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“When Should We Begin ACT / SAT Prep?”

This is a common question at the start of every school year as families plan ahead. As parents we want to avoid last minute panic and do things right, but there is such a thing as starting too soon.

First, I need to clarify what I mean by “test prep.” A lot of skill building will take place in school this year and it is valuable learning, but not what I would call test prep. For me, test prep is focused preparation designed to help a student score higher on a particular exam. For example:

• Reviewing algebra concepts – NOT test prep BUT
• Looking at algebra questions from past ACT tests to prepare for the October exam IS test prep.

I’m in favor of building key skills from an early age. Students most often do this in school with some extra practice as homework. Desirable academic skills include the ability to

• Read critically and for detail
• Comprehend and evaluate college-bound vocabulary
• Understand and apply standard rules of grammar and usage (including punctuation)
• Craft an organized, thoughtful, and well-written essay
• Recall and apply terms, formulas, and concepts from algebra, geometry, and fundamental math courses
• Problem solve
• Evaluate and compare evidence and answer choices

These skills, when developed over time, are the best preparation for the ACT / SAT. You can’t start too early with this type of preparation.

Actual test prep assumes students have learned foundational content and focuses on the application of knowledge to a specific test.

Example: I assume my students know geometry, but we may need to review specific formulas commonly tested on the ACT. After a year, many students will forget the equation for a circle. [(x – h) 2 + (y – k) 2 = r2 in case you wanted to check your memory!]

Example: My students rarely have subject-verb agreement errors in their own speech or writing, but we need to review the ways in which this error appears on the SAT because the test writers know how to fool even smart students with wrong answer choices that sound good.

Example: I show students short-cuts specific to the test and type of problems so they can answer more questions correctly and save time to work on the hardest problems in that section.

This type of focused test prep is best done in the 4-10 weeks

before a student takes the ACT / SAT.

Spending more than twenty years working with high school student to study for the ACT and SAT has led me to believe that four to ten weeks of preparation is enough to cover the material and not so much that students loose momentum. Here are my answers to frequently asked questions (usually from parents who have been encouraged to “start early or else miss out.”)

Won’t he do better the more he studies? (Or the more practice tests she takes?)

I wish! I wish the ACT and SAT were mastery-based activities where more repetitions always led to improvement. Unfortunately, that’s not how these tests work. Yes, some preparation and practice helps, but more doesn’t always mean better. Read Debbie Stier’s book “The Perfect Score Project” to see how, as a motivated adult, she spent a full year studying for the SAT and – spoiler alert—didn’t get a perfect score. In fact, she struggled to get even 100 points improvement in math.

Test prep is truly a situation in which quality trumps quantity. I need students to produce quality results on test day. High scores require focus, test-specific strategies, and knowledge of content. Too often the student who tries to study for three months or longer looses momentum and either plateaus in her progress or, worse yet, burns out. Limiting test prep to a shorter period of time actually helps with focus and meaningful practice in the weeks leading up to the big exam.

But, my child is the exception. And we’ve heard of exclusive programs that run for a year or more. Are you sure?

Realistically, your child is better off using that two to ten hours a week as a 9th and 10th grader and doing something meaningful with the time: join a club, volunteer, start a business, take an online elective, read, improve class grades, or find another way to tap interests and abilities. Just because you CAN start test prep now doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Yes, you will find tutors and programs of all levels ready to sell you on test prep. (Just like my blind friend receives offers for auto insurance and I’m sure we could find a car salesman to sell her a car.) A lot of businesses will tell you anything in order to make the sale.

I’d rather see you leave as a satisfied customer who is ready to give my name to friends and neighbors. Yes, I’ve made exceptions. This summer I did test prep in 10 days. My client lives in Hong Kong, but was in town for two weeks while her father conducted business in Houston. She and I met daily and she left with a study plan for the September ACT and can contact me when she has questions. But over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of students who benefited from doing focused test prep when they were most motivated—nothing motivates like having an exam date on the calendar.

So as you plan for this school year, juniors should pick their test (ACT or SAT—more in coming weeks on how to do this) and look at the schedule to find the best test date. Junior year is the time to prepare and finish your attempts at admissions exams.

All younger students should work on building academic skills, getting good grades in school, and developing strengths and talents through outside activities. A little practice from taking the PSAT or doing the online question of the day won’t hurt as long as you keep perspective that this is casual practice not high-pressure training. Save the real test prep for when it matters—junior year.

(If you have questions about test prep or college planning, let me know. I’m always looking to answer your questions in future articles or on my podcast, The College Prep Podcast.)