To Test Prep Or Not? That Is The Question

This article is part of our If I Knew Then What I Know Now series, where parents share stories and lessons learned so that other parents, hopefully, don’t make the same mistakes. To add more insights, an expert is invited to provide his/her opinion on the story . – as told to Patricia Olsen.

Parent Story

As the parent of a senior who just went through the process and someone who also tutors for the reading and writing sections of the SAT, I believe that at the end of the day, kids tend to score where they’re going score, regardless of what you do — hire a tutor, send them to a program, or have them attend a free prep class at their high school.

SAT-Study-Book-Pencils-e1410388168125-300x174We enrolled our son in a very intense SAT program, not with any delusions about what it would achieve, but because we knew he’d never do the prep work on his own and had to be accountable to someone (and that someone couldn’t be me.) He worked very hard and got his scores to exactly where he wanted them to be. Do I think he could have gotten them higher? Probably a little. But he wasn’t interested in driving himself more, and for him, those super high scores did not come naturally. He did very well and reached the number he needed for the schools he wanted to attend.

That said, he has friends who didn’t use any tutors, barely did any test prep at all, and got near-perfect SATs. I mean, 20 points shy of a perfect score.

I’ve tutored kids who busted their butts to raise their scores and simply could not. And I’ve tutored kids who did the minimum work and also never shifted their scores much.

I tell my clients all the time that for most students, preparing for a standardized test is like training for a marathon; it takes gradual, consistent work on a regular basis to build up. The student needs to understand that while the questions vary, the format does not. And the student needs to be able to sit and concentrate for a ridiculously long period of time. It’s a lot of time and work.

One thing about the program my son did is that he sat for a FULL exam every weekend for several weeks beginning in December and leading up to his January test. Every weekend. So there were no surprises come test day. Some people think that was overkill. For my son, it took all the test anxiety away; he knew exactly what to expect. It became routine for him.

He had friends who used private tutors and took the test more than twice (he did just January and March). Their scores, for the most part, hovered in the same range.

Don’t forget that pretty much all schools super-score; they will take the best score for each section and combine for a final number. Some kids strategize by focusing on one section per test after the initial one.

My theory is that even the top schools look at the big picture of the student, (and I suggest you read  a book called The Gatekeepers) GPA, extra-curriculars, consistent community service over the high school career, the essays…all of that together matters.

Based on my personal and professional experience, I believe that the drive and motivation, ultimately, has to come from the student. All the tutoring in the world won’t matter unless the student IS the one driving the train, IMHO.

Emily, NY



Debbie Stier is the author of The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT that describes how she took the SAT seven times to motivate her son and find the best ways of studying for the test. Here are her thoughts on Emily’s experience:

Debbie-Stier-photoRegarding kids scoring where they’re going to score, the College Board posts research showing the average score gain after test prep to be 5 to 20 points. However, I improved my reading and writing scores by 330 points, and my son improved his scores by more than that.

So what’s the “trick?” The trick is that there is no trick. Cramming doesn’t work, The SAT is not an aptitude test and scores are not immutable. It tests how deeply you know the material tested (reading, writing and math) at a moment in time. A student can improve, but it takes sustained hard work and it is not a fast process There is a lot of foundational preparation for the test that a student can (and should) do long before they get to the “test prep” (as most of us think of test prep) portion of preparing.

Kids who “barely did any test prep” and got high scores went into the test with a strong foundation. If you’re one of the fortunate few who arrive in 11th grade with solid skills in math, reading and writing, all it takes is a little test prep polish to improve. These students are the anomalies – i.e., the 99th percentile kids. 

Most of it comes down to the foundation. If a kid has busted their butt and didn’t raise their score, they probably had a shaky foundation and were doing the wrong kind of “test prep.”  There are two kinds of test prep: strategy and foundation. Most test prep is strategy, and most of us need foundation work.  There are no shortcuts to a solid foundation.

Part of preparing for the SAT is foundational work, part is test strategy, and part is endurance training. Many students take many (as in, 10-20) full, timed practice SATs to build stamina before ever taking a real SAT.  My son took 14 full timed tests because I was concerned about his ability to focus so intently for so long. For students who are looking to improve, this should not be considered “overkill.” These are also skills that will be useful in college and on the job. 

I’m going to guess that SAT scores are more highly weighted than “extra-curriculars, consistent community service over the high school career, the essays” in most cases because it’s an objective and quantifiable variable used by U.S. News to determine the ranking of the college.

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