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spacer home > > > feature articles > > > the SATs: how to prepare

The SAT: How to Prepare
What the Experts Have to Say




"Don't overvalue the importance of the test. It's just one of many elements colleges look at, " according to Joe Allen, Dean of Admissions at USC. Much as the schools seek to downplay the importance of SAT scores in the admissions process, high school students and their parents are concerned about the competitive nature of the college admissions process.

To study, or not?
Although all the college admissions officers we spoke with stressed the importance of long-term preparation (take challenging classes, read, read, and read some more), they also acknowledged that students should do whatever they feel is necessary to become comfortable with the test. Allen told us that "The real issue is getting over the anxiety hump." How the individual best accomplishes that, will vary.

Don Powers, a research scientist for the last 26 years at ETS (The Educational Testing Service -- writers of the SAT) told us, "Parents ought to be quite skeptical of impressive score improvement claims from studying. Studies published in scholarly journals show that it's tough to produce a big improvment." In addition, he pointed out that the benefits of studying definitely exhibit "diminishing marginal returns." In other words, each hour of studying beyond a certain point, produces smaller and smaller gains. Powers believes the greatest gains occur in the first 3 to 4 hours of study! (This would seem to indicate that understanding the directions for each type of test question is the first thing everyone should study.)

Study options
Options include use of the ETS-provided study guide, Taking the SAT, commercially produced SAT preparation books, SAT preparation software, SAT study classes, and private tutors. (Using the ETS book is a no-brainer. It will familiarize the student with the instructions for each section, provide practice answering the different type of test questions, and it's free.)

One important factor in your choice, is cost. Most of what a student needs can be obtained for free, according to both Powers and Allen. Students can obtain a copy of ETS' 80 page-plus study guide from their high school counselors. Beyond this freebie, both suggested that other study options are individual decisions that should be driven by the student's needs (not the parents').

Books offer additional practice tests, analysis and guessing strategies, and relatively low cost ($12 to $20). Software offers more interactive studying, plus immediate feedback, at a slightly higher price ($30 to $75). Classes add more structure to the preparation process, as well as a monetary motivation ($500 to $1200).

We wondered if the price reflected a difference in content. According to Jim Reynolds, Marketing Director for The Princeton Review (providers of books, software, and courses), "the content is the same in all three. Students should choose whatever they're most comfortable with."

Left out of these cost and benefit comparisons, however, is the notion of opportunity cost. Could a college applicant use the hours spent studying for the SAT on something that would have a greater impact on the application than slightly improved test scores? It's hard to know for sure, but consider the relative value of being a school newspaper editor, taking an honors course, spending more time in athletics, or gaining 40 points on the SAT...

What would Powers and Allen recommend for their own children? The ETS scientist's children all used the free guide, and they "worked through a few practice tests available from lots of commercial sources." Dean Allen's son also used the free guide, plus one of the software programs reviewed by SuperKids.

SuperKids' recommends:

  • Encourage your child to read - this will pay off on the SAT Verbal section and help them throughout college. "My advice to students is to read, said Allen. We all look for shortcuts in our culture, but we must remember that education is a process, not a race."
  • Use the free guide from the ETS. Hey, it's free, and it's written by the same people who wrote the test.
  • Buy an SAT preparation book or software. The practice tests and explanations will increase the student's familiarity with the test, save time on the test, and reduce anxiety. Choose software if your student needs a more attention grabbing study tool, a book if your child lacks the necessary computer or just likes to learn by reading.
  • Use vocabulary flashcards. Whether you make or buy these is irrelevant. If the test taker doesn't know the words, there's a limit to how far a great guessing strategy will carry him. There's no down-side to this activity - the worst thing that can happen is that your child will have a better vocabulary!
  • Take the test early. Many schools look for the best score a student presents. By taking the test during the junior year, students will gain a better feel for what schools they should consider, and have an opportunity to re-take the test before admissions deadlines arrive if they had a bad first test day,
What about classes?
Powers believes the claims of coaching classes are "greatly exagerated. Published, independent studies indicate that coaching schools produce total score improvements of 25 to 40 points, far less than the 140 point claims some make."

But even 40 points would help, right? That depends. To put it in context, ETS' empirical data indicate that second-time test takers show an average of 20 to 30 points improvement. And the expected accuracy of the test is only plus or minus 30 points on the verbal section, and 35 points on the math.

Of course another reason to seek out personal instruction, is peer pressure. If your child is the only student not enrolled in a class, he or she could feel at a competitive disadvantage on test day. Interestingly, peer pressure also takes place among parents. Dean Allen recounted the story of how the parent of a prep school student asked him to recommend "the best SAT tutor." When Allen replied that the student's own school counselor was as good as any he could name, the father replied, "You don't understand - it's the new orthodontia."


For more information about the SAT, check out ETS' website http://www.ets.org


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