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What College Prep Parents Need to Know about the SAT and ACT

The two big standardized tests – the SAT and the ACT – will likely play a big part in your child’s college prep journey. There are four things about the ACT and SAT tests that a College Prep Parent needs to understand and communicate to their kid. I have found that when students know the “what and the why” of testing it can make a big difference in the way they prepare. So while parents won’t take these tests, parents can genuinely coach their students as they prep for the SAT and ACT.

What the SAT and ACT Reveal to Colleges

The ACT and the SAT, often called “college entrance exams,” are used by most colleges for a very important reason: To assess readiness for college. A score on a standardized test is one way to compare students from thousands of different high school and homeschool programs. As a parent, helping your high schooler with SAT and ACT prep starts with helping them understand the way colleges use these tests.

College preparation varies widely between college applicants and can be hard to measure by those who read applications. For instance, some high schools are very rigorous, and high grades are hard to come by. Other schools… not so much. Everyone has a general idea of core subjects that need to be taken to prepare for college, but one school may require twenty-two credits for graduation, while another high school wants thirty or more.

Therefore many colleges believe that a national, standardized testing program helps level the playing field. It applies one factor evenly to all applicants, no matter what their high school was like. In considering an applicant’s standardized test scores, admissions committees are not limited to looking at past grades and high school courses. They get an idea of the applicant’s future – through examining their scholastic readiness as revealed by SAT or ACT scores. (Remember, admissions professionals main goal is to determine a student’s likelihood of academic success at their college.)

As a College Prep Parent, you and your kid should fully realize that although SAT and ACT testing is not the only measure of a student’s readiness, many colleges do believe it is a very important measure.

Subjects the SAT and ACT Cover

Both the SAT and the ACT exams assess scholastic abilities that your kid will need throughout higher education.

In case you’re wondering, these tests’ names – ACT and SAT – started out as acronyms (“American College Testing” and “Scholastic Aptitude Test”). But their official names are simply “ACT” and “SAT” these days.

The majority of colleges in the U.S. will accept either the ACT or SAT for admission consideration. Some that accept the ACT want the optional writing portion completed; others do not. Both tests reflect the standard curriculum that most American students who are preparing for college take. But that doesn’t mean students should only take one or the other. It’s usually best to attempt both the SAT and the ACT early. Then the student can consider retaking whichever test seems to provide the best results for them.

Like other high school counselors, various students in the past few years have greeted me with excitement, saying, “Colleges don’t require the ACT or SAT anymore!” These students have heard reports that some schools have a testing optional policy. This is true. But the more important truth is that most colleges still do want to see ACT or SAT scores for each applicant. As a parent, help your kid prep for the SAT and ACT by focusing on these tests’ value, not on a possible chance to “avoid the issue.”

The Unique Role of the SAT and ACT

College Prep Parents are in a position, like teachers, to encourage and guide college prep kids to prepare for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. I have found that when a student understands the purpose of being tested, they are more likely to muster the diligence required to do their best.

Most tests that a student has taken in high school are used to see what they have learned. This lets teachers and schools (and parents and students) know if the student has learned what they are supposed to have learned. In others words, high school tests look backward.

College entrance exams are a little different. A student takes these tests to see if they are ready to learn more. Are they ready for the type of analysis and reasoning and reading comprehension required at the next level? Do they have the foundational skills in math (and science, in the case of the ACT) to build upon? In other words, the SAT and ACT look forward.

When I have seen students realize that these tests show their skill at learning, they have developed a different attitude toward ACT/SAT preparation. You can help your college-bound kid understand the role these standardized tests play.

Time-Tested Ingredients for Great SAT and ACT Prep

Theories about effective ACT and SAT test preparation abound in high schools. Some say that the free practice materials offered for the ACT and SAT are the way to go. Some say you need to pay big bucks for professional test prep to have the best chance. Many high schools now have a test prep elective offered in their schedule of classes, and others offer weekend workshops before popular testing dates.

Stories of student success can be found attached to each preparation method. As a College Prep Parent, it’s worth looking into all of them. Regardless of method, though, some principles seem consistent. Through the years, I have collected a few common ingredients about great ACT prep and great SAT prep:

  • Successful students took many practice tests using the actual testing format. Knowing how questions were asked and how many options for possible answers were given created confidence in my students.
  • Students gave special attention to timed reading passages. Reading faster and with more accuracy is a skill that can be learned and improved.
  • Some students have said the most helpful part of SAT prep or ACT prep was getting used to working against the clock.
  • Students whose practice tests revealed a “gap” in math learning (like fractions, percentages, or geometry) sought out teacher help.
  • Some students built confidence by reading online about certain “hacks” that some students employ to score well on the ACT or SAT. Whether truly helpful or not, my guess is that these ideas probably motivated my students to get more involved in test prep than they would have without this bit of intrigue.
  • My students who took the PSAT test or other official “pre-tests,” then first took the ACT or SAT early in their junior year, seemed more motivated about test preparation, now that they had experienced real testing situations (and received a real score!).

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