How do you prepare for the SAT/ACT?

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By Rajkamal Rao

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

The simple answer is by not spending any money.   The Khan Academy, the College Board and the ACT Academy are outstanding resources - so good that no other test prep academy even comes close.  And all of these are free.

There are numerous private companies - for example, KD and Waterton group for in-person test prep and Magoosh or Princeton Review online - which exploit the anxieties of families and children because test preparation is considered so crucial to college admissions.

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.

Which brings us to two important points.  The first is that these 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.  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.  After all it's the College Board and the ACT which write the tests, not KD Academy!

Let's review all of the tools which students have to prepare for the SAT.
  1. The Khan Academy site is truly world class.  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 8 full length practice tests from the College Board so that you can really create test-day conditions in the privacy of your home.  In the link here, change the number of the test - for example, replace 8 with 5 to download the .pdf for test 5.

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

  6. And you can download an app to instantly score your answer sheet with detailed explanations for every answer.  The app is available for both iPhones and Android.  Here's a video clip which explains how to use the app.

  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. If you're preparing for the ACT, buy The Official ACT Prep Guide 2019-2020, (Book + 5 Practice Tests + Bonus Online Content) 1st Edition, by ACT (Author). Here's a set of full-length official test questions in English, Math, Reading, Science and Writing.   

And all this (except the ACT book) is for free!

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?  Hardly!  

The big testing companies know that the market is slipping away from them.  This is why many of them are getting into the lucrative 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!!

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