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Preparing for the SAT, ACT and PSAT - Should You Study on Your Own?

By Vicki Wood, PowerSource SAT Instructor

I must admit that I was skeptical of test preparation when I started working for PowerScore Test Preparation. After all, when I took the ACT nearly sixteen years ago, I used a hand-me-down prep book that didn’t teach me much more than the difference between it’s and its, yet I scored well enough to earn acceptance letters from several universities. What could test preparation courses teach me that I couldn’t learn on my own? I felt it might be different if I were preparing to take a graduate test, like the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or the General Management Admission Test (GMAT). These tests, unlike the SAT, are not curriculum-based; they involve logic and abstract reasoning, skills that are often ignored in high school and college, but which could easily be taught in a prep course. I was not convinced that significant score increases could be achieved on an exam that tested a culmination of the math and verbal curriculum a student learns in high school. This changed, however, soon after I decided to become an SAT instructor.

A former middle school teacher, I left teaching to join PowerScore’s administrative team, but I missed working with students. Fortunately, the company had a few openings for evening SAT instructors; unfortunately, instructors had to score in the 99th percentile on a real SAT. I had never even taken the SAT and my previous ACT scores weren’t even close to the top one percent! But teaching was important to me, so I decided to register and study for the test.

I did all of this in secret. I was afraid that my scores would not meet the PowerScore requirement, and didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my coworkers or my supervisor. For the next month, I went home each evening and used old high school and college textbooks to relearn algebra and geometry and the rules of grammar. I programmed math formulas into my calculator and studied hundreds of vocabulary flashcards. I took practice test after practice test after practice test. And in March of 2005, I was the only thirty-something in a high school full of teenagers, taking the very first official administration of the new SAT.

The morning my scores arrived two weeks later, I was sitting in my office, envisioning the moment I could tell my boss what I had accomplished and looking at the schedule of an upcoming SAT course that I could teach. So when the numbers flashed across the computer screen—740 Reading, 610 Math, and 700 Writing—I was devastated. A 2050 was only in the 93rd percentile! Many students would be thrilled with this SAT score, but I needed something good enough for Harvard or Yale if I wanted to teach for PowerScore. I imagine I felt like many teenagers that morning, who had learned their score wasn’t high enough to apply to their school of choice.
At some point in the day, my devastation outweighed my shame and I confessed everything to my supervisor — the secret study sessions, the five hour testing day, even the insufficient score. To my relief, he said that he was proud of me. And then to my astonishment, he told me that I was taking the test again. After I took a PowerScore SAT class.

That’s how I found myself sitting in on the very course I had envisioned teaching. At the start of the class, I believed that small score increases were possible with independent study (and secretly feared I had reached my maximum score potential). But by the time we were halfway through the first lesson, I realized that the SAT was so much more than it appeared to be. It was a reasoning test like the LSAT and GMAT, and many of the questions were designed to stump or trick the average test taker. Throughout the next five weeks, I learned to recognize patterns among the reading questions, search for gimmicks in the math sections, and analyze each word or phrase in the writing questions. Take numerical sequences as an example. Nearly every SAT test has one math question about sequences. Because the test is designed to be taken without a calculator (even though calculators are allowed), any question that asks for a term higher than the 6th term in the sequence most likely has a simple pattern that you must recognize in order to compute the term. No calculator or formula can find this term for you, yet the average teenager believes there is a formula for every math problem, and will immediately try to create one (with a calculator, no less), wasting valuable time. While the SAT relies on typical high school curriculum as a basis for test questions, the majority of the questions require abstract reasoning in order to solve them quickly and correctly. As I attended the PowerScore SAT course, I learned to memorize question patterns and strategies, rather than formulas and rules.

I took the test again in June, just three months after my initial attempt. My score increased by 220 points — 800 Reading, 670 Math, and 790 Writing — and I achieved my 99th percentile goal. The math score still irks me, especially after teaching the course for a year and picking up new information I missed the first time around, but I will continue taking the test each year for research purposes. I am confident my math results will be comparable to my reading and writing scores on my next attempt.

Needless to say, I am now a true believer of test preparation for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT. This is why so many test prep companies, including PowerScore, guarantee a substantial score increase for students who attend their courses. In my most recent SAT course for the May 2006 exam, one of my students increased his score by 490 points — the difference between the 31st percentile and the 87th percentile! Peter is an above-average student, but at the start of the class, he was unable to see the simple solutions behind difficult-sounding questions. Using PowerScore methods, he earned a 1920, resulting in a state scholarship and admission to his first choice of colleges.

It is important to prepare your homeschooled student for the standardized tests used for college admission. These test scores are the “great equalizer” on college applications; it is nearly impossible to compare the curriculum at a prestigious prep school to the curriculum at a public high school or to the curriculum of a homeschool program, so grades are viewed subjectively. One school’s B+ might be another program’s C. However, the SAT and the ACT are a standardized tests, so the test scores of a prep school student, a public school student, and a homeschooled student are easily compared. Furthermore, because homeschool curriculums are so widely varied and thus, unfamiliar to college admissions boards, a standardized test score is the primary admission criterion used to judge most homeschooled applicants. To help your students have a competitive edge on test day, consider the following methods of test preparation:

Prep Books: Many homeschoolers prefer to incorporate SAT and ACT prep into their curriculum by purchasing test-specific preparation books (like the hand-me-down book I used to study for the ACT). Quality prep books can offer valuable tips and information and most will review relevant curriculum for the test. A major drawback to prep books, however, is their use of simulated questions. Experts agree that the best practice for any standardized test comes from the use of real test questions. Due to licensing rights, these real questions are only published by the producers of the tests. Test prep books published by private companies contain questions written by the authors of the book, rather than the test-makers, so they may not be accurate representations of the real tests. If you choose to use prep books in your curriculum, I recommend The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide, published by the makers of the test and the only books that contain real SAT and ACT questions.

I have also viewed several prep books that contain untested material or use formulas that are not required. For example, in my own preparation for my first SAT test, I stumbled upon a prep book that gave a formula for determining the nth term of a sequence. I programmed this formula in my calculator, and then tried to use it on the test to find the 54th term of a sequence. It didn’t work. Once I took the PowerScore course, I realized that this formula was for finding a term in a geometric sequence, and that the SAT would never ask for the 54th term in a geometric sequence. As I mentioned earlier, I should have looked for a simple pattern rather than waste valuable time searching for and using a formula that wouldn’t work anyway. To determine if a prep book contains irrelevant curriculum, you’ll need to carefully analyze the questions and review material contained in The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide. These books can be found in your local bookstore, or on www.collegeboard.com or www.powerscore.com.

Tutoring: Because your homeschooled student is accustomed to working with you one-on-one, private tutoring is a logical choice for SAT and ACT preparation. It places your student’s standardized test provision into the hands of an expert and frees you from the burden of learning the curriculum, patterns, and secrets of the test. As you already know, one-on-one instruction is the most effective and efficient way to learn, but tutoring is also extremely beneficial for students who only need help in one specific area of the test. Teenagers with busy schedules prefer tutoring because most tutors are willing to meet at times and locations convenient to the student. The only disadvantage to tutoring is the expense; private tutoring costs significantly more than prep books or courses.

Should you chose to employ a private tutor for your child’s SAT or ACT preparation, either through an individual tutor or a test preparation company, be sure to inquire about the tutor’s qualifications. It is important to confirm that the tutor has taken an official SAT or ACT, and that his or her score reflects a mastery of the test. Many companies hire instructors that have never taken the real test, so it is impossible for them to convey the testing experience to the student. All PowerScore tutors are SAT instructors and are required to score in the 99th percentile. Telephone tutoring is available if you don’t live near one of our instructors.

You should also verify that the tutoring materials include real questions. Again, it is imperative that students practice with The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide in order to parallel the types of questions they will encounter on test day.
Prep Courses: Courses for SAT and ACT preparation are a cost-effective way to ensure that your child covers the entire curriculum included on each of the tests. Most test prep companies have teams of experts that design comprehensive courses based on every available past and present real test question. Because these companies have been researching test prep since before your homeschooler learned to read, they have access to many more questions and test trends and can adjust their curriculum accordingly. Many test prep programs include proctored practice tests, an invaluable experience that simulates real testing conditions on test day. While students should take additional practice tests at home, it is impossible for parents or tutors to recreate the testing climate without a classroom setting. Test preparation courses have proven so successful that all high-caliber companies offer a score increase guarantee. The only difficulty students report is adjusting their schedule to attend class. Nearly all SAT and ACT prep courses mimic college course schedules, so while it may be a challenge for a teenager to rearrange extracurricular activities, they gain a preliminary college experience by attending class two or three days each week.

Homeschoolers who decide to enroll their students in a prep course should also inquire about the qualifications of the instructor and the validity of the course material. All instructors should be SAT or ACT experts and have proven their proficiency on a real test. The course materials and practice tests should use real test questions and include extensive supplementary material, such as lessons books, homework assignments, flashcards, and admissions guides. Also ask whether the company provides instructor support outside of the classroom through a homework hotline or an email assistance program. PowerScore offers a weekend course for under $300, or a full-length intensive course with 46 hours of lecture time. We can set up a special class for a group of 10 or more homeschooled students; this is an excellent choice if you are looking for a course with a specific schedule and location.

Whichever program you choose, your student will ultimately benefit by studying for the SAT or the ACT. As with so many endeavors, practice is the one true path to improvement, and any exposure to the tests is better than none. I think back to that ACT score from high school and how I was simply happy that it was adequate for college admission. It’s only now that I am repaying college loans that I realize a simple preparation course could have helped me earn countless scholarships and financial freedom, not to mention increased opportunities to attend prestigious colleges. Don’t get me wrong — I love working with students through PowerScore — but I’ll always wonder where my career might have taken me or what it would have earned me if I had attended an Ivy League school. To make sure that your homeschooled student has every available college and career opportunity in the future, emphasize test preparation in your curriculum today.

For more information about PowerScore, please visit www.powerscore.com or email vwood@powerscore.com for questions. ■