Test Prep Primer
When it comes to the dreaded SAT, it pays to prepare.
It’s nice to know there’s $134 billion in financial aid out there for the nation’s college-bound students. The problem is getting your kid in on the action. Three letters: S, A, T. But to be considered for most scholarships these days, your little genius better score high. By way of a few local examples, Temple University’s $2,500 Pennsylvania Governor’s School Merit Scholarship requires at least an 1050 combined score, and for Temple’s Air Force ROTC Scholarship, it’s a minimum of 1100.
Due to the wide variety of high school curriculums across the nation, the SATs were created to help schools better predict a prospective student’s college-level performance. Since its initiation in 1926, the SAT has become the most researched and fussed-over test in the world. And while it has shouldered its fair share of criticism over the years, it’s still crucial to the admissions process. “SAT scores are the second most important factor, the first being grades and type of courses—academic curriculum,” says Florida State University’s John Barnhill, a member of the SAT Test Committee. “It’s good to have a national performance number. It shows how you’re doing relative to everyone else taking the test. It says, ‘This is where you stand.’”
The most promising application is one with both high grades and high test scores. “Historically, students who have certain scores have not been successful in college. For FSU, that score is 900—it’s our cutoff,” says Barnhill. “You have to be extraordinary to be admitted if your score is below this.”
More and more, colleges are downplaying the emphasis of SAT scores in the admissions process. “There is a substantial movement away from the test,” says Bob Schaffer, public education director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “But that doesn’t mean it’s gone away by any means.”
Still, more than 700 schools across the country—including Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna University and Dickinson, Ursinus, Gettysburg and Muhlenberg colleges—now have a test-optional policy, which gives certain college-bound students the choice of not submitting scores and opting for a decision based on GPA, class rank, extracurricular activities and other factors.
“To add another burden doesn’t seem fair,” says Richard DiFeliciantonio, vice president of enrollment at Ursinus.
Still, Ursinus’ standardized test waiver policy only applies to students who are ranked in the top 10 percent of their class or (if the school doesn’t report class rank) have a 3.5 GPA or higher.
In the late 1990s, Ursinus took a hard look at its students to assess whether SAT scores were actually helping to determine who would be successful. What they found was that, in almost all cases, students ranked in the top 10 percent in their high school class, regardless of their SAT scores, were doing well.
“I know that parents and students are appreciative of the policy, because it’s not uncommon for very fine students to be average or below average SAT takers,” DiFeliciantonio says. “I hear that loud and clear pretty much every week.”
Scholarships, however, are another story. “Every scholarship has an academic component. With a scholarship application, you’re trying to say you’re better than somebody else,” Barnhill says. “A high GPA and a low test score are not as impressive.”
Practice Makes Perfect
So what’s a money-starved college-bound student to do? Take the test—over and over again. Then take it another time, and once more for good luck. The best way to prepare is to practice—a lot.
The SAT’s creator, the College Board (collegeboard.com), offers several free online test prep options—practice questions, tests, an online course and a study guide—for self-motivated students who want to go it alone. Or you could try one of the countless SAT coaching services available. From after-school programs to expensive private tutors, they’re all out there clamoring for the opportunity to help boost that score. So try not get overwhelmed—and choose wisely.
Avery Snyder, founder of Educational Services (prepwithes.com), promises to improve scores by as much as 300 points—for a price. With offices in Wayne, Chestnut Hill and Kennett Square, ES charges $2,690 for 12 hours of instruction and a guaranteed 200-point improvement. Or spend $3,890 for 18 hours and a 250-point bump; $4,990 will get you 24 hours and 300 points.
“These increases change the whole college and financial landscape for these students,” Avery points out. “And that’s why I come to work every day.”
FairTest’s Schaffer sees these services as an investment. “If that $2,000 toward coaching gets a $3,000 scholarship, it’s worth it,” he says. “And from a psychological standpoint, it’s being able to put a UPenn or Cornell sticker on your car rather than one from a state university. When schools use test scores to determine thousands of dollars of scholarship awards, it makes sense to spend the money on coaching.”
Even the College Board acknowledged the benefits of coaching services—albeit somewhat reluctantly—in a recent published statement: “Students should know that recent research demonstrates that coached students are only slightly more likely to have large score gains than uncoached students.”
If you don’t want to spend the money, you’re child will need some free time, even more self-discipline and maybe a few insider tips. One good source for the latter is The SAT I for Dummies. Also worth considering: SAT Vocabulary for Dummies, CliffsTestPrep The New SAT and Cracking the SAT (which includes a CD-ROM with sample tests).
Do-it-at-home books don’t come with any guarantees, but they do cost a heck of a lot less than tutoring. “If a kid is self-disciplined, working through one of those books will boost your scores,” says Schaffer, who adds that most high school guidance counselors provide free copies of practice tests.
And even if they are taking 24 hours of SAT prep courses a week, students should register with Collegeboard.com. It doesn’t cost a dime, and the site has a mountain of free resources. The College Board also offers its own SAT self-help products, including a question-per-day calendar, and official online SAT course and an official SAT study guide.
Change Is Good?
In 2005, the College Board revised the SAT to better reflect what’s being taught in high school classrooms. Analogies were eliminated (they encouraged rote memorization of vocabulary) and an essay was added. Perhaps the scariest change for students is the SAT’s extended three-hour-and-45-minute length, more than an hour longer than before.
And the test remains as daunting as ever. “The SAT is a necessary evil no one has found a better replacement for,” says Educational Services’ Avery Snyder. At $41.50 a pop, the SAT isn’t exactly a bargain, but it sure seems that way when scholarship money is on the line. So it can’t hurt to take the test more than once—a few times even—to take the edge off. Snyder describes it as the ultimate video game.
“If a kid is good at playing a game, then he or she will be good at the SAT,” he says. “And the game starts at the very beginning—not necessarily at the end.” And once the fear factor is eliminated, a student can approach the test from an out-of-the-box perspective. “Are you diligent, careful and good with the clock?” Snyder poses. “Because that’s the student they reward.”
Six Testing Tips
1. Make an outline as you read long passages. It provides mini-reminders of key points to which you can refer when answering questions.
2. Use a quote at the beginning of the written essay.
3. Incorporate something learned in the classroom (a war, historical event, book, author) in the written essay. It shows a knowledge base.
4. Complete at least the first half of each math section and leave the rest blank to lessen the risk of losing points on the later, trickier questions. A perfect score on the first half of each section guarantees a 540; the first two-thirds, a 630.
5. Never take short cuts.
6. Forget everything you’ve been taught.
Source: Educational Services’ Avery Snyder