Friday, July 01, 2011

SAT Prep Planning (Part 1)

What is the ideal length of time to devote to systematic SAT study and preparation in advance of test day? What's the best way to plan a given student's SAT preparation?

Although the answers will vary considerably depending on the particular student and family in question, most students should plan to spend at least one year thoughtfully and diligently preparing to take the SAT.

Whether one's plan involves hiring an SAT coach, taking a course, or utilizing commercial prep books, three essential ingredients combine to enable successful performance on standardized tests like the SAT: subject knowledge, strategy knowledge, and test taking practice. Each one of these factors plays a crucial role in maximizing a given student's SAT score, the ultimate goal of any prep plan. Without sufficient development in all elements of this triad, maximum performance is unlikely to be achieved.

To do well on the SAT, it's of course very helpful to know as much as possible about mathematics and the English language and to possess well developed reading and writing skills. However, subject knowledge and basic skills such as these take years of disciplined schooling to secure and master; they simply cannot be acquired or noticeably improved any other way, certainly not in the short run. The only way to strengthen this element of the triad is to take challenging classes and work hard in school over the long term.

Knowledge of effective test taking strategy, on the other hand, is indeed something that can have a dramatic positive effect on students' test scores and yet can, in fact, be very quickly learned (in several hours, compared to several years). Many unfortunate students receive artificially low scores on the SAT that give an unfairly negative impression of their academic abilities – not because they aren't capable students, but simply because they don't know how to correctly approach and take the SAT! Without realizing it, these students make fundamental strategic errors that have a disastrous effect on their SAT scores. Fortunately, it is possible in a short period of time to “learn the ropes” of standardized test taking, for students to adopt simple, powerfully effective test taking strategies and learn simple skills that allow them to maximize their performance on standardized tests. This “strategic approach” enables students to make the most of the knowledge they already have, and can mean the difference between disappointing scores and real success. Utilizing the "strategic approach" is the only realistic way for most students to deliberately impact on their SAT score in a meaningful way, and hiring an experienced academic coach who specializes in teaching the strategic approach to SAT prep is the best way to ensure the success of any such plan.

The third key element in the triad is perhaps most important. One would never take piano lessons without practicing at home and expect to become a much better piano player. Likewise, students with good subject knowledge and strategic skills who nevertheless fail to practice run a high risk of falling short of their maximum potential score. Practice is the most critical factor in predicting large score improvements on the SAT. There's just no way around it – substantial score improvement requires lots of practice! The one year plan I recommend allows sufficient time for students to be thoroughly instructed in test taking strategy, take plenty of timed and untimed practice tests, and fully critique their practice work, and thus gain the skills and experience necessary to become expert SAT test takers.

Sufficient quality in one's SAT practice is as important as sufficient quantity. Just as an athlete always warms up thoroughly before a sporting contest to ensure his body is primed and ready to function at maximum strength and efficiency, it is critical for academic competitors to "warm up" before any testing experience they participate in. No serious musician would consider hitting the stage without first warming up her fingers and reviewing the music to be performed, and so too must the SAT student awaken and warm up her skills before each test rehearsal or performance in order to guarantee the best possible results. For at least 10-20 minutes immediately before dong any SAT practice test (30 minutes before any actual SAT test), students should diligently review all notes and earlier practice work, and intently visualize themselves putting to work all they've learned previously in the upcoming test they're about to take.

Taking practice tests at regular intervals (say, once each month) over a long period of time (one year seems to be the sweet spot; more than that is probably overkill), implementing the strategic approach, and carefully scoring, critiquing, tracking, and reviewing these practice tests is the best way to maximize the odds of succeeding on the SAT. Though it's possible to implement a successful plan that comprises only three or four months' preparation, such a tight time frame makes it that much harder for many students to fit critically important test practice into their already full schedules. Most of the time, it just doesn't happen. Without sufficient practice, students lack the experience needed to ensure the best possible result, and often fall short of their score goals.

Still, some preparation is much better than none. Students can see remarkable improvements in their test scores in just a few weeks by combining quality test coaching (emphasizing the strategic approach) with as much practice as time allows. While certainly not as effective as the long term approach I advocate, short term prep heavily focused on the most important test taking strategies, at least some critiqued practice, and disciplined review can nonetheless lead to very pleasing results.

(Click here to go to Part 2.)


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