Click here to read about the third pillar for success on the SAT or ACT.

I have tutored hundreds of students over the years to help them maximize their scores on the SAT and ACT, and through all of this work with students, something has become clear to me: test preparation must include three pillars in order to be effective. All three pillars are critical and each must be strongly in place for students to succeed at scoring their best. Sadly, very few test prep tutors, classes, or books effectively cover all three pillars. This is the first blog post in a series of three in which I will discuss each of these three pillars.

The first pillar that I'm going to discuss is the one that I consider to be by far the most important in determining students' scores and also the one that tends to be most neglected by most test prep tutors, classes, and books. This pillar is strategies.

By strategies, I am referring to the ways students manage their time and what they do and are aware of as they take their tests. I'm not referring to “test-taking tricks”, which don't tend to be very effective on modern versions of the SAT and ACT, even though many books still focus on teaching such tricks.

In order for students to maximize their scores on the SAT and ACT, mastering great test-taking strategies is critical.

These are a few examples of what I mean by strategies:

Most students find standardized tests to be quite different from the tests that they take in school. There really is a skill set for taking standardized tests that is very learnable and that most students haven't learned when they begin studying for the SAT or ACT. Students who are trying to do well on standardized tests without learning the skill set for doing so could be compared to people trying to pitch in baseball with their legs tied together: they'll probably manage to throw the ball somewhere near the plate with their legs tied together, but the pitches are unlikely to be very good.

Here's an example of how not having solid strategies in place can harm a student's score. I recently worked with a student for the ACT who was extremely strong in math. She knew all the math concepts. She rarely made computational mistakes. She was great at finding creative solutions to difficult math problems. Before she worked with me and learned strategies, her issue in the math section of the ACT was misreading questions. Unlike most math questions on tests that she (and almost all students) take in school, most math questions on the ACT have a paragraph that she had to read and understand before she could do any actual math. Even though she knew all the math concepts and was good at solving math problems, she kept misreading questions and thus effectively solved a different math question than what was being asked. As a result of misreading a few questions incorrectly, this student ended up with a very mediocre score on the math section, even though she was truly skilled at math. Using the strategies I taught her, this student was able to improve her ACT score considerably.

The issue that this student had is a very common one, and not just on the math sections. In fact, I believe that the majority of students who take the ACT or SAT score much lower than they are capable of scoring simply because their strategies are far from optimal, if they have any strategies at all. Without good strategies, they end up with scores that do not reflect their true academic strengths.

Ideally, by the time students take their tests, the strategies that they use for each section and for all the question types will be habitual. They shouldn't even need to think about how to approach sections or how to manage their time well. These aspects should be automatic.

The good news is that if students get solid guidance on strategies and they do a good amount of practice with these strategies, it is absolutely possible for students to have mastered their strategies by the time they take the ACT or SAT.

My experience is that most standardized test tutors and class teachers do not focus on strategies or even know effective strategies very well. I once worked with a student who had worked with a tutor from one of the major test prep companies weekly for more than a year. He read well and knew the math well, but he had practically no strategies. He had taken the ACT three times over the course of that previous year, and he scored exactly the same each of those times. I worked with this student for only four ninety minute sessions, and we worked on nothing but strategy. His score improved by three points. This was far from a typical situation, but it is illustrative of why I place so much emphasis on strategies.

Because I believe that strategies are so important and I want my students' strategies to be automatic by the time they take their tests, I start with teaching strategies to all of my students. Once a student has solid strategy in place, we then focus on the two other pillars, but strategy is at the core of my work with my students.

Click here to read about the second pillar for success on the SAT or ACT.

]]>The first pillar that I'm going to discuss is the one that I consider to be by far the most important in determining students' scores and also the one that tends to be most neglected by most test prep tutors, classes, and books. This pillar is strategies.

By strategies, I am referring to the ways students manage their time and what they do and are aware of as they take their tests. I'm not referring to “test-taking tricks”, which don't tend to be very effective on modern versions of the SAT and ACT, even though many books still focus on teaching such tricks.

In order for students to maximize their scores on the SAT and ACT, mastering great test-taking strategies is critical.

These are a few examples of what I mean by strategies:

- how to manage time in each section
- how to avoid making silly mistakes on questions that the student knows how to do
- the order in which it makes sense to do the questions, which is individual to each person
- the ways to identify and approach different question types
- pacing, with a balance between accuracy and speed, especially at the end of sections when time is short
- how well students notice when they're not making good progress toward finding answers to questions and what they do when they notice that
- what to write down versus what to do mentally while working through questions, in order to balance between accuracy and speed
- how students relate to their own emotions and the stories that they tell themselves as they take the test

Most students find standardized tests to be quite different from the tests that they take in school. There really is a skill set for taking standardized tests that is very learnable and that most students haven't learned when they begin studying for the SAT or ACT. Students who are trying to do well on standardized tests without learning the skill set for doing so could be compared to people trying to pitch in baseball with their legs tied together: they'll probably manage to throw the ball somewhere near the plate with their legs tied together, but the pitches are unlikely to be very good.

Here's an example of how not having solid strategies in place can harm a student's score. I recently worked with a student for the ACT who was extremely strong in math. She knew all the math concepts. She rarely made computational mistakes. She was great at finding creative solutions to difficult math problems. Before she worked with me and learned strategies, her issue in the math section of the ACT was misreading questions. Unlike most math questions on tests that she (and almost all students) take in school, most math questions on the ACT have a paragraph that she had to read and understand before she could do any actual math. Even though she knew all the math concepts and was good at solving math problems, she kept misreading questions and thus effectively solved a different math question than what was being asked. As a result of misreading a few questions incorrectly, this student ended up with a very mediocre score on the math section, even though she was truly skilled at math. Using the strategies I taught her, this student was able to improve her ACT score considerably.

The issue that this student had is a very common one, and not just on the math sections. In fact, I believe that the majority of students who take the ACT or SAT score much lower than they are capable of scoring simply because their strategies are far from optimal, if they have any strategies at all. Without good strategies, they end up with scores that do not reflect their true academic strengths.

Ideally, by the time students take their tests, the strategies that they use for each section and for all the question types will be habitual. They shouldn't even need to think about how to approach sections or how to manage their time well. These aspects should be automatic.

The good news is that if students get solid guidance on strategies and they do a good amount of practice with these strategies, it is absolutely possible for students to have mastered their strategies by the time they take the ACT or SAT.

My experience is that most standardized test tutors and class teachers do not focus on strategies or even know effective strategies very well. I once worked with a student who had worked with a tutor from one of the major test prep companies weekly for more than a year. He read well and knew the math well, but he had practically no strategies. He had taken the ACT three times over the course of that previous year, and he scored exactly the same each of those times. I worked with this student for only four ninety minute sessions, and we worked on nothing but strategy. His score improved by three points. This was far from a typical situation, but it is illustrative of why I place so much emphasis on strategies.

Because I believe that strategies are so important and I want my students' strategies to be automatic by the time they take their tests, I start with teaching strategies to all of my students. Once a student has solid strategy in place, we then focus on the two other pillars, but strategy is at the core of my work with my students.

Click here to read about the second pillar for success on the SAT or ACT.

At most colleges, SAT or ACT scores are important components of their admission criteria. Colleges tend to be opaque about exactly how much weight they give to SAT and ACT scores, and the importance of them varies greatly between colleges. However, for the sake of illustration, let's assume that colleges weight SAT and ACT scores as about a third of their admission criteria. Though this is an assumption made for illustrative purposes, my experience is that this is probably a fairly accurate assumption on average.

Given the weight given to SAT and ACT scores in admission criteria, studying for the SAT or ACT is an extremely good use of students' time if they want to be accepted into their top choice colleges.

Let's suppose a student does two hours of homework for school on five nights each week. Realistically, many serious students do much more work than this but we'll use this number for our estimate. Most high schools have 36 weeks of school per year.

(2 hours of homework/night) x (5 nights/week) x (36 weeks/school year)

= 360 hours of homework per school year

All states require that students spend at least 1000 hours in the classroom per school year. Some states require more hours than this per year, but let's use the 1000 hours.

This means that in just one year of school, a student who averages only two hours of homework per night will spend 360 hours doing homework for school and 1000 hours in school, for a total of 1360 hours spent on school work.

In a sense, how well a student does during these 1360 hours is represented by his or her GPA, which is another important criterion for admission to college.

Let’s look at how much time a student might spend studying for the SAT or ACT. My recommendation to students who want to see a significant improvement in their SAT or ACT scores is that they do a 90 minute tutoring session with me weekly for four months and do three hours of homework on their own each week. That's a total of four and a half hours per week spent on SAT or ACT preparation for sixteen weeks.

(4.5 hours of SAT or ACT studying/week) x (16 weeks) = 72 hours of SAT or ACT studying in total

(Some serious students certainly work with me for longer than four months or do more work per week than this and a few of my students work with me for a much shorter time, but four months of working together weekly is about average for my students.)

Let's review these numbers. My average recommendation is that students spend a lifetime total of 72 hours studying for the ACT or SAT, and these 72 hours of work will determine their scores that make up a third of their admission criteria.

Students who do two hours of homework per night spend 1360 hours on their schoolwork each year, and this makes up less than two thirds of their admission criteria via their GPA.

Let’s recap once more:

72 lifetime hours for 1/3 of admission criteria for SAT or ACT.

1360 hours per year for less than 2/3 of admission criteria.

Never mind that many students do much more than two hours of homework per night or that these 1360 hours on schoolwork are spent each year for several years or that some schools have more than 1000 instructional hours per year or that application essays and other factors such as sports and volunteering are considered by admission committees in the two thirds of admission criteria that we attributed to GPA.

Given all those factors, the calculation that we have done is probably an extremely cautious estimate of how much more impact studying for the SAT or ACT has on an hour-for-hour basis compared to doing homework.

Whether a student works with a tutor or not and even if a student is going to spend less time studying than I recommend, any time spent studying for the SAT or ACT is time extremely well spent for anybody with serious college aspirations.

In fact, time spent studying for the SAT or ACT has a bigger return on investment than anything else students can do in efforts to get accepted into colleges.

]]>Given the weight given to SAT and ACT scores in admission criteria, studying for the SAT or ACT is an extremely good use of students' time if they want to be accepted into their top choice colleges.

Let's suppose a student does two hours of homework for school on five nights each week. Realistically, many serious students do much more work than this but we'll use this number for our estimate. Most high schools have 36 weeks of school per year.

(2 hours of homework/night) x (5 nights/week) x (36 weeks/school year)

= 360 hours of homework per school year

All states require that students spend at least 1000 hours in the classroom per school year. Some states require more hours than this per year, but let's use the 1000 hours.

This means that in just one year of school, a student who averages only two hours of homework per night will spend 360 hours doing homework for school and 1000 hours in school, for a total of 1360 hours spent on school work.

In a sense, how well a student does during these 1360 hours is represented by his or her GPA, which is another important criterion for admission to college.

Let’s look at how much time a student might spend studying for the SAT or ACT. My recommendation to students who want to see a significant improvement in their SAT or ACT scores is that they do a 90 minute tutoring session with me weekly for four months and do three hours of homework on their own each week. That's a total of four and a half hours per week spent on SAT or ACT preparation for sixteen weeks.

(4.5 hours of SAT or ACT studying/week) x (16 weeks) = 72 hours of SAT or ACT studying in total

(Some serious students certainly work with me for longer than four months or do more work per week than this and a few of my students work with me for a much shorter time, but four months of working together weekly is about average for my students.)

Let's review these numbers. My average recommendation is that students spend a lifetime total of 72 hours studying for the ACT or SAT, and these 72 hours of work will determine their scores that make up a third of their admission criteria.

Students who do two hours of homework per night spend 1360 hours on their schoolwork each year, and this makes up less than two thirds of their admission criteria via their GPA.

Let’s recap once more:

72 lifetime hours for 1/3 of admission criteria for SAT or ACT.

1360 hours per year for less than 2/3 of admission criteria.

Never mind that many students do much more than two hours of homework per night or that these 1360 hours on schoolwork are spent each year for several years or that some schools have more than 1000 instructional hours per year or that application essays and other factors such as sports and volunteering are considered by admission committees in the two thirds of admission criteria that we attributed to GPA.

Given all those factors, the calculation that we have done is probably an extremely cautious estimate of how much more impact studying for the SAT or ACT has on an hour-for-hour basis compared to doing homework.

Whether a student works with a tutor or not and even if a student is going to spend less time studying than I recommend, any time spent studying for the SAT or ACT is time extremely well spent for anybody with serious college aspirations.

In fact, time spent studying for the SAT or ACT has a bigger return on investment than anything else students can do in efforts to get accepted into colleges.

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