in the industry. When you buy a package from an online test preparation company, your license will generally expire in 90 days. Even brick-and-mortar test academies plan for a 90-day schedule from the time you start. The nice thing about the Khan Academy is that the cost is zero. 

  5. You can print out the answer sheets even and use 2HB pencils to oval your responses out.

  6. To score your test, go back to the page containing the ten full-length practice tests. Suppose you completed SAT Practice Test 1. Click on the + sign. This will open up two download links - a guide to score your test and a longer "explanations" document. Download both documents (see images after bullet point #8 below).

  7. Here's the most important step: Diagnostics. When reviewing the detailed explanations for wrong answers, track if you had more than one wrong answer in a topic area, such as Congruence and Similarity (Math), or Possessive Determiners (English Grammar).

    If yes, you must go back and review the appropriate refresher video lessons on Khan Academy before taking the next full-length practice test. Many students are too eager to believe that their foundational knowledge is so strong that a remedial review is unnecessary. For well-designed tests such as the SAT/ACT, which pry on tricking students, such over-confidence could impact test-day scores.

  8. ACT Prep. If you're preparing for the ACT, check out our post.

Image 1 for Point #6 above

Image 2 for Point #6 above

So, when you enroll your child in a test prep academy, you are simply outsourcing the project management of your child's preparation.  But is this really worth $2,000 - $3,000? 

The big testing companies know that the market is slipping away from them.  This is why many of them are getting into the college counseling industry.  Read our post here about how one famous test company is doing just this and why.

But here's the summary:  Tell your child that he or she is much better off practicing at home on his or her own.  And promise your child half of the savings in cash if they beat expectations!  After all, nothing is more American than that!

When you are ready to report your SAT scores to colleges, please follow the detailed College Board instructions here.

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors and involves a fee.  Please contact us for more information.

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