Sharpen Those #2 Pencils: Preparing for the SAT Exam

Whether homeschooled or traditionally schooled, high school students have one thing in common: their dread of college entrance exams. Homeschooling parents, too, may be intimidated. To begin with, our students generally take fewer standardized tests than do traditional students. Additionally, whether fair or not, colleges may place more emphasis on homeschoolers’ test scores and less on their transcripts. Thus, students may believe that they need good test scores to “prove” themselves to colleges.

Just how important are these exams? Shouldn’t a student’s record of courses and accomplishments carry far more weight than a score on a morning’s exam? Unfortunately, standardized tests are firmly embedded in the admissions process, since colleges must have a way to compare all their applicants, regardless of the type of school attended. For these reasons, college-bound homeschoolers should plan to make the most of these tests.

The “Big Daddy” of college entrance exams is the SAT Reasoning Test, a 3 ?-hour exam usually taken by juniors and seniors. Each of its three sections (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing) is scored on a scale of 200 to 800.

The Critical Reading section includes sentence completion and passage-based reading comprehension exercises. The Mathematics test includes first and second year algebra, geometry, and functions, plus some statistics, probability, and data analysis. While most of the math test is multiple choice, one section requires actual numerical responses. The newest addition to the SAT, its Writing section, includes a 25-minute timed essay as well as multiple choice questions involving identifying sentence and paragraph errors. The essay prompt presents a general topic such as friendship, honesty, or materialism, and requires students to support their statements of opinion with examples from their reading or personal experiences.

Test Preparation Options

When preparing students for SAT exams, families have a wide range of choices—home-based to classroom-based, and inexpensive to expensive. Professional test coaches may charge hundreds of dollars for preparation courses or tutoring—which sometimes yield score increases of only twenty to thirty points. Unless you know for certain that your student needs interaction and accountability, the money spent on classes could be saved for more interesting pursuits.

Instead, start with as many free test preparation options as you can find. First, look on the College Board website for practice questions and tips. The student can take a free practice test online, try a “mini-SAT” for quick feedback, or even sign up for daily email delivery of SAT questions! Check out test preparation books from the library to preview them before buying. Review math textbooks, perhaps by reworking the last couple of exams in Algebra 2 and geometry.

After giving the free options a try, proceed to inexpensive options: buying some test prep books or using a computer-based option. For instance, at the College Board website, you can purchase an online preparation course.

If your student needs the discipline of working with an outside teacher, you might consider a commercial course. Although classes do not present anything “magical” that a motivated student cannot do at home with his own prep books, working with a live person can help identify weaknesses and boost confidence. Since these courses are expensive, shop carefully and read customer reviews first. Look for features that can customize the test preparation to your student’s specific needs.

In short, discern your student’s optimum learning style and consider the costs, the time involved, your student’s self-discipline, and his need for accountability as you decide on a test preparation method.

Test Preparation Strategies

As much as possible, try to weave SAT preparation into the high school curriculum from ninth grade on, starting very gradually. Here is one effective strategy:

Take Diagnostic Tests

Test preparation books generally begin with a diagnostic test to pinpoint weaknesses. After scoring the test, go through the results to discern which skills need the most work. Perhaps math is weak while reading skills are strong; moreover, geometry needs review, while algebra is respectable. Knowing what to focus on can help tremendously.

Review the Material

Most preparation books present a large section of review material. Your student can review the entire section, or only the most troublesome problems. Dig out your math, writing, and grammar textbooks for a little brushing up. Whatever you do, don’t ignore deficiencies that show up in the diagnostic test—take time for a focused review.

Take Practice Tests and Remediate Deficiencies

After addressing the most obvious deficiencies, your student should continue doing practice SAT exams steadily—one every few weeks, depending on how quickly the test date is approaching. These may be tackled section by section rather than taking the entire exam at one sitting. After scoring each test, go over the explanation of the correct answers to understand what types of questions were missed, and why. Don’t skip this step. Without this remediation, the same mistakes will occur on future tests. By diligently practicing the problems and understanding the errors, your student should see a gradual increase in the score.

Take More Practice Tests

With additional practice tests, the full picture should begin to emerge. Perhaps your student is gaining ground in all three sections. Perhaps one section shows great progress while another still needs  reinforcement. In general, scores should rise, but don’t be discouraged if you see some lower ones, too.

Tackle Vocabulary Words

Vocabulary study is a task to tackle during the whole high school career. Consider obtaining an SAT vocabulary guide during freshman year and systematically assigning a few words each week for the first three years of high school. One hundred weeks of consistent vocabulary study will do your student more good than “cramming” for five or six weeks before the exam.

Practice Essay Writing Skills

For the SAT Writing section, the best preparation is a strong writing program focusing on expression of organized thoughts and well-supported positions. Your consistent work with your student on organizing paragraphs, writing clear sentences, using proper grammar, and recognizing errors in sentences and paragraphs will be useful. In addition, a good background in literature, history, and current events will provide material to support the student’s positions in the essay. Again, these skills cannot be taught in a few weeks but must spring from a steady program of high school level writing.

Consider Other Helpful Preparation Techniques

Several other excellent academic activities prepare students well for the SAT exam. Latin study helps students learn English vocabulary. Debate emphasizes reasoning and critical thinking. Reading of classic literature provides experience with advanced vocabulary. Mathematical reasoning problems and word problems prepare the student well for the math section. In general, a challenging academic program is the best preparation for the SAT exam.

When to Take the SAT Reasoning Test

When should that all-important first SAT take place? If your student has already taken geometry and two years of algebra, sees test taking as an invigorating challenge, is proficient in all three exam categories, and has worked a few practice tests at home with good results, he or she might try the test in ninth or tenth grade. Your student may very well come out with an excellent score and, with the pressure off, can use the remainder of high school to try to raise this score if desired.

If, however, your student has not covered enough subject matter or would be discouraged by a less-than-successful early experience, feel free to wait as long as possible before testing—but keep practicing! While it is preferable to have the first scores by the end of the junior year, some students wait until fall of the senior year. Always check college application deadlines before deciding.

Although the SAT exam can be taken repeatedly, all scores will show up on the official score report. When multiple scores are available, most colleges select the highest score achieved in each subject category. The College Board also allows students to choose which testing date(s) to display to colleges.

Some students can raise their scores quite admirably by focused study between tests. Others find that their scores rise only insignificantly or even drop a bit on subsequent testing. A student should not take the exam more than about three times, especially if the test dates are close together. The scores will not improve much, and the student may become burned out. If your student takes practice tests at home and studies diligently in between, you will have a reasonable idea of whether the scores will rise.

Although the “alphabet soup” of entrance exams might seem shrouded in stress-producing mystery, a little early investigation can help you understand what your student will be up against. Then, rather than being intimidated, you will be armed with information that translates into a strong test preparation strategy!

College Board, SAT, and SAT Reasoning Test are trademarks owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this article.

Reprinted from the California Parent Educator Magazine, a publication of CHEA of California, Winter 2010.

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