By Jim Treadway
Clients tell me that their kids’ schools have told them to hold off on SAT and ACT prep until the Spring of junior year, and I think this is bad advice.
Getting your top score on a standardized test can be like completing a construction project: you think it’ll be done in two months. You WANT it to be done in two months. But it ends up taking five months or even more. The process tends to be longer, harder, and slower than people think it should be or want it to be.
Acknowledging that, and preparing for that, can actually enable the process to go by quicker (because you actually take it seriously enough from the start to make real progress).
I suspect schools tell families to wait to begin test prep because deep down, they wish the SAT and ACT didn’t exist at all. It distracts from their own curriculum. It makes parents and kids stressed, and that stress becomes contagious as it permeates the classrooms, halls, and conversations with parents that make up administrators’ days.
Teachers don’t like to assign a History test on the Friday before the ACT, moreover, and then hear students complain because the SAT or ACT is the next day.
Schools’ resistance to standardized tests, therefore, leads them to give test advice as if the SAT and ACT don’t exist at all. “Put it off! Don’t worry about it yet!” their words seem to say.
When actually, the smartest and most stress-free approach that I’ve seen is to tackle the tests head on, beginning Sophomore summer.
At Growth Wise, preparing for an SAT or ACT entails memorizing 66 grammar rules and eight answering techniques for the grammar portions of these tests; 3 steps to take on every ACT Science question; a handful of techniques to use on the Reading Passages; and about 70 math formulas and topics to memorize for the Math. This takes time, but completing the steps almost guarantees a fantastic score.
The key is to learn the non-Math portions first: English, Reading, and Science if you’re taking the ACT. We advocate to get those out of the way – and doing so often takes several months – before mopping up whatever remaining math topics the student is shaky on.
It’s true that junior year math (most likely pre-calculus) is tested on the SAT and ACT, but these questions tend to be shallow and pretty quickly learnable even if they haven’t been addressed in school yet.
The best approach is to nail all of this during the summer before junior year – so that you are geared up to take two or three SATs or ACTs during junior Fall between September and December, hopefully getting your top score before the new year. A stellar ACT or SAT score then can really lighten the load for what is a notoriously challenging junior year.
What you want to avoid is worrying about your SAT/ACT at the same time as Junior year finals, or to have test prep hang over your Junior summer, or to still be doing the test while you’re starting to write your college essays (and manage senior Fall, which is academically even more challenging than junior year).
And if you’re a strong student, during Springtime you want to be putting your attention into the SAT Subject Test that aligns with your courseload: the Physics SAT Subject test if you’re taking junior year physics, for example, or either of the two Math SAT Subject tests, or U.S. or World History if you’ve taken those as a class during junior year.
SAT Subject tests are hard – you want to score over a 650 (arguably a 700) out of 800 if you’re going to submit it to schools at all – and they are a mark of distinction in the eyes of college admissions because they know how challenging these tests are. Doing really well in a junior year course and the SAT Subject test on the same topic is a great way of killing two birds with one stone. This is best achieved without an SAT or ACT to worry about at the same time (because you listened to our advice and finished them Junior Fall!).
So, how should you schedule SAT or ACT prep? Two approaches come to mind.
First is to have two sessions per week with a tutor across Sophomore summer, and expect to do about an hour a day of homework between sessions. You can cover the entire SAT or ACT across a summer this way (acknowledging that Summer often comes with weeks off for a sports camp and/or family trip at different points).
The second is what we call the “boot camp” approach, and we’re using it more and more often. For 10-14 days, whether it’s during a Spring Break, a part of the summer, or even a medical leave, the student meets with a tutor for 90 minutes every day before doing 2.5 hours of homework on their own. That leaves the last third of the day (usually evening) for them to spend their time decompressing however they like. They do this again the next day, and the next, for 10-14 days.
This approach can cover the entire SAT or ACT in a week and a half or two weeks. In the end, the more immersive “bootcamp” approach adds up to about 40% of the time and financial expense of the once-a-week tutoring that is more common during the school year.
So, if you’d like to figure out the best schedule and approach (or pass us along to a friend to have this conversation with them), send us an email or give us a call (347.593.8783). Happy to help you strategize and figure this out!