Fall means back-to-school and for many high school juniors and seniors, the anxiety of taking the PSAT and the dreaded SAT. I watched my two sons navigate this minefield before heading off to Wake Forest University. My background as an educator and director of Virginia’s oldest test preparation program made me think of all the parents who plod through this ordeal, sometimes experiencing more anxiety than their children. I have been involved in preparing students for these tests for nearly forty years and I can tell you not much has changed, other than the advent of numerous test preparation services, learning centers, and tutors promising to have the formula for a high score.
Here’s what parents need to do to help their kids perform to their potential on the PSAT and SAT.
1. Know the Essential Information
Parents should learn as much about these tests as possible. Go online to collegeboard.com and peruse the information. From your school’s college counselor, pick up a free copy of the College Board publication Getting Ready for the SAT. This publication is an excellent reference for all student and parents. I have found the students who score the highest begin the preparation sequence early. The end of the tenth grade is not too early. Most students take a practice PSAT in tenth grade and the PSAT for record in October of the junior year. The PSAT is two hours in duration and serves as a good preparation tool for The SAT which is believe or not, four hours long.
I often wonder if the test makers realize how difficult it is for a 16- or 17-year-old to sit for four hours. Students who score off the chart on the PSAT will be qualified for National Merit Scholarship consideration. That is wonderful, but the reality for most students is the PSAT is a good drill for the SAT and nothing more. I have found that taking the SAT twice in the junior year works well for most students who score high. January and May test dates are very popular. The last SAT will be taken in October or November of the student’s senior year. The majority of seniors take the November SAT. Students applying for early admission will take the October SAT.
2. Be Realistic About Improving
The key to improving each time is to review the results of the previous test carefully and make preparation adjustments. I recommend Barron’s preparation materials for my students.They publish three workbooks designed for the three parts of the SAT (reading, writing, and math). Cramming the week before the test will never work. Long-term preparation or doing a little bit of test-specific work a year or so in advance of the test is more effective.
3. Help Your Teen Prepare Wisely
Be wary of preparation programs. The last three decades have witnessed the advent of over thirty different programs in Virginia. One program may not fit the needs of all students. Many say they do. Don’t be afraid to ask who teaches the course. What are their credentials?How long has the organization been in business? Talk to friends whose kids have gone through the program. The Bottom line is no preparation program can guarantee how your student will do on test day. Parents are often dazzled by unsupported claims of improvement from one test to the next. Some programs use college students or recent graduates as instructors. Just because a person has scored high on the SAT does not mean he or she will be a great teacher. As a former lacrosse coach, I learned early that many great players were not cut out to be coaches.
4. Stay Calm and Be Supportive
Be sure not to raise your student’s anxiety about the upcoming tests by dwelling on doing well. Students are well aware of the importance of good scores. Encourage your teen by reminding him that colleges and universities care more about good grades in rigorous courses than they do about test scores. Students with strong academic backgrounds and those who love to read have a high probability of scoring high and usually do. Preparation courses will help with test strategy and familiarization with test content but can never replace a strong academic background and success in the classroom.
As parents, our job is to provide unconditional love and support for our children. Offer tools and support and they will do their best. Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?