Monday, August 01, 2011

SAT Prep Planning (Part 2)

A host of nation-wide testing companies (Princeton Review, Kaplan, Ivy West, Revolution Prep, etc.) offer pre-packaged SAT courses. These courses cost as much as $999 or more, and often require a huge commitment of time and energy (e.g. the Princeton Review's SAT1 course requires more than 50 hours devoted to class time, homework, and practice testing). School sponsored courses offered by local firms or coaches are usually less expensive and time consuming, but can be less effective than those administered by established companies. Buyer beware: many prep course "guarantees" are not straight money-back guarantees, but instead merely offer dissatisfied customers the right to retake the course one more time for free or at a reduced rate.

For students who wish to prepare on their own, there are a plethora of SAT study guides and workbooks available commercially. While not as effective as working with a good private coach or investing considerable time and money in a top-flight SAT course, disciplined study with a good work book along with plenty of practice before test day can make a big difference, and is certainly much better than nothing. Unfortunately, most SAT self-study books are decidedly inferior in quality, and very few include good, comprehensive advice and realistic, truly useful practice tests. The vast majority of them are a waste of time, at best, and should be avoided. Below are my picks as the best commercial SAT guides:

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• The "Bible" of SAT preparation is The Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board (the organization that administers the SAT). This huge blue tome (899 pages) contains eight official SAT tests – the only publication featuring real tests. It's the perfect resource for SAT practice, and is the first book every student preparing for the SAT should get.

• Alternatively, Cracking the SAT, 2007 by the Princeton Review is an excellent book on SAT strategy, and contains three fairly good unofficial practice tests (a great choice for self study).

• Another reasonably good source of SAT practice tests is the Princeton Review's 11 Practice Tests for the SAT and PSAT, 2007 (get this book, also, if you're taking a full year to prepare or you think you'll need a larger supply of tests than that supplied in The Official SAT Study Guide; then, work with these first, saving the official tests for last).

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By far the best way to prepare to take the SAT is to hire an experienced private test coach. For most students, private coaching offers the best value, combining superior instructional quality, flexible scheduling, and maximum cost-effectiveness. Top quality professional test coaches in private practice with decades of experience generally charge from $120 to $160 per hour in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's possible to pay a lot more, though, while getting a lot less. The Princeton Review, for example, charges up to $350 per hour for their best tutors (those with at least five years tutoring experience), in blocks of 10-23 hours, minimum, and then pays these tutors a small fraction of that hourly fee ... so while you're paying absolutely top dollar, you could be getting just an average quality coach. See the following article I've posted on my Web site for information on how to find the right coach:

http://www.borlandeducational.com/page5/page5.html.

Here's the long term SAT prep plan I recommend as ideal:

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• Months 1-3: Strategy coaching and instruction (weekly 60-90 minute sessions, with untimed practice between sessions)

• Months 4-11: One full-length, timed dress-rehearsal official practice test per month, each followed by a single 60-90 minute coaching session to critique and correct the student's performance; in addition, leading up to each dress rehearsal, one complete practice test per month taken one section at a time (timed or untimed, as needed).

• Month 12: One complete, timed, official practice test per week, taken full-length or in sections (as needed), each followed by a single 60-90 minute coaching session to critique and correct the student's performance (scheduled to conclude immediately before test day).

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Below is a planning chart giving suggested start dates for various SAT prep strategies:

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• Long range prep: begin 10-12 months ahead of first test date

• Medium range prep: begin 6-7 months before first test date

• Short range prep: begin 3-4 months before first test date

• Last-minute prep: begin 1-4 weeks before first test date

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Planning and preparation are the keys to unlocking a winning score on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT. The probability of success on the SAT correlates most directly to the type and quality of instruction and the amount of test taking practice and performance critiquing students complete before test day. While it's certainly possible to dramatically improve one's score in a shorter period of time, a one year plan allows average students sufficient time to do required practice, discover and fix patterns of error and flaws in their approach to the test, and gain the confidence, competence, and experience necessary to perform at one's best on test day. Stronger students general require less prep time.

Clearly, a long term prep plan offers the vast majority of students the best chance of a successful outcome. Although it's unlikely that most students will be able to complete enough practice testing and critiquing in just a few months or weeks to maximize their final SAT numbers, even a little high quality test prep and a few well-critiqued, full-length official practice tests can make a significant difference.

Get a coach, take a course, read some books, plan your work, and work your plan.

The worst SAT plan – by far – is no plan at all!

(Click here to go to Part 1.)

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