Over the course of 18 years, I've coached hundreds of high school students with my college test prep company, Lakhani Coaching, to help teens improve their SAT and ACT scores. While standardized tests continue to be the most daunting aspect of the college admissions process, the results my students achieve have convinced me that not only improvement, but dramatic improvement, is well within reach for any student who approaches preparation with the right mindset, and the right coach.
Below are some tips that will help guide your child as he or she prepares for success beyond their wildest imagination.
1. Play the long game.
Unlike fact-based tests, which require you to memorize large amounts of material, the SAT and the ACT measure your reasoning ability. However, reasoning is a skill and you can improve – even master. If I'm a bad tennis player who can't get an overhand serve inbounds, or if I avoid hitting a backhand like the plague, does that mean I'm doomed?
Actually — there's hope.
In all my years of academic coaching, I've witnessed time and again that improvement follows an S-curve. When we begin work on a skill, like tennis, the beginning can be frustrating. We hit the ball into the net if we hit it at all. Our instructor has taught us how to step to the ball five times, but we still screw it up.
Practice is what helps us master skills. And soon, we find ourselves in that middle, steep section of the S-curve. Things click. We can serve and win points and sets. At this stage in the S-curve, this SAT thing is clicking too.
The middle of the S-curve is a great place to be. It's where you'll see practice-test gains of 100, 200, or even 300 points on the SAT (3, 6, 9 ACT points). But working toward your true potential should be the goal.
2. Shoot for the stars.
With hard work, we've reached the middle of the S-curve and we believe in ourselves. Now, we channel this confidence into testing the limits of our true ability.
At the top of the s-curve, you approach your ceiling, pushing hard for those extra 100 SAT points or three ACT points. Here, willpower trumps natural ability. I once met a world-class cyclist who was also an Olympic gold medalist in windsurfing. He told me something I'll never forget: "Just when I think I'm about to collapse in training, I remember my body can handle 50% more."
3. Know the test inside and out.
Just as it's important to know the rules of tennis, it's important to know the fundamentals of SAT (or ACT) test-taking strategy, which revolve around accuracy and time management.
- Accuracy: A big mistake novice students make is confusing time strategy with accuracy. Accuracy work should come first. This preparation should be untimed. We should feel confident we know why the answer is the answer on every question.
In this regard, we should always be aware, if possible, whether we are tackling an "easy," "medium," or "hard" question. This will inform us whether the "aha!" is a simple matter of algebra or a more complicated pattern we will have to master.
- Time management: Once we're ready to tackle time constraints — usually in the second half of the improvement journey — it's time to think about pacing. On the SAT reading section, for instance, you need to pace about 13 minutes per passage.
Time is especially a factor on the ACT — more so than on the SAT. This comes into play more intensely as the test unfolds. Nine minutes per passage on English is not such a hard pace. Sixty minutes for 60 questions on math is harder — especially if we spend too much time on the first, easier half. "Banking" time early grants you much needed time for that harder second half of ACT math.
On the ACT reading section, four passages in 35 minutes is where it starts to get tight. Science is even harder: Seven passages (sometimes six) in 35 minutes. Time management takes rigorous drilling to perfect.
4. Don't rush into practice tests.
Not long ago, a student came to me having taken two official SATs "for practice," as well as five of the official practice tests on Khan Academy. All of his scores were within 40 points of one another. He had put in 50 hours of work with little improvement to show for it. He was repeating the same mistakes.
In this regard, I recommend an initial diagnostic test — to gauge strengths and improvement areas — and then holding off on practice tests until you've nurtured solid improvement in accuracy and technique. Once you jump back into full tests, be sure to allow yourself to "grow" — retry every miss, understand the reason for the answer — in-between each test.
5. The summer before 11th grade is prime time for growth.
Back to the tennis analogy: We can't become varsity level overnight. To even do it in three months is a tall order. So if you want to achieve the highest score your ability will allow, do you want to climb that S-curve while juggling AP classes, trying to excel outside the classroom, and maintaining a social life? Ideally not.
There may be more climbing left to do on the curve, but at least with hard work over the summer you'll begin to reach the steep part. By fall, you'll feel confident that your skills are advancing and will continue to advance with regular drilling, which you'll be ready for after spending a summer mastering accuracy and time management.
6. Create and follow a timeline.
So why don't we prep summer before senior year? Isn't that closer to when we'll be completing college applications? Isn't that when we'll have covered more in our math classes and be stronger readers with sharper verbal skills?
Well, work backward from senior year. Will you want to apply early decision or early action? This is a careful decision, but the majority of well-prepared students opt yes. Colleges, year in and year out, accept larger percentages from their "early" pools than from regular pools.
Assume that you are applying early, with November 1 deadlines. Do you want all of your testing eggs in one basket — the early October SAT or the September ACT? The majority of schools accept a student's highest score from multiple sittings, and many even allow "superscoring," which means they will consider only your highest Math and Verbal scores on the SAT, even if they come from separate sittings.
Superscoring for the ACT is even more advantageous. A college will consider your highest English, Math, Reading, and Science scores from various sittings. Finally, most schools allow "score choice," where you can choose not to report a lower score. For the testing calendar, work backward from early applications allowing for multiple junior-year sittings and a final sitting early senior year.
7. Not all coaching is created equal.
Obviously, I'm a huge proponent of one-on-one coaching. It's my life's work. I've been fortunate to help students raise SAT scores by as many as 600 points, and ACT scores by as many as 12 points.
If you think in terms of merit scholarships available to students who score above the 90th percentile of a college's admitted students, it makes sense to view professional coaching as a financial investment. But there are some important caveats to consider before you invest.
- Look for a problem-based approach: I once famously met with an ACT student for two hours, covering exactly eight English problems. It was a formative meeting, and led to what in the end was a seven-point gain on the ACT and an overall remarkable score of 33. So why did we cover only eight problems? Because every problem opened up incredible discussion.
- The 50/50 rule: The beauty of working with a coach, one-on-one, as opposed to a class — or investing hours upon hours on Khan Academy — is the opportunity to speak. The coach needs to be listening to his student and observing areas of improvement, not talking at the student. An excellent coach should therefore aim to have the student doing 50% of the talking.
- Avoid excessive drilling: Again, you should watch out for a coach who relies too heavily on drilling, which you can and should do on your own — once you're ready. Rather than zipping through problems, the coach ought to invest discussion in gap areas. In a coaching session, again, the 50/50 rule is paramount in growing from both correct and incorrect answers.
8. You have to be in it to win it.
There is a wonderful trend in admissions that involves thinking more holistically about every candidate. Schools, rightfully, are not putting all their "decision" eggs in one basket. Every candidate is far more than simply a GPA, a SAT score, a list of extracurriculars, or a handful of essays. Colleges are looking for future members of a dynamic and well-rounded community.
That said, we must think about what standardized tests reveal: Problem-solving ability. It's not the only characteristic that is valuable to a community, but certainly it is of value. If we have the opportunity to shine in problem solving, we should.
So we must ask: How do I stand out through various elements of my application?
And does standardized testing give me a chance to further highlight a skill I've cultivated? If your application indicates that you'll likely major in English, for instance, there's a prime opportunity through the ACT test to further demonstrate excellence as a reader.
9. Pick the right test.
Overwhelmingly, colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT, so I always say to a student: Do you want to invest a whole lot of energy getting good at both the violin and the trumpet? No. Choose just one and crush it.
A smart experiment for gauging which test better suits your way of thinking is to take a practice test of both and compare scores using College Board's published concordance tables. This will tell you, apples-to-apples, which score is higher. In most cases, however, I've seen those scores come back virtually the same.
Perhaps a more important question is this: Which test would you rather attack for the next several months? Again, improvement is less a matter of choosing SAT or ACT as it is putting in the work to bring those skills to a higher level. Choose the test you like better and approach this like any challenge.
Year after year, the most fulfilling part of coaching students to their dream scores on the SAT and ACT has been witnessing the personal growth that comes alongside such hard work. By following these nine steps to improving problem solving ability, you'll not only walk away with more answers correct but will also become better equipped to chase down goals of any kind.
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