Remember from earlier posts that half of the battle in earning merit scholarships is the score on the entrance exam. Whether it’s the ACT or the SAT, a score at the 85th percentile or higher is what you’re shooting for. This equates to a composite score of 26 or higher on the ACT and an 1800 on the SAT. Once you get to the 85th percentile, you will be a serious contender for many of the merit scholarships available at public universities around the nation. Let’s look at some of the ways to prepare for the test.
First of all, realize that both exams are general knowledge exams. That is, there is no way to take a stack of notes or a study guide and ace the exam. No tutor or professional service can get you to the perfect score. The bank of questions for each section and each instance of the exam is so vast that the test makers are able to create millions of iterations of the test. They also update the exam constantly; bad questions or outdated questions are thrown out and new questions are added to the pool of questions. The strategy that seems to work best is understanding the types of questions that are asked and, more importantly, how to solve them.
On both the SAT and ACT websites, there is a lot of information about the test. There are also plenty of practice questions and even some practice tests for the entire exam. For the SAT, a great practice exam is the PSAT. The PSAT is administered around the nation during October of the sophomore year. On the SAT site, you can find information on how your PSAT score compares to the SAT score. The ACT program actually offers two different practice exam programs. The first is called Explore, which is geared towards eighth and ninth graders. The second is called PLAN, and is designed for sophomores. Each of these ACT prep exams also give you an indication on how you may perform on the actual exam. The only issue with these three exams is that each school district must offer these tests; a student or parent cannot sign up for the test. But, these are fantastic exams with very strong reports which can help your child realize their weaknesses and focus their preparation efforts. If they are offered in your district, your child should take each offering no matter whether they ultimately plan to take the SAT or the ACT.
Because the best strategy is to learn about the various types of questions, there is no substitute for repetition. You should get your hands on as many practice exams as you can take. There are many test prep books available, most of which are collections of questions. These take time, but they are well worth the investment. Both the ACT and SAT websites sell and recommend books. Having the book allows you to take the practice tests and questions at your leisure without access to the internet. Both also have online test prep programs. These are terrific options that give you actual simulations of the exam, provide customized reporting and recommendations for improvement, and even give real-time scoring of both multiple choice and essay questions. The ACT online option gives you access to the program for a year, and the SAT program gives you access to a number of exams. Because both are administered by the actual programs, I believe they are the best online options available.
I’m not sure that I’m sold on the idea of hiring a tutor or test prep firm to prepare for the exams. Usually these cost quite a bit more, sometimes five to ten times more. Some will guarantee an increase in your test score from your most recent attempt, but those usually come with certain stipulations and conditions to cash in on the guarantee. Some build their credentials on their staff and team members being former test developers. A lot of them deliver their services in their offices, often on their schedules, so you and your student have to work this in to your schedules.
I still believe that the best source of test prep is from the test developers themselves. They are the most flexible, most up-to-date, and most student-friendly options that you will find. Begin by checking on their sites, and take the preliminary exams when they are offered. Target the third attempt of your selected exam as the money shot, and pace your preparations accordingly. The time and money spent will be rewarded many times over in scholarship dollars.