When Taking the ACT or SAT “Just For Practice” Can Hurt You
I’m a big fan of practice when it comes to standardized tests, but not all practice is beneficial. In fact, there are times when a “practice” test can hurt you.
Good PracticeI’ll start with the positive. Taking an official practice test under test-like conditions is the best way to gauge a student’s current abilities. I often recommend families use these practice tests to:
- Identify strengths and weaknesses. My clients take a few practice tests to measure their own progress and adjust strategy prior to taking the real test.
- Decide if a student would be better off taking the ACT or SAT. You can take both in the comfort of your own home and compare results.
- Guide the college / scholarship search process. Test scores aren’t everything, but it helps to know if you have a high scoring, average, or struggling test taker.
Only Official Practice MaterialThe key to the good type of practice I outlined above is the use of official materials. This means tests written by College Board (SAT) and ACT. Anyone who does serious work in test prep will tell you that these exams rely on precise language and the difference between a right or wrong answer can be a matter of a single word. So there is no such thing as close enough. You can obtain full-length official tests from your high school’s guidance counseling office. Each year the SAT and ACT publish booklets which schools order and make available to students. If your school doesn’t have them, ask. (And request the administration order these materials for students in the future.) If you can’t get copies at school, you can print official tests from the ACT and College Board websites. I do not recommend students take the test by viewing the exam on a screen. Currently the SAT and ACT are paper and pencil tests and students should practice in the manner of the actual exam. I will warn you that the exams are lengthy, so prepare to print about 60 pages per test. Do not settle for used tests or imitations. It may be tempting to use the older brother’s “Official SAT Study Guide.” I mean, he only wrote a little on many of the pages. But trying to ignore someone else’s writing and not be swayed by circled answers is an unnecessary distraction and may skew results. The same warning holds for imitation tests (think of them as the fake Gucci handbags of the testing world.) These “lookalike tests” may fool the casual observer, but they aren’t the same as the real deal. “Lookalike exams” are published by the big-box educational companies—Princeton Review, Kaplan, McGraw Hill, Barron’s, etc. Recycle these books. They aren’t worth the time you’d spend on the questions—not even for practice. (A lot like trying to practice for the important basketball tournament by using one of those bouncy red gym balls—you can run a lot of the same plays, but it just isn’t the same and can throw off your game.) What else should you watch out for?
Taking the Real SAT or ACT for PracticeI hear it all the time. “We’re just signing him up to take the December test for practice.” While these parents have good intentions and are trying to use real materials and testing conditions, there are DANGERS in this approach.
- “Practice” results are official and may be used for admission. Some colleges and universities require students to send ALL test scores, not just the best ones. This means that “practice” test is now sitting in front of the admissions or scholarship committee when you just wanted it to serve as a trial run.
- SAT and ACT have been known to question results for students who improve significantly from one exam to the next. So the low “practice” test can raise a red flag when the student studies, retakes the test, and improves.
- Appeal. He did, but nothing happened. Dad wrote a letter explaining the November circumstances and I wrote a letter saying James studied with me and I would expect scores within a particular range. (I can’t find anyone who has successfully appealed this type of case.)
- Withdraw his December exam and they would refund his money.
- Retake the SAT in March. If his March results confirmed his December score, they would release it. James was already past most application deadlines at this point and didn’t want to go through all the preparation again to take the March exam.