March 9, 2012

Preparing for the ACT or SAT in High School

Recently I wrote about the importance of testing and how and why to begin preparing for the college entrance exams in junior high.

If you have not read that post yet please start there before you begin this one.  There is some important foundational information that you should know first. 

Remember testing is important in our culture and college entrance right now whether we like it or not so begin planning for that instead of avoiding it and hoping it will go away.

As an ACT tutor and a parent with three kids who hope to go to college one day this is an important topic to me.  I have put together a list of skills to work on with your high school student to best prepare them for their ACT.  Do not wait until they are a junior, begin these in their freshman year if at all possible and continue to build their skills and confidence over the years so their testing situation is not stressful but successful. Remember there are some skills you can start preparing for in junior high as well.

High School Test Prep Strategies

Read strategy books on how to beat the ACT or SAT

There are many different types of strategy books designed to help prepare you for the exam.  Your local library will carry most of them.  Check out a few and find one that works really well for you.  A few good names in the business are Princeton, Barron's and Kaplan.  For the ACT I think the Princeton Cracking the ACT book is the best for strategy and I recommend it for the students I work with.  Whatever book you decide on, read it and practice the strategies outlined even if they feel weird at first.  Help your student to understand and adopt the strategies that will work best for them to beat the test.

Set target goals 
The internet makes college applications easier in many ways.  Just a few google searches will help you discover what the requirements for the various colleges you want to apply to are.  You can type in any college name and ACT scores or SAT scores after it to be taken to a website that gives you the range of acceptance scores for the particular college.  Digging into a college's admission page and you can find the scores needed both for admission and the ever important financial aid. Look at several schools and set goals for yourself.  Have ranges (reach schools and safety schools) and determine what ACT score your student needs and can realistically expect to get. Start with a target composite range.  You will determine the individual section goals soon.

Understand your students strengths and weaknesses

Have your student take a practice ACT under test like conditions.  There is a complete free past ACT available online for this purpose.  This document is put out by the official ACT company and can be downloaded here.  It can also be picked up at any high school guidance counselor's office.  If your student has already taken an official ACT look at the breakdown and results for the official and this diagnostic test, average them and see where the strengths and weaknesses are. Talk with your student and ask them what felt hard and easy for them and create a plan for them to work with their strengths to increase their scores.

Make a plan based on number 2 and 3 and stick to it 
After understanding goals and actual present abilities create a plan to help you get from current ability to desired outcome.  The ACT and SAT are predictable and if you know the score you need you can easily discover about how many questions you need right on each section of the test.  Once you have that goal in mind you can create a study and practice schedule to help your student achieve it.

A practiced ACT tutor can help you with this as well.  One of the biggest advantages students get from working with me is a tailored practice plan based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.  We work together to discover how many questions they truly need to get right in each section to achieve their goals and then we build our strategy around that. What many people do not realize is that few students will actually need to get all of the questions right to achieve their goals.  Many students only need to get half the questions right in each section of the test to achieve their goals, some may only be able to miss 5 or 10 questions a section, and only the exceptional students will really go for accuracy in every single question.  Knowing and understanding your particular student and their goals makes a huge difference to your students success on the test. Working with someone who truly understands the test at this point can be very helpful. 

Practice real ACT and SAT tests. 
Bottom line your student needs to practice a lot.  Just as with any other activity to get good at it you need to practice. Your student needs to build up familiarity and muscle memory with this test so when they sit down to take the test nothing is unfamiliar and much of it will feel easy or at least routine.  By practicing with the skills they adopted after reading a strategy book or working with a tutor they will begin to make the skills part of themselves so on test day it is natural and habit.  Practice with a timer, practice with distractions, practice under test like conditions.  Practice. Practice. Practice. 

Practice some more. 
Now repeat the above.  Seriously the biggest difference to your student's score is likely to be how much they have practiced.  I often get asked how much time I recommend practicing.  The answer is as much as your student will.  I don't believe you can over practice.  If you have a young student they have many years to practice and could go at a slow pace.  If you have a senior I would sit them down and tell them to prepare for a lot of work over a short course of time.   I recently worked with a student who only had 8 weeks to prepare and some high goals I let her know you are looking at two hours of homework a day to properly prepare, are you ready for that?  She was and she did it and she reached her goals. She practiced a lot and she was rewarded. I had another student who practiced an hour a day for over 4 months and also saw much improvement to his test and achieved his goals. 

Bottom line, the practice matters more than anything else.  Hold your student accountable to whatever practice schedule you set up.  Do not just hand them a book and expect them to do it themselves.  Create a practice schedule with assignments they have to hand in to you.  Evaluate their work, continually discover patterns to their correct and incorrect answers and help them work on the areas they need to.

If you get nothing else from either of these posts pay attention to this.  For most students success will depend on the amount of practice they put into the test.  Make them practice! 

I already about the next three areas in the junior high prep section but they still all apply here in high school, especially if you have not done so before they reach high school age.   If you have already developed these skills in your student now is not the time to stop, keep at it :) 

Build your vocabulary 
A good vocabulary will help with the test in a variety of ways.  The SAT directly tests for this, the ACT indirectly tests for it.  Your writing will get a higher score with good vocabulary use.  The science and reading and english sections will all seem less scary if big words are not scary to your student.  Develop their vocabulary. 

There are many books available at your library and local bookstore that highlight words for the SAT.  Give your student these to read and practice.  Encourage unique vocabulary words.  Improve your own vocabulary to help your student improve theirs.  Subscribe to word a day emails or apps. There are also many free website with word lists such as this one

Practice decoding strategies for unfamiliar words.  Look at roots, use context clues, show how to use the answers to discover clues about the actual word.  Teach them to rephrase unfamiliar words and to discover relationships between words and analogies.  The more you practice the less intimidating big and unusual words will be for your student.  No matter how much you practice there will likely be unfamiliar words on test day, the key is being comfortable with unfamiliar words and understanding how to approach them.  This sort of practice is far more important than memorizing a bunch of words and definitions. 

Remember building vocabulary is not just studying for this test it is giving your student a life long skill that will help them in all areas of school, college, writing, business and just general intelligence. 

Write 20 minute essays often 
I encouraged you to start this in junior high or even younger if your student is ready.  If you have not started yet start as soon in possible and practice often.  I would encourage writing one 20 minute essay every week in high school.  Yes I can hear the groans.  But really how many minutes a day does your student spending texting friends, surfing the internet, or watching TV?  Surely they can find 20 minutes in the course of a week.

By the time a student is in high school these essays should be about real topics, similar to the ACT and SAT writing prompts.  Pick topics both of interest and non-interest to your student so they get practice writing both things they enjoy and know little about.  Pick topics that have two sides to an issue and force your student to take a position on one side. Set a timer. Allow them up to 10 minutes to outline before they start writing the essay.   After 10 minutes set another 20 minute timer and they hand it in when the beeper goes off no exceptions, no finishing sentences.  This is how it works on test day, this is how it must work when they practice.

Read the writing section in your strategy book and help your student structure their writing around this outlined structure.  A good standardized test essay will have an introduction, three body paragraphs,  and a conclusion paragraph. The body paragraphs should contain one showing the opposite side of the issue from your conclusion and two paragraphs supporting your conclusion.  Learning to write five complete paragraphs in 20 minutes is a learned skill and not a natural one. 

Organizing ideas, drawing conclusions and writing complete ideas in a short amount of time is another lifelong skill.  This will serve them well in college as well as the business world.  While they may not have to ever write another complete essay in less than 30 minutes they will be required to organize complex issues into coherent thoughts and arguments quickly for the rest of their lives.  Practicing 20 minute essays develops this skill and helps prepare them for test day essays as well.  

Read. Read. Read. 
Highschoolers are busy.  I get it.  They are balancing school, homework, sports, clubs, social lives and for many work.  Now mom and dad have added test prep and writing homework every week!  Where in the world are they going to find time to read?  Help them find and make the time.  Reading now is just as important as it was when they were learning to in elementary and when they did for fun in junior high. 

Avid readers score better on tests.  They have better vocabularies.  They tend to be better writers.  They can simply spot errors in the english section of the tests because something doesn't sound "right".  They have an advantage because so much of the test requires reading and they are comfortable with reading and likely faster readers. Being a good reader will also serve them well in college.  Being a good reader will help them be life long learners.  Reading is important, make them read. 

Not all books are created equal.  Encourage reading good books.  There are many lists of classics, award winners, books that have stood the test of time.  There are books with intricate plots, character development, and amazing vocabularies.  Few of them are about vampires :)    Assign good books, or place some around the house and encourage them to pick up some of your favorites.  If you don't read, try.  Set a good example.  Create a book club for your student and their friends.  Read and discuss the book with them.  Either way encourage them to

Keep a list of all the books they have read in junior high and high school.  Consider sending it with their college applications to show them as a rounded and well read individual.  Reading will always bring more rewards than the work that went into it.  Encourage your kids to read!

Get help where you need it 
There are many tutors and prep classes available to you.  If you are overwhelmed just reading this post consider finding help for your student.  If you start the process and feel like you need some extra help get it.  You may find your student only needs a few meetings with a good tutor to set them on the right path or you may discover they work really well with a particular tutor and keep them working with the tutor through the duration of their preparation. 

Keep in mind not all help is the same.  There are big name agencies that charge a lot of money per hour or per class for their tutoring and there are local tutors that may charge substantially less.  Tutoring for this type of test typically runs between $30 - $100 an hour depending on where you live.  More expensive does not necessarily mean better, and cheaper does not necessarily mean bad.  Both can be good, both can be bad, the key is finding the right fit for your student.  Also when working with an agency you may want to understand how much of your money the company gets and how much your tutor receives, people are often very surprised at these numbers when they examine them. 

When interviewing a tutor be sure to understand their method and approach and what is expected of your student when working with them.  If they don't require outside work I would keep looking until you found someone who did.  While taking a class or meeting with a tutor to review strategies is better than going into a test cold it is not as helpful as actually practicing the skills and strategies with a seasoned tutor.  I would recommend you find someone who focuses on individual test strategy as well and not a cookie cutter presentation of each section of the test that is the same to each student. 

Not everyone needs outside help.  A motivated student and an involved parent willing to read strategy books and manage practice can be just as effective for many students as a tutor.  But you need to put in the time and energy to make it work.  

If you do choose to work with a tutor remember this is an investment you are making in your child.  For many students a few hundred dollars spent on tutoring may translate into thousands of dollars in college scholarships. 

Until colleges change their admission and financial aid scholarship policies the college admission test is here to stay.  It is important and it needs to be faced.  Don't bury your head in the sand, cross your fingers and hope for the best.  You can be sure the students your kids are competing against to get into school and a piece of the financial pie are not. 

Take the time needed to create a plan for your student to succeed on these tests.  Follow through with it.  This is an area in your control, don't miss the opportunity to help your student.  Remember the more your student puts in the more they will get out of it. 

If anyone has further questions.  Feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad I read this before my son takes his test. I agree that students should most definitely start preparing junior year, I mean how great to take it as many times as you want. He graduates from his high school in Chicago in two years and I hope to motivate him to start prepping for the ACT in the next few months. These are some great tips to encourage and help receive better scores.