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The Truth About SAT and ACT Test Prep

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Last month the College Board released the blueprints for the redesigned SAT, and with a dramatic shift in content and scoring, many families are left wondering what these changes mean for their college-bound students and how they will prepare for the new exam.

In recent years, test prep for the SAT or ACT and its place in the college admissions process has come under scrutiny. It's no secret that standardized test scores aren't the end-all predictor of college success. A recent NACAC report found that there's no significant difference in the graduation rates and academic performance of students who submit their standardized test scores to colleges and those who don't. Yet many schools still require these exams and families still rely on test prep to improve scores and enhance students' chances of admission at the country's top universities.

The College Board has explicitly stated that the new test will level the playing field and eliminate the need for test preparation services by aligning the exam's content with Common Core and what students are learning in school. However, the truth is, when it comes to the selective college admissions process, students need outstanding scores in order to stay competitive, and this can still best be achieved by preparing early and often, especially now that the test is experiencing a major overhaul. Furthermore, as part of the unveiling, the College Board announced a new version of free online prep they will be providing via a partnership with Khan Academy, which contradicts their own premise regarding test preparation.

With the changes in content and scoring, families will need help understanding the test, improving performance, and aid in helping students gain admission to their top-choice colleges.

Here's why ACT and SAT test prep is necessary in the selective college admissions process:

It's necessary in order to be a competitive candidate.
A perfect SAT or ACT score alone won't ensure a student's ticket into a top U.S. university, but students do need scores that will keep them out of the "no" pile. With admissions rates at the U.S.'s top universities at historic lows, it's important for students to get a score within the range of the averages at their target schools to even be considered.

Students wouldn't go into any other test unprepared.
A student wouldn't go into his or her history final without spending a considerable amount of time studying and preparing, and standardized tests should be no different. In order to improve and avoid the "no" pile, students need to spend time taking practice tests, studying and utilizing test prep resources.

Curricula and rigor of courses varies from student to student and school to school.
While the goal of the new SAT is to align more with Common Core and what students are learning in the classroom, the truth is every student's course load varies. So while some students may have extensive experience with higher level math (one of the areas on the new test), others may just now be learning the material. Test prep can help students master concepts and material that they are not as familiar with in order to improve scores.

Students become familiar with the test and improve.
The idea that standardized tests measure intelligence or scholastic aptitude that cannot be coached is wholly inaccurate. By virtue of simply taking one or more full-length practice exams under real test conditions in order to become more familiar with the test, students tend to improve their scores by 30 points. Studies have shown that students who prepare for these tests by focusing on areas of content where they have weakness and practicing test-taking strategies can improve their SAT scores anywhere from 100 to even 400 points, on average. With this level of improvement, students can consider a whole new range of colleges that otherwise would have been out of reach.

Test Prep Tips:

  • Start Early. Students should take at least one practice SAT and/or ACT test by the spring of their sophomore year.
  • Practice. When preparing for the ACT or SAT, students should take at least eight practice tests under timed conditions in order to a good feel for pacing, how to work through the questions, and to determine which sections they need to work on.
  • Don't spend too much time on test prep. A perfect score does not guarantee admission, and admissions officers are looking for students with a balance of good grades, meaningful participation in extracurricular activities, and strong essays, among other things. While you need to do the best you can, don't let test prep take away from other important application components.
  • If your scores are still not great after trying test prep, consider test-optional schools. There are over 800 test-optional and test-flexible colleges and universities in the U.S. that either do not require applicants to submit ACT and SAT scores, or they deemphasize the importance of test scores in the admissions process. For a list of test-optional and test-flexible colleges, visit FairTest.org.