High School 2 College

September 18, 2019

Should I Prep Before My First SAT/ACT?

Not many people ask me this question any more.  Now, most likely, I’ll get a call from a parent saying, “My son just got back his scores from his first SAT.  He didn’t do well, but he just went in to take it without preparing at all — you know, just to see how he would do.  Now he’s upset.  Can you tutor him?”

Well, is it any wonder he didn’t do well?  Would he have gone into a chemistry test without studying “just to see how he would do”?  But unlike a chemistry test, what’s the harm really in taking an SAT (or ACT) cold, just to see where his weaknesses are. After all, he can take SATs again and again. If we’re lucky, maybe he really doesn’t have any weaknesses, and he’ll  do just fine without my having to spend any money for classes or a tutor.  And if we’re really lucky, he won’t have to test again.  He won’t need to take any time away from his homework, his sports, his clubs, his work, his video games… and I won’t need to nag him to prepare.

Bad idea.

Reason #1 – The SAT and ACT aren’t like any tests your student has taken before.  On the SAT, there is a whole section of math in which your student won’t be allowed to use a calculator.  On the ACT, there’s a science section which asks questions about research in earth science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics.  On the SAT, there may be reading selections written in the 1700s about why democracy won’t work.  On the ACT, if you don’t move very, very fast, you won’t finish.  And on both tests, the student has to know whether a sentence needs a comma, a semicolon, a colon, or none of the above, not to mention the difference between thus, moreover, however, additionally, eventually, and despite.  None of these tasks are easy under the best of circumstances.  Imagine trying to accomplish all that during a four-hour test you’ve never seen before.

Reason #2 – Some schools still ask for ALL scores.  True, fewer and fewer schools still require all scores, but some do.  Why would you want your “reach” school to see those crummy first scores?

Reason #3 – One disappointing test makes the next test harder.  I see it all the time.  A student does poorly on an SAT or ACT.  When she goes to take it again, a voice in her head is saying, “You are awful at this test.  You didn’t prepare as well as you meant to.  You didn’t do well last time and you won’t do well this time.”  It’s hard to fight against negative self-talk like that.  It makes much more sense to test when a student is ready to test and has done at least some preparation.

BIG Reason #4 – The ACT and College Board can cancel your student’s second score if there’s a huge improvement from the first score.  Nearly every tutor I know has had a student whose scores were canceled because the student made a major improvement, which the testing agency attributed to cheating rather than hard work.  (Yes, that did happen to one of my students.  Fortunately, I keep careful notes and the parents were able to prove the student had had plenty of tutoring to account for the increase in his score.) Last year, there were two court cases about this policy of cancelling scores when there’s a substantial increase in scores, one against the College Board (SATs) and one against the ACT.  (Here is just one article on the cases.)

A better plan:

If you’d like to know how your student would do taking the test cold – either to assess his weaknesses and strengths or to shock him into putting a little effort into this first stage in the college application process – have him take a full practice test at home or in the library to better simulate testing conditions.  There’s a full ACT with answers and scoring guide in the student guide available on their website for free. (Click here and scroll to page 11.)  And there are 8 free SATs on the College Board website. (Click here for tests – scroll down to “paper tests,” but I suggest you ignore test #1 and start with test #2 for reasons too lengthy to go into here.)

Simulate a testing environment as best you can: no access to her phone, just a clock, a calculator, and #2 pencils.  Time each section according to the instructions on each section, with only a 1 -2 minute break between sections 1 and 2, a 10 minute break between sections 2 and 3, and a 1 – 2 minute break between sections 3 and 4.

Not only will you save about $65 for each test, but no one has to see the results of the tests but you, your student – and any teacher or tutor you hire to help.  You can get all the information you would have gotten by having your student take the first test without preparing with none of the drawbacks.

If you need help evaluating the results of your student’s SAT or ACT – whether she takes the first one officially or at home – just let me know!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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