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How Much Math Do I Need for the ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT are designed for high school juniors. But we know that not all juniors around the world are taking the same math courses. Here’s what students need to know before taking the ACT or SAT.

There is a catch.

Before I declare students are ready for either the SAT or ACT there are a couple caveats:

  • Completion of a course doesn’t always equal retention or mastery of skills. I’ve had students admit they never really learned geometry (or algebra) and just got by on homework grades and cramming. I have other students who are so far advanced (taking Calculus II as a junior for example) that they have forgotten the basics.
  • Both the ACT and SAT are difficult exams written with enough hard questions that not too many students will score in the top 10% (or top 25%.) Math questions are difficult not based on the course sequence, but based on the number of concepts combined into a single problem and the likelihood of making a mistake. In other words, there are hard questions that don’t go beyond junior high school math, but almost no students get these correct due to calculation errors, misleading answer traps, etc.

But there are some basics a student needs to complete before he or she has enough math knowledge to successfully attempt these exams.

ACT

ACT math focuses on algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry. In general I find most students are able to adequately prepare for the exam once they have taken high school algebra and geometry.

Some problems (about 4) include basic trigonometry which most of my students have learned in geometry class. SOH-CAH-TOA is all the trig you need. (If you don’t know it, your student probably does.)

Starting in late 2016, the ACT added some harder probability questions and problems that involve more math typically taught in Algebra II. While Algebra II is not required for success on the ACT, a junior taking Algebra II might want to make sure he or she has a solid understanding of Algebra I. (In some cases a few months of Algebra II is the perfect review for the necessary skills.)

SAT

The redesigned SAT (starting in March 2016) goes much deeper into Algebra II concepts than the old SAT or the ACT. In order to be adequately prepared for a majority of SAT math, I’m recommending students complete Algebra II before preparing for the exam.

This means juniors taking Algebra II might want to give serious consideration to the ACT which does not test as many Algebra II concepts or wait until mid-spring to take the SAT.

Tips for math review

I’ve found the free SAT review lessons from Khan Academy to be a good place to start for students taking either exam. You can start here.

For a general overview, skip the diagnostic quiz and scroll down to the videos and practice problems. Start with the basic video for any concept. I like to pause a couple second into the video and see if I can solve the questions quickly and accurately on my own. If I can, I usually fast forward to the end to double check I got it right. Move to the harder example then test your skills on the practice problems.

 

Whether a student takes the ACT or SAT, it is important to have a solid understanding of the math concepts tested in order to make the most of any additional test preparation activities you may pursue.

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Preparing To Take The SAT Or ACT For Duke TIP

I’m not suggesting we begin test prep at an early age, but many seventh graders will take the SAT or ACT this winter to qualify for the Duke Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP).  The TIP program is NOT affiliated with Duke University, so this won’t be a foot in the door for admission to Duke.  It is an enrichment program for academically gifted students, which offers local activities, a summer program at Duke, online programs, and opportunities for independent study.  I’ve outlined pros and cons of the program here.  In order to qualify, seventh graders must take either the SAT or ACT leaving many parents wondering about the best way to help their child prepare.

SAT or ACT For Duke TIP?

The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests for college admission geared towards high school juniors and seniors.  Both contain multiple-choice questions with math, reading passages, and grammar.  Overall, they are more similar than different.  (I discuss which test is easier here.)

Some students will prefer one test to the other.  Usually the difference in scores is slight, but for Duke TIP, just as for college admission, sometimes that slight difference can be the difference between getting in and getting denied.

The only way you will know which test is best for your child is to experiment with both.  Unfortunately, Duke TIP does not allow you to take both tests for the program.  However, you can take practice tests at home using official SAT and ACT tests and make the determination on your own.  A full length SAT is available online from College Board and both the SAT and ACT make full-length tests available to schools.  Check with the guidance counselors at school; you may have to contact your local high school if your middle school or junior high does not have the tests.

Is Test Prep Helpful For Duke TIP?

Once you decide which test your child should take, you want to make sure he or she is prepared.  Many parents consider a test prep course.  I’ve been in the test prep business for 18 years and know that most test prep courses are not necessary for the Duke TIP qualification process.

Here’s why.  Your child needs the following to perform well on the test:

  • Confidence
  • Understanding of the material
  • Familiarity with the test structure and grading

A full SAT or ACT preparation program may actually erode the confidence of many seventh graders as they continue to see questions they are academically unprepared to answer.  In a two month SAT class, I can help high school students who have already taken Algebra I and Geometry prepare for the math they will encounter on the SAT, but I can’t offer test strategies AND teach the curriculum of two years of math in that time.  In attempting to enhance students’ understanding of the material, a prep course may significantly undermine their confidence.

I recommend students gain familiarity with the test structure and grading.  This may be done in a session or two with a quality instructor, but taking official practice tests at your kitchen table can also do it.  Both SAT and ACT have free materials on their websites.  For the purposes of Duke TIP, a limited amount of test practice is often the best preparation.

You Know Your Child Best

I intentionally listed confidence first under the three elements your child needs to perform well.  These seventh graders are already good students used to getting questions correct on all their tests.  They tend to be high-achieving students who are often perfectionists, people pleasers, and hard on themselves when they don’t get things right.

As a counselor, I used to hate giving the December and January tests because I’d see all the little seventh graders come into test at the high school looking like deer in the headlights.  Some looked terrified before we even began the exam. Many were afraid they would let their parents down if they didn’t score well. You know your child best.  Will he or she enjoy the challenge?  Or will it be too much pressure on an already anxious child?

Additionally, will the Duke TIP program be right for your child if he or she qualifies?  Do you plan to take advantage of the enrichment programs?  If not, is it the right decision to make your seventh grader take a test that is hard for high school seniors, just so you can have a certificate to add to your scrapbook?

You know your child best.  Evaluate the pros and cons of the Duke TIP program.  Help your child decide if the SAT or ACT is best.  Offer limited opportunities for preparation but don’t over do it.  Focus on confidence and the fun of having a challenging experience.  Finally, don’t hesitate to say no if this opportunity isn’t right for your child or your family.

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Starting SAT Preparation Early

 

My son is in the 10th grade and my daughter is in the 9th grade. When should we begin preparing for the SAT?

Some  SAT preparation is long-term and is more an acquisition of basic skills – reading, math, vocabulary, writing, and analysis.  Students who fail to develop these will struggle on the SAT.  Usually students learn the necessary content in school and you would only seek extra help if your child struggles in a particular subject.

True SAT preparation is best done right before taking the test, for most students that will be sometime junior year.  Complete test prep is like training for a marathon. You have a particular date. You have a particular goal in mind and you’re going to have a singular focus on that for a period of time.

I’ve found that students don’t do well prepping over long periods, which is why I don’t recommend you begin before junior year. Students lose interest. They burn out. They lose momentum before it really counts.

High-scoring juniors who seek to qualify for National Merit Scholarships will want to prepare before the October PSAT.  Everyone else can prepare when a class best fits into his or her schedule.  Look for a time during the school year with the fewest conflicts with activities, sports, or other academic obligations.  All juniors should take the SAT by the end of the year; you find the test date that works best for your student.

If you want to give your 9th and 10th grader an advantage before you begin an SAT prep class, there are a few things you can do.

1.     Vocabulary.

50% of a student’s SAT Reading score is based on knowledge of college-bound vocabulary, something students can’t cram in a 5-8 week prep class.  I offer the My Vocabulary Success Coach program, which for $10 a month provides weekly vocabulary words, audio files, study activities, and tips.  I developed this program because I consistently found students in my SAT class lacking vocabulary necessary to succeed on the SAT.  Even my best students who attend highly competitive high schools could use some extra work in this area.  I’d recommend all students begin a program of vocabulary development as early as 7th or 8th grade.  For more on my vocabulary program visit: My Vocabulary Success Coach

2.     SAT Question of the Day

You can receive an official College Board question in your email inbox everyday if you subscribe to the SAT Question of the Day.  Even if students save the questions during the week and do them all on Saturday, seeing the types of questions on the test offers long-term benefits.  Subscribe for free at SAT Question of the Day.

So I recommend early preparation for 9th and 10th grade students and complete SAT prep for juniors.  Waiting until senior year to prepare for the SAT may be too late.

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Do You Need Extra Time On The SAT?

 

My son has special needs. What should we do about him taking the SAT? What accommodations can or should he have?

The answer depends in part on the type of special needs your son has. Learning disabilities range in levels and severity, so accommodations are based on the needs of the individual student.

Your first step is to work with your Case Manager or Special Education/Exceptional Education Department at your high school.  College Board, who oversees administration of the SAT and all accommodations, is going to ask for a formal request with documentation from your school.

Begin this process early because at peak times it can take 6-10 weeks to process a request.

The first thing the College Board looks at is: Does this child receive some type of modification to their regular testing at school? Students who do not have any accommodations or modifications at school should not expect to receive any on the SAT.  But just because your child has testing adjustments at school does not mean he will qualify for modified testing on the SAT.

College Board’s next question is: What accommodations can or should he have? Again, this really depends.  The most common modifications I saw as a school counselor was extended time.

Some people think: Oh, wow. That’s going to be great and he could really use some extra time.  Maybe I should try to get my child qualified for extra time. Keep in mind, extra time can be a curse rather than a blessing.  The SAT is a 4-hour long exam. Some students who are receiving 50% extra time have taken a 4-hour exam and made it a 6-hour exam plus additional time for breaks. A lot of my students with attention and focus issues have a really hard time sitting there for 4 hours; 6 hours is impossible. The extra time hurts their ability to perform on the test.

I’ve seen a variety of modifications and can’t suggest what your son should have without understanding his learning issues. I had a student with severe arthritis who couldn’t bubble in her own answers because it was such a physical strain. I’ve had other students who have had individual testing. While they may be allowed extended time they’re also in an individual setting where it becomes a little more of a self-paced extended time exam.  Other students need large print tests.  Your son’s accommodations will be based on his needs.

Keep in mind the SAT is intended to be a challenging test and accommodations should help put him on a level playing field with other test takers.  They are not intended to improve his score or give him an advantage.

My best advice is to start the process early. Talk with your Special Education Coordinator or your Exceptional Education Department at school to find out what type of modifications might be most appropriate and most helpful. Get approved by College Board before his junior year in case there are any problems that require additional documentation or explanation.

If you have questions, you can contact College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office directly.  I have always found them to be very knowledgeable and helpful.

Finally, I have found many special needs students score better on the ACT, so encourage your son to take both tests.  And your college search should focus on schools where your son will thrive academically.  There are many colleges and universities with programs designed to help students with special needs.