Posted by Julia Wasson

Jul 3, 2014 1:44:00 PM

As the parent of a student who is preparing for college, you'll find many challenges ahead for you and your child, including college entrance exams. These college admissions tests — the SAT and ACT tests — each have unique questions and scoring systems that allow colleges to assess your student’s readiness for rigorous academic work and qualification for scholarship awards. The PSAT is used in determining eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It's also often used as a practice for the SAT test.

Why PSAT, SAT & ACT Scores Matter

  • Most four-year schools require either ACT or SAT college entrance exam scores. Your child’s score will be a prominent consideration for colleges in determining admission.
  • PSAT, SAT, and ACT scores also help determine scholarship awards. Even a small increase in your student’s college entrance exam scores can make a difference in thousands of scholarship dollars.

Because these standardized test scores are so significant to your child’s college future, it's important to help your student develop a plan for studying for the PSAT, SAT and ACT tests.

How to Study for the SAT & ACT

Students learn the content knowledge they need for these tests in junior high and high school classes. Yet, when studying for the SAT/PSAT or ACT test, your child needs more than an understanding of the subject matter. He or she should be learning effective test-taking strategies specific to each subtest. Each exam is as much a measure of how well your student takes the test as it is a measure of content knowledge. And each college entrance exam has its own set of rules.

You might compare getting ready for a college entrance exam to preparing for a basketball game. Just as your student is already equipped with the knowledge of how to solve a math problem that might appear on the SAT or ACT test, as a basketball player, he would be prepared with the skillset to dribble and shoot the ball in a game. Yet, just knowing the basics of the sport doesn’t help your child win the game; he needs to understand the rules and develop strategies to achieve his highest score. That's where coaching can be invaluable.

As your child studies and prepares for her college entrance exams, consider having her attend a class taught by a trained test specialist. With the right guidance, she will learn the best ways to approach each type of problem, the strategies to manage her testing time effectively, and what to do if she only knows part of the answer.

A thorough subject review of each ACT subtest or SAT subtest can be especially helpful if your student lacks confidence in a particular subject area. Just be sure your child is not only reviewing content but also developing targeted strategies that prepare him for those tricky math, science, reading, writing, or English questions. 

If your child is serious about raising that score, then you don’t want to overlook the simple act of practicing. In a quality prep class, your student should receive testing materials that mirror the format, directions, style, and difficulty of the actual test. Encourage him to schedule practice dates on the family calendar — and stick to them. You might even agree to take a practice test alongside your teen. (It’s a humbling experience for most adults and positive reinforcement for our kids when they score better than we do.)

Another way to motivate your child to put effort into studying is to get an online practice test that provides instant feedback and a realistic assessment of her score. By putting regular time into ACT prep or SAT prep practice tests, your teen will reinforce important test-taking strategies and build confidence for test day.

When to Begin Studying for the SAT and ACT Tests

Students are unlikely to want to spend long sessions studying for college entrance exams. But most students can handle brief study periods spaced over time — and that’s a good thing. According to research by educational psychologists Haley A. Vlach & Catherine M. Sandhofer at the University of California, Los Angeles, there's a "robust finding that long-term learning is promoted when learning events are spaced out in time, rather than presented in immediate succession."

When searching for ACT prep or SAT prep tools and practice tests for your child, look for instruction that teaches and reinforces small, digestible bits of information and that enables your child to practice in shortened sessions spaced over time. By beginning to study test-taking strategies early, then strengthening that learning over several weeks, your child’s study sessions will be much more effective compared with trying to learn everything a week before the test.

Many students take the SAT test in the fall of their junior year and the ACT test in the spring. Yet that may not align with your child’s schedule or preferences. Your child may even take the test multiple times in an attempt to raise a good score even more. To get full advantage of the powerful effects of learning over time, it’s ideal that your child starts to learn strategies and begins to study in the summer for the fall test or in early winter for the spring test.

If planning that far ahead just doesn’t work out for your student, don’t stress over it. You may try to convince your child that there's no time like the present to begin, but keep in mind, the quality of the prep is far more important than quantity. A lot of practice reinforcing bad strategies will hurt rather than help. And quality prep the week before the test is far better than poor prep or no prep at all.

Topics: standardized testing, ACT test, SAT test

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