Common Misconceptions about How to Prepare

Misconception One: All test prep books are created equal. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. You should be using test prep books that feature real (official) practice tests- that’s it. You can purchase a book of official tests, or you can get them online for free. The reason why you should only practice on real tests is because no one has managed to mimic the tests very well (I can easily recognize a “fake” SAT or ACT when I take one), and a critical part of preparing for the SAT or ACT is becoming familiar with the actual test. Also, please be wary of test prep companies that write their own practice tests- these tests are often very different from the real thing and do not provide you with helpful practice.

Misconception Two: The best way to prepare is to take a bunch of practice tests. Students often come to me because they’ve taken a lot of practice tests and seen no improvement in their scores. As an SAT and ACT tutor, it makes perfect sense why this happens: taking practice tests doesn’t teach you what you don’t know. Instead of churning through test after test, I would recommend using my four step approach: take a test, analyze your mistakes by pinpointing the causes of all of your errors, learn the concepts or skills you’ve discovered you’re missing, and then take another test. The path to a better score involves repeating that process until you’ve eliminated all of your mistakes and mastered the relevant content.

Misconception Three: I should measure my progress with my weekly scores. The reality is, scores wax and wane with fatigue, time of day, distraction, etc. Making meaning out of every score can be exhausting, stressful, and often misleading. A student who takes a practice test at night after a long week at school, for example, may get a score far worse than is normal for her. Instead of measuring progress with your score, I would recommend measuring it in terms of the skills you’ve been working on. Each week, set clear skill goals– what are you going to work on? Then, at the end of the week, if you’ve reached your skill goal, you have made progress. The path to a better score is 100% about skill development, so let the way you think about progress reflect that.

Best Practice Materials

Using the right practice materials is important, so I’m glad you’re here. Many test prep companies market their own practice tests, but the vast majority of them aren’t good. The best thing you can do is practice on real practice tests.

To someone who isn’t very familiar with the tests, this may be counterintuitive. The reading test is just a reading test, right? Wrong. Once you get to know exactly how the tests work, it is easy to see that there are no practice materials that have mimicked the SAT or the ACT perfectly. For example, I can easily tell if I’m taking a Kaplan or a Princeton review test, which, to my mind, is a clear indicator that those tests have not mimicked the SAT properly. 

The SAT in particular has a unique brand of logic, and the games it plays—and the subtleties with which it plays them—are extremely difficult to replicate.  

If you want to get good at anything, you must spend a lot of time doing that thing. You don’t become excellent at tennis by playing pingpong; similarly, you don’t get good at the SAT by getting good at Kaplan. It just doesn’t translate.

Here is exactly what I would buy:

SAT

  1. Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board (these are real SATs) OR print the tests at home.
  2. If you need help with the Writing and Language section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.
  3. If you need help with the Reading section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Complete Guide to SAT Reading. It has very useful information about how to do each question type.

ACT

  1. Official ACT Prep Guide (these are real ACTs) OR print the tests at home.
  2. If you want help with the ACT English section, I would buy Erica Meltzer’s Ultimate Guide to ACT English.

Creating an Environment that Feeds Success (Parents)

Preparing for standardized tests is a stressful experience for many students. And, as the recent college application scandal highlights, parents can also experience a tremendous amount of stress and investment in the process.

How parents conduct themselves during this time sets the tone for their children’s experience, and the power of a grounded, supportive parent should not be underestimated.

As an SAT tutor who specializes in helping students achieve elite scores, I see firsthand how my students with low levels of anxiety and high levels of self-confidence have the easiest time raising their scores. Students with high anxiety and low self-confidence, by contrast, are often stunted by the weight of the pressure they feel.

Manage Your Own Stress

If your child is struggling with test anxiety and you are also feeling stressed by their performance, it is best for them if you can take steps to decrease your stress. Anxiety can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to process information, make decisions, and learn. It is important that an anxious student has a calm, supportive environment, rather than one that exacerbates her situation.

Motivate with Hope not Fear

While fear is a strong motivator for a lot of people, I’ve found that hope is better for test prep. Many parents don’t realize that they are motivating through fear, but it’s easy to do if you yourself are feeling afraid.

Instead of taking the attitude of “If you get a bad score, you won’t get into any good colleges,” I recommend reframing your student’s process as “If you get a great score, you will have more opportunities and choices.”

As a tutor, the reason for parents to inspire with hope is obvious: fear makes students anxious, and when they’re really anxious, they don’t perform as well. Hope and desire, on the other hand, can inspire students to work just as hard while also imbuing them with sense of confidence. 

Anxiety is a delicate thing- a small amount can help students focus but too much can impair them. 

Set Skill Goals, Not Score Goals

Fixating on your student’s score is not helpful. I cannot emphasize this enough. Scores naturally fluctuate with focus, time of day, and fatigue. I recommend that you do not go on the emotional roller coaster of following your student’s every practice test score. It is exhausting and pointless.

Instead, reframe progress in terms of skill goals. For example, each week your child should set specific goals for the skills, habits, or concepts they plan to work on that week. It could be anything from learning the comma rules to working on pacing for reading the passages. When you want to check in to see how it’s going with your child, ask about how the skills are coming along. If your child has made progress with a skill, they have improved at the test.

Measuring progress based on skill goals is more concrete than measuring progress based on scores. Also, it reinforces for your student that the path to a better score is in working on the specific things they’re struggling with. 

In general, I think of the parent’s role as creating an environment that feeds success. They can do this by providing the “nutrients” their child needs to thrive in the application process. I have never met a student who experienced their parent’s stress as helpful, so stress would be an example of something that is non-nutritive. What each child needs may vary, but managing your stress, motivating with hope instead of fear, and setting skill goals all provide a great foundation from which you can help your child achieve the most that she can.