April 1, 2021

By Kerry A. Lynch

This blog pushes deeper into the challenges of developing a testing and test preparation timeline. I posed a series of questions to test prep expert, Alexis Peterson. Alexis is a Stanford and Harvard-educated private tutor. She scored a perfect 1600 on her SAT and later, (when she was 30 because she takes tests for fun!) a perfect 36 on the ACT. Alexis has over 20 years of experience helping students succeed on tests and insists they have fun doing it. 

Alexis, how would students know if the ACT or the SAT is best for them?

Ideally, I advise students to take a full practice ACT and a full practice SAT at home under approximate test conditions, so that they can compare their scores and also compare the experience of each test. Students can then focus on the test that best caters to their strengths. However, I fully recognize that many high school students do not have the time or motivation to sit through 6 hours of diagnostic testing. Therefore, a shortcut version of the above would just be to look through and attempt a variety of questions in all four sections of each test to get a rough idea of the differences in content, format, and pacing (if taking the shortcut route, I would suggest timing yourself and attempting at least 5-10 questions from each section).

I also really like to ask students to think about which test they would be most likely to enjoy prepping for (I know that “enjoy” is a strong word in this context). In general, ACT prep will focus on learning to answer straightforward questions quickly and will emphasize serious time management skills. By comparison, SAT prep will slightly deemphasize timing but will focus on mastering significantly more challenging concepts.

The ACT tends to favor relatively strong verbal students, in no small part because 3 of the 4 sections on the ACT test verbal skills (including the perhaps-misleadingly-named science section!). The SAT, meanwhile, favors very strong math students, as 2 of the 4 sections on the SAT are math sections with a focus on advanced algebra.

What different approaches are there for test prep and what should student plans include?

The absolute most important piece of advice I can give any student is to be sure to prep with official test materials—unofficial materials typically do a poor job of replicating both test content and difficulty. The second most important thing students can do is endeavor to truly learn from the mistakes they make in practice so that they do not simply repeat the same mistakes on test day.

Your plan should ideally include completing 5 or more official practice tests (the ACTs you study should therefore be published by ACT, Inc., and the SATs you study should therefore be published by The College Board). It is critical to make sure that you are paying careful attention to the time constraints on any given section as you do your practice work since timing is a significant part of the challenge on both tests. It is not critical to take full tests all at once for time as part of your prep (I often even discourage it!) because I find students who focus on taking full tests complete fewer practice questions, on average, than do their peers who work on a section or two at a time. While that might sound counterintuitive, it is harder to regularly budget the time to take a full test, so students generally procrastinate prep more when they are overly focused on taking full tests. The best prep plan is definitely a consistent prep plan.

Finally, make sure a detailed review of the questions you miss is a large part of your test prep (about 30-50% of your study time!). Most of us would prefer to ignore the questions we didn’t understand or that we answered incorrectly, but if you want to make significant progress, you really must understand and learn from your mistakes.

Alexis, we often hear the question, How many times should I test? Should I take both tests during this COVID crisis? 

The short answer to this question is, “at least twice.” (I will note that also matches The College Board’s official stance on the matter; ACT, Inc. does not seem to have an official opinion.) 

Many parents are surprised by this because most of us took the test at most twice (usually in the spring of junior year). This was the standard approach because standardized testing companies had consistently claimed it was not possible to prep for their exams (a rather self-congratulatory and entirely untrue assertion). Now that this claim has been overwhelmingly disproven, the companies themselves have reversed course and acknowledge that of course, you can (and should!) study for the exams. Concurrently, the price tag of a college education has continued to rise, and college admissions have become more and more competitive. Therefore, students chasing scholarship money and/or better chances of admission at competitive schools are now taking the tests 3-4 times on average. 

I find many students take on significant additional stress when they begin to worry about how few chances they have to get their goal score. Therefore, my biggest advice is to not worry too much about how many times you will end up taking the test. Instead, be certain to give yourself

enough time to take the test multiple times before deadlines. The more relaxed your testing calendar can be, the more relaxed you will be on test day, and the better your performance is likely to be.

If student test dates get postponed, how can they keep their skills up?

To say that postponed test dates are extremely challenging is to not even begin to fully express how disruptive and discouraging these delays and cancellations are for students. The key to continuing to prep even in the face of cancellations is consistency.

I have always really liked the analogy that test prep is very similar to marathon training. It’s a near-perfect comparison in terms of describing the kind of steady progress that gets made, week by week, with consistent and well-focused training. If your marathon was postponed, you would likely simply continue your training in the same fashion you had been. So, even though it is tempting to take several weeks (or months) off when tests are postponed or canceled, your best plan is really to give yourself a few days off, and then continue with your prep as normal. Not only do you want to make sure you don’t forget the concepts you have worked so hard to commit to memory, but you also want to make sure you don’t get terribly out of practice. Much like distance running, it is absolutely possible to lose fitness with regard to standardized test performance. 


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