Your sweet son or daughter can ace college admission tests by doing the best they can, according to their ability. Your child’s score simply needs to be better than most applicants at the college where they apply. Some colleges directly link scholarship awards to a student's SAT® or ACT® score. You may even see the minimum SAT® or ACT® score the student needs to receive automatic academic scholarships included on college websites. This financial reward can be worth thousands of dollars per year, which could mean tens of thousands of dollars over the four years of college.
On the other hand, college admission test practice is a total drag! So, let me explain how to get the best possible score on the SAT® or ACT® without working too hard, studying too much, or becoming too stressed.
I suggest that parents have their children start studying for the college admission tests during tenth or eleventh grade. Register your child to take the SAT® or ACT® early in the spring of junior year. Then have them repeat the test again later in junior year, in May or June. This will give your child the best chance for earning college scholarships.
Almost all colleges accept either the SAT® or ACT®. The SAT® measures reading, writing, and math. The ACT® is similar because it also covers reading, writing, math, and also has an optional essay. However, the ACT® also includes a section on science reasoning. In general, public schools on the coasts tend to offer the SAT®, and schools in the center of the country tend to offer the ACT®.
One third of students typically do better on the SAT®, about one third do better on the ACT®, and the remaining third do equally well on both tests. Studies claim that boys do better on the SAT® and girls do better on the ACT®, but statistics are not always right and may not apply to your child. Since science is included on the ACT®, science lovers might do better on the ACT®, but that’s not always true. What’s most important is to decide which college admission test will be best for your student.
Homeschoolers have the advantage on college admission tests, because you get to choose whichever test makes your child look like a genius. So, begin by giving your child a complete sample test, timed and in the comfort of your home. Taking a sample SAT® or ACT® is the single best way to decide which test is naturally best for your child. While the sample test does take 3 to 4 hours (and it’s a real pain, I know!) it can mean thousands of dollars in scholarship money, so it’s worth it. Plan a day off school, and schedule a reward after the child has completed the timed test at home. Going to a movie, buying ice cream, or baking cookies can make this long practice test more palatable.
I recommend that you include the optional essay for the ACT® if your first-choice college requires it. Correct each test to determine what your child’s score might be. Then compare the SAT® score to the ACT® score based on your child’s percentile using the score comparison chart. The test with the higher percentile is the best test for your child.
Pro Tip: if your child scores best on one of the college admission tests, but your chosen college prefers the other test, then register your child for both and provide both scores to the college.
Once you have determined which college admission test is best for your child, the next step is to choose the right study materials. The best study materials mimic the materials used during the official test, so right now this means paper and pencil. Begin with a book filled with real test questions. These books tend to be the most reliable. Since study guides are updated each year, be sure to read the reviews before purchasing.
Suggested Study Guides for SAT® Preparation
Suggested Study Guides for ACT® Preparation
Step One: Practice Filling in the Bubbles
Your child needs to be able to fill out bubbles quickly and accurately. This comes from familiarity with the test questions, and practice filling out bubbles on an answer key when the questions are in a separate booklet.
Set aside about 30 minutes per day, about 3 or 4 days a week. We did our core subjects in the morning, and SAT® prep was first thing after lunch. During each prep session, give your child one section of the test. Tear out one complete test from the study guide you have chosen. Since each section is only about 30 minutes timed, on average, it shouldn’t mess up your schedule too much.
Don’t spend time negotiating. Preparing for college admission tests is much like changing a diaper – it goes faster if you don’t negotiate but simply go about your business in a matter-of-fact way.
Read the instructions first. Set the timer for the time specified in the instruction book. Give your child the timed test. After the timer rings, have your child correct their own test using the answer key. Then have your child review answers to the questions they missed. If they don't understand an answer, they can ask their dad. (That's how it worked in my house anyway!)
Step Two: Practice Essays
While not many colleges are still requiring the timed essay, if your child's first- choice college does, he or she will need to be able to hand write a well-organized essay quickly, without panicking. Remember, this is a very valuable skill in college, regardless of whether it is required on the admission test. Weekly practice writing a timed essay can give them the preparation they need.
Set aside about one hour, one day a week, for your child to write a timed essay in place of a regular English assignment. Collect essay prompts from the study guide. Choose one writing prompt. Read the prompt first. Set the timer for 50 minutes. Have your child quickly brainstorm and outline an essay in one or two minutes, and then write an essay by hand. Correct the essay in the evening.
If your child needs help learning to write an essay, read Quick Essay Skills Earn Thanks. You may need to start with some instruction on how to write a timed essay so your child understands the process. Check out 501 Writing Prompts by Learning Express. This book provides easier writing prompts for beginners. It also gives an example of what a good essay looks like which can give you a quick and easy way to judge your student’s writing quality. Look for this book at your local library or school district.
Step Three: Work Less
Not to state the obvious, but the time your child spends studying for the English sections on the SAT® or ACT® is time spent studying English. Your child can work less and you can reward them for being cooperative in preparing for college admission tests. Replace your regularly scheduled English lessons with test preparation. Instead of using vocabulary, spelling, or editing workbooks, you can rely on SAT® or ACT® study guides to provide these lessons. Your English class might also include an “Essay Writing” unit study, along with regularly scheduled reading selections.
Step Four: Get Help
The best preparation for college admission tests involves real test questions from the official tests. It also requires the student’s active participation, and can’t be learned through passively listening or watching any class or video. For this reason, I suggest starting the process with an inexpensive study guide, a notebook, and a pencil. If your child is engaged in and cooperative for the study process, it’s probably all you need.
Some kids can’t or won’t do well studying on their own at home. In some situations, a formal test preparation class makes sense. While this won’t work without the student being willing to do their part, sometimes the investment in a class can motivate them to be more engaged. Or your child might take direction better from another adult. You can find classes in your neighborhood and online classes through homeschool organizations.
It’s important to include real test questions and paper and pencil bubble answer keys, but you don’t have to limit your study to this. Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board®, creator of the SAT® test, to provide high-quality test preparation available for free online. You can also use flash cards for quick study in the car, when paper and pencil isn’t an option.
Use SAT® or ACT® smart phone apps for quick practice when driving your children to their activities. Don't skip the topics your child does best on. (Perhaps your child excels at the English sections, for example.) Your child’s best sections need to have the highest possible scores, to compensate for average scores in their “not best” sections of the test. This way, they can achieve an even higher overall score.
Pro Tip: Don’t use the class title "SAT® Prep" on your child’s transcript because it's like saying, "My child studied for the test and this is still the best score they could get." Instead, if you are creating a separate class for test prep, consider calling it "Study Skills" or "College Study Skills" because this is a more general name, which implies they are ready for college level work.
No amount of studying, and no investment in professionals, can compensate for a lack of understanding in a subject area, such as the math section - your child can't raise their score by much unless they understand algebra. At the same time, success with the test relies on two skills. First, your child has to be a sprinter - completing each section of the test quickly. Second, your child has to be able to sit and concentrate for a marathon test. Train your child for the test like a runner. Prepare your child for the sprint as increase their speed in each section. And prepare your child for the marathon as they learn to complete a full length test without fatigue.
Step One: Prepare for the Sprint
Remember to choose the best test, and find a book with real test questions that have been used before. Before signing up your child to take the SAT® or ACT® this spring, prep for about 2 to 3 months for that specific test, because they are so different. Familiarity with the specific test matters. My children became familiar with test questions written by the authors of the SAT® test. When they took the test “for real,” one of my sons can home and said, “I think I cheated. I’m pretty sure some of those exact questions were in my study guide.” Whether or not these questions were exactly the same, they were certainly close enough that my children recognized familiar test questions.
Give your child one timed section of the test, about 3 or 4 days a week. Remember, this work will replace other grade-level English workbooks.
Assign your child a timed essay, using real SAT® or ACT® essay prompts. Remember, this work will replace your English writing assignment for the day.
Step Two: Train for the Marathon
Taking full, timed practice college admission tests using real test questions that have been used in the past is an essential ingredient for success on the SAT® or ACT®. Sitting still and taking a full-length test is not an easy job, but it does require some practice. Taking a half-day test requires stamina. To train for this marathon aspect of the test, I suggest giving your student a full length, timed practice test every few months.
Reward every full length, timed test with a special date for ice cream, brownies, or a movie. Reward their marathon completion by limiting other schoolwork that day. Don’t make their day longer by adding this challenge. Instead, use their test preparation as “school” and replace other school work with these hours of effort.
Mimic real test conditions as best you can. Once a year, have your child take an official test. Register them for the PSAT / NMSQT® in 10th or 11th grade, so your child becomes familiar with the public school testing environment. You can also find SAT® or ACT® seminars in your area, sometimes through the library, which can offer some real-world, timed practice in a strange environment in a room full of people they don’t know.
Pro Tip: Your goal is to assign one timed section, 3 to 4 times per week, one timed essay once a week, one full-length, timed test every two months, and one test per year in a real test environment.
In a perfect world, every child is compliant, studies for college admission tests with a willing and eager attitude, and achieves an above average score. But in the real world, sometimes the test is very soon, and your sweet child has potentially or accidentally forgotten to study because of a good reason or no reason at all. When this happens, what can you do?
When the test is coming up soon, prepare using non-academic methods. It is possible for your child to increase their SAT® or ACT® score without getting smarter. Focus on the soft skills of test preparation, rather than academic-based answers to the questions. Here’s what to do if the SAT® or ACT® is days or weeks away.
There is no formula or calculation for what makes a good score on the college admission tests. A good score is the best score your child can get. Colleges have different policies on how they award scholarships. A perfect score may earn a full ride at one college, but not earn any scholarships at another college. In general, as test scores go up, so does your child’s chance of earning a scholarship award. Think of it this way - your child's chances of earning scholarships go up as their scores go up.
A good SAT® score is the best score your child can earn. To guesstimate how your child is doing, refer to this scale based on the general population of the U.S. It doesn't fit every family, and it may not fit your child, but it can help you begin to think about test scores and what they might mean.
What is a good score on the SAT®?
The SAT® is scored 200 to 800 per section, or 400 to 1600 for the whole test.
What is a good score on the ACT®?
The ACT® is scored on a 1 – 36 scale
Or put another way, for either test, scores affect your chance of scholarships.
Familiarity with the test will increase the test score even if they don't get smarter, because your child will get more comfortable with the format and how the questions are asked. Anything you can do to keep teens alert and rested will increase the test score without studying because it will allow their brain to fire on all cylinders. Nutrition and hydration improve brain function. Reducing stress levels will allow them to be as relaxed as possible in an already stressful situation.
If your child does the best they can do on the test, they could still receive automatic financial aid worth thousands of dollars even if they don’t win the National Merit Scholarship or earn a full tuition award. They don’t have to be better than anyone else. They merely have to score high enough to get to the next level of scholarships based on their test score. Then it will all be worth it.
Understanding the common high school tests can save you real money right now - saving thousands of dollars on college. Lee compares major high school tests, discusses general strategies and study tips, and shares how her sons homeschooled one year of college using CLEP exams.
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