Outside of general process questions, test prep is the most frequently voiced concern among parents of local college-bound high school students. When to begin? What company to use? What tests should be prepped? Are tutors worth the investment?
Although research suggests that most students experience only minimal gains as a result of test prep classes, even small improvements in scores can be worth the effort.
Fortunately, this effort doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing the most expensive package from the most prestigious company in town. There are other options, many of which can be explored during the summer months.
Consider these ideas and see where they might fit into time at the shore:
- Sign-up for the ACT/SAT Question of the Day: Since we know you’re on the computer, why not take advantage of these free services and register. You can “passively” prep by simply answering the question that sweetly pops up on your screen every day. Check your answer and compare how you did versus the thousands of other high school students taking the quiz like vitamins every morning. Hint: Get mom and dad to do it too.
- Work the Free Online Prep: Keeping in mind that the SAT and ACT are paper-and-pencil tests, you can derive some benefit from working with online test prep programs. Number2.com, INeedaPencil.com, and 4Tests.com offer sample tests and loads of test-taking tips (as do the College Board and the ACT).
- Get SAT and ACT Booklets: Remember those little paperback booklets your guidance counselor tried to hand you every time you walked in the office? I’ve got a secret: they each contain a full-length sample test complete with answer grids. Some of us collect them so as to accumulate free full-length tests to use as practice exams. Stop by your local high school and get a booklet or two (if they still have them). And then, get up early one Saturday morning, assign a designated timer from among household members, and take a complete test. The truly dedicated will actually score the thing and go over results.
- Use Official Study Guides: As much as I hate promoting these products, the Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide are the only ones to use. They contain official practice tests (saves the trouble of collecting old booklets) and lots of advice. Again, because college entrance exams involve sitting at a desk and working with a No. 2 pencil, don’t buy the computer software. Instead, take several published practice tests over the summer (see above).
- Go High-tech: The good news is that you can work on test prep without looking too nerdy by downloading a few interactive “apps” for your mobile PDA. The flashcard vocabulary builders, especially those that allow you to enter new words like gFlash-Pro, are really effective. The device may set you back, but the software tends to be very inexpensive.
- Read: If you don’t do anything else to prepare for the SAT or the ACT, make time to read over the summer. I don’t mean Teen Cosmo or Sports Illustrated. Try to get lists from reading-intensive history or literature classes. Contact your school or ask friends who already completed the classes you’re taking next year. As a rule, reading ahead really helps. But if great works of literature don’t work for the beach, try magazines. Look for scientific journals or read popular culture articles in The New Yorker. Remember that magazines as well as books are available at your local library.
- Write: I don’t care what you write, but write. And write in complete sentences. Paragraphs are good too. Just don’t limit your written communications to texting or IM-speak. These habits are actually harmful if you lose your “ear” for correct grammar and syntax. Start a blog, write grandma, bother your Congressperson, or begin drafting college essays—it really doesn’t matter. If you’re reading good books, enroll in an online literary group like the Big Read or Shelfari. Not only can you share ideas but your writing will improve, especially if you succumb to peer pressure and clean-up sentences or check spelling.
- Listen: Check out iTunes University or National Public Radio for downloads and apps—basic or educational programming. You’d be surprised how much vocabulary and language usage you can absorb on the way to the beach or lying by the pool, especially if you take the time to note and look up words you hear and don’t understand. And do something totally radical like watch the History Channel and other learning or public broadcasting programs. It’s all grist for the mill!
- Find a Buddy: Lots of your friends are going through test prep anxiety. Gather a few together and form a support group to take practice tests or otherwise kvetch about college admissions. The wise high school student learns the value of study groups early. They work as long as you don’t spend the entire time socializing.
So the good news is that there are ways to prepare for standardized tests and have fun. It may take a little self-discipline, but whatever.