Preparing for the SAT: done right and for free

Preparing for the SAT when done correctly and most effectively is a task that can only be accomplished by a parent, educational system, and child working in tandem for the same distant goal over the course of about 17 years. This educational triumvirate is the key to the intellectual development of the child and is the key to true achievement on the SAT and its ilk (PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc). This tripod of invested individuals sets the foundation for the ways the child interacts in educational settings and manages the challenges presented by testing. This foundation will do more to determine whether the child scores a 300 or an 800 than any prep course or high-priced tutor.

Test preparation is fundamentally the icing on the educational cake. It’s designed to tweak, polish, and refine skills that the child possesses rather than to reteach years of schooling. Most children don’t struggle because of the cosmetic elements of the SAT (pacing, format, scoring, etc), instead they struggle to master the change of thinking that the SAT requires. They struggle to fight the ingrained habits that they’ve developed in school and at home. They struggle to understand that the “tricks” played by standardized tests are simply a matter of the test presenting familiar information in unfamiliar ways.

Let’s check out a few questions:

The above questions are your typical Algebra 1 questions, which are designed to test a student’s ability to manipulate equations and use distribution. This will never show up on the SAT. In order to evaluate reasoning ability the SAT will instead give the following:

Now these questions tests the ability to “reason” and “strategize.” For the algebra questions, the intent is to solve for the variables. Students are used to the format, the task, the terminology, instructions, presentation, … well everything. They are known quantities and known tasks. The SAT versions remove many of those familiar comforts. The second problem also adds the additional “trick” of not asking the most expected question (what is x?) and instead it asks for something unexpected. The question here actually makes the work involved in the problem easier but only if a test-taker is flexible enough not to treat all four of the above problems as if they are the same.

With an understanding of the skills that standardized tests test, a parent can take lots of steps to prepare their child for success on the SAT and in college. Three things a parent can do to help their child are:

  1. Encourage students to accomplish a particular objective WITHOUT defining the way to achieve it.
    If your son is told to “make sure the kitchen is clean” and he chooses to con his younger brother into doing it, shouldn’t his problem solving skills be rewarded? Especially if you did not expressly forbid him from using “hired help.”
  2. Teach students to evaluate the efficiency of all possible approaches and make a decision without undue waffling.
    Most standardized tests require test-takers to recognize that the “alternative” method of solving a problem might be more efficient or easier. A refined ability to evaluate options and make a confident decision is integral to test-taking success.
  3. Develop adaptability
    The best test-takers I’ve encountered are adaptable in thinking and approach, and they are ready to answer questions that are posed both directly (How old are you?) and questions that are posed indirectly (How many days have passed since the day of your birth?).

Developing these skills in children will make the test preparation industry largely irrelevant because no matter how tests are structured, the content they use will rarely vary and will be familiar to most students. The real challenge comes from the reasoning skills that underlie most tests.

Good luck and good learning!

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  • Debbie Stier

    This is an excellent post — and actually, a lot of what I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t been able to articulate.

    I absolutely do think it’s everything you say above, and I think the parent role is not often acknowledged.

    I don’t have the energy to fully articulate what I’m thinking, but stay tuned.

    Thanks for pointing me here.

  • Bell Curves

    Thanks for your comment we look forward to hearing your thoughts when you are re-energized!

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