Preparing for college entrance exams

If you remember showing up at a high school classroom at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, two number two pencils in hand, hoping for a clear head for the next three hours and just once, some plain old luck, then you, too, survived the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a.k.a. the SAT. Weeks later, when a small envelope arrived in the mail, you tore it open, and . . . maybe by now you are reliving the same cold feeling in the pit of your stomach that I have as I write this.

The SAT has its roots in an I.Q. test developed for use in the U.S. Army during World War I. In the 1930s, this “Army Alpha” test was adapted for use by a Harvard University scholarship program in search of academically gifted male candidates who fell outside of the typical Eastern boarding school applicant pool. The test was thought to measure an applicant’s intelligence regardless of the quality of the test taker’s high school education. During World War II, the test became the standard testing instrument for most college applicants and, by 1948, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) was chartered to manage and administer the test. In 1959, American College Testing formed a rival test, the ACT. Since then, both tests have been taken by millions of students.

Whether or not the SAT — or the ACT, for that matter — is a reliable predictor of college success has been the subject of debate over the past several years. But test scores remain an essential part of every college applicant’s package, along with grades, extracurricular activities and college essays, according to Rick Hinds, who runs Educational Partners Group in Phoenix. Hinds, whose services include both classroom and private test preparation, says that admission requirements have become “more multi-faceted. Certainly they are looking at more things than they did 30 years ago. But many schools still rely heavily on the SAT.”

The PSAT, or the preliminary SAT, which students typically take as sophomores or early in the junior year, serves as more than a predictor of performance on the SAT. The PSAT has become the “gatekeeper” for the National Merit Scholar program, says Hinds. “Universities are starting to really recruit scholars, like they recruit athletes.” With the lure of scholarship money attached to a successful outcome, many students now spend hours preparing for the PSAT, hoping they’ll land a score in the top two percent and become National Merit Scholar semi-finalists.

“Parents may say, ‘If I am going to spend $1,000 for the prep, maybe that could be worth $30,000 per year in tuition,'” says Hinds. “That’s a great investment.”

But there are more basic reasons for making sure students become familiar with college admission tests, according to Victoria Sherrard, director of the Phoenix Sylvan Learning Center. One of these reasons is to minimize anxiety.

“There is so much pressure on kids these days for testing,” she says. “We are seeing a lot of kids scared to death to take a test.”

Sherrard says it’s important for students to know not just content, but also how the test is actually set up. For example, on the SAT, the math portion has three parts — the first easier, the second more difficult and the third very difficult. Some students simply have not learned the material required to do the problems in the most difficult section. One strategy for a higher score is for these students to focus on the first two thirds of the test and leave the answers to the very difficult questions blank — which is tough for students who have always been taught to at least try. On the ACT, however, students are penalized for skipping questions.

Students who are strong readers may do better on the ACT, which is more of a skills-specific test than the SAT, Sherrard says. Sherrard suggests talking to a school guidance counselor about taking both tests because some colleges and universities will accept either test and some just want results from one or the other.

What is the best way for your student to prepare? Sherrard says that practicing the tests several times in a classroom situation helps students gain confidence.

“If students don’t go into a test confident in what they know, the test just isn’t going to show what they are actually capable of doing, college-wise,” she says. Students also benefit from peer interaction, bouncing ideas for correct answers off of each other.

A college-bound student’s level of self-motivation and already heavy schedule also are determining factors when deciding how to prepare. Among the choices:

  • Classroom instruction. Classes usually meet two or three times per week in local area high schools or testing centers and begin around six weeks before the test. Many offer a free second round of classes if scores do not increase, as long as students attend every class and hand in their homework. Ask about the qualifications of the teachers. Cost: about $900.
  • Private tutoring. One-on-one instruction either at home or at a testing center. Most of the well-known test prep companies offer this service to clients who are willing to spend more for the flexibility and personalized attention. Cost: about $200 an hour.
  • Online instruction. Kaplan, Princeton Review, Peterson’s, Boost My Score and offer online preparation. You buy access to practice tests for a certain number of days and use their/ software to assess incorrect answers. Some offer live, online tutoring in real time. Princeton Review and Kaplan offer free tips on the college application process. Cost: depends on how long you want to prep and how often you need the online tutoring. is free, but uses questions designed in-house, not from the actual tests.
  • Mobile. Kaplan offers “to-go” modules — software that can be downloaded to a PDA. Students can review math, analogies and vocabulary anywhere. Cost: $12.95 and up per module.
  • Written materials and software. Software, prep workbooks and flashcards are available at bookstores and on the web. Check Princeton Review, Peterson’s, or Kaplan to order materials directly. You can also visit a local bookstore or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Your local library may also have workbooks and software.

If you want to walk in the shoes of your teen, check out and take a free, 10-question test yourself. See if you remember how to measure the square footage of concrete needed for a tunnel, or how it is that wake is to boat as rut is to tractor. Ready for a prep class?

Learn more

The history of and controversy surrounding the SAT is described in a “Secrets of the SAT,” a documentary created for Frontline and produced by the Public Broadcasting System:

National Merit Scholarship Corporation:

Register for the PSAT and the SAT:

Register for the ACT:

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