College Admissions

Preparing for the SAT

The SAT, which isn’t a very good predictor of success in college, is a source of much anxiety among high school students. Every year more colleges are dropping the standardized test requirement. But the majority of schools do still require test scores and most students will take at least one of these tests.

Even PSAT scores, which are not used for admission and will never even be seen by colleges, can impact self-esteem and trigger anxiety about upcoming SATs. Disappointing PSAT scores can be especially frustrating for students who get top grades in school. Accustomed to doing well, it can come as quite a shock to not be at the top of the class. The humiliation may feel unbearable, and it is very difficult for students to understand that ten years from now, SAT scores will have nothing to do with the quality of their lives.

One way to reduce test anxiety is to find colleges where the average scores are close to a student’s PSAT scores. Students need to know that they will have college options, even if their SAT scores are no higher than their PSATs. You don’t want your child going into the SAT thinking “if I don’t get these scores up 300 points, my life will be over.” Not only does it create needless suffering, but that kind of pressure can sabotage months of SAT preparation.

If students really can’t deal with the SAT, there is another option. Colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and some students score significantly higher on the ACT, which is more closely tied to the high school curriculum.

Whether the SAT or ACT, it makes sense to plan on taking the test several times. Knowing there is another chance reduces the “now or never” pressure that can cause students to miss questions they could otherwise answer.

Rather than focusing exclusively on raising scores, I like to approach SAT preparation with the goal of making a student more comfortable with the exam. Once a student is familiar with the test, the anxiety level goes down, and scores usually go up.

Students who are motivated and who did fairly well on the PSAT may be able to prepare for the SAT on their own. There are computer programs that can be very helpful. I recommend using actual SATs for practice.

Students should take the first few practice tests without worrying about time limits. They can concentrate on understanding the questions, and try different ways to find answers. After several practice tests, students know the format and recognize types of questions from previous tests, so they are often working more quickly and are ready to start working within the time limits.

The math on the SAT looks different than the math students see in school, and that throws them. It is mostly basic algebra and geometry, but the questions can be tricky, and they’re written in a way that is intimidating. Sometimes if you just look at a problem for a while, or come back to it later, you realize it’s much easier than it seemed. It may be as simple as turning a page upside down to see a geometry figure from a different angle. There is often more than one way to solve a math problem. What looks like a difficult algebra problem may be easily solved by substituting numbers for variables. Unlike a school math test, students don’t have to show their work, so shortcuts that offer simple, fast solutions are great. As students become familiar with the types of problems on the math sections, their confidence, and usually their scores, go up.

It takes more effort to improve the reading score. The best long-term strategy is simply to read. Being able to read critically is a skill that will serve them well in college and beyond, but very few students seem to have the time or motivation to read outside of what’s required for school.

Many students benefit from a structured SAT preparation program, which can be done in a group or individually. Group programs can work well for students who are not shy about asking questions, and whose scores are in the middle range. Students who are far ahead of the class may feel bored, and those who are struggling to keep up can feel frustrated and hopeless.

One-to-one tutoring is especially helpful for students who are highly anxious. They don’t need to be exposed to the contagious anxiety of a classroom setting. There’s enough competition in the college admissions process, so why give sensitive students more opportunities to compare themselves to their classmates? A tutor can cover the material at the student’s pace. A geometry problem can be explained four times without the student feeling embarrassed. Another advantage of individual tutoring is that students are highly motivated to do the homework, since they can’t hide at the back of the classroom.

Sometimes students get anxious about being anxious. But a little nervousness the day of the test is fine, as the adrenalin boost will keep a student awake and sharp. It’s panic that makes it impossible to perform, and panic is unlikely if a student has done enough practice tests and knows what to expect.

While preparing for the SAT can be extremely beneficial, the most important thing you can is help your child keep the SAT in perspective and not let the test become a measure of self-worth. Many very accomplished people never did well on standardized tests, and there are other people whose dazzling SAT scores are their greatest accomplishment. Which group would you rather be in?