Parenting: SAT Tips

David Murphy interviews the College Board's Bob Alig about preparing for and taking the SAT.
November 16, 2010 6:47:55 AM PST
The SAT can be a daunting proposition for students and their parents.

Since publishing my series of blogs last year on The College Search, a number of you have contacted me to express your concerns. This isn't surprising. First-time parents are often in a haze over even the basics, like how soon you and your student should begin preparing for the test, let along how to score well. For clarification, I contacted the Middle States Regional Office of The College Board, the organization responsible for the SAT, and interviewed Bob Alig, the Regional Vice President. His interview is linked above. But in this space, I'll lay-out Bob's detailed plan for how best to approach and conquer this daunting test which may arguably be the single most important exam your high school student will ever take.

The SAT (along with the ACT Test, another diagnostic exam reviewed by colleges) measures a high school student's proficiency in a variety of subjects. College admissions officers then review the grades as a way of determining whether a given student is right for their institution. Most admissions personnel will tell you that the SAT/ACT scores rank as either the first or second most important indicator used to weigh a student's value, the other being the high school transcript. Add to that the structure of the SAT---a three-or-four-hour block of testing---and it's easy to understand the stress and worry the test causes parents and students even before they've seen question one.

When to start exploring the SAT

Your student's first exposure to the SAT is actually a practice test called the PSAT. While some high school freshman are allowed to take this test, it's actually geared toward sophomores and juniors. The test is administered each October to both grades and most schools offer it on-site. If your student's school does not, ask administrators where it's available. The test not only familiarizes students with the SAT format, an important element in easing a child's nerves, students also receive a grade on the PSAT. For most students, the PSAT grades are mainly valuable as an indicator of strengths and weaknesses, so that a game plan can be developed on which areas of study need the most improvement. A poor score shouldn't be cause for undue stress. There's still plenty of time to improve and in fact, virtually all students do exactly that as they move forward toward senior year. But it's worth noting that juniors who take the test are considered for National Merit Scholarships, which is a great item to have on a high school resume. So despite the fact that the PSAT is considered a forerunner to the actual SAT, students should take it seriously, get lots of sleep the night before and do as well as they can.

When to actually take the SAT

The College Board recommends that students take the actual SAT twice, once in the spring of junior year and again in the fall of senior year. Bob Alig says it's important to take it in both of the above terms, because scores almost always go up the second time around. This is partly because seniors have completed more coursework and know more. It's also because kids who've taken the junior year test are even more familiar with the SAT and less bothered by the testing process.

How many times to take the SAT

Some students and parents are driven to repeat the test again and again. My son, a gifted math student, took it three times in an effort to squeeze out slightly better scores in certain areas and ostensibly put himself in a better position with certain prospective colleges. In one way, the ploy worked. My son's highest math grade was achieved on the third try. But the improvement was relatively small in terms of additional points scored, and in the end, it's unclear whether those extra points made much of a difference in terms of which schools made offers.

Curious about how this usually works, I asked Bob Alig whether the College Board has determined how often scores go up on a student's third and fourth try. Bob says that statistically, it's the second try that really matters. After that, scores don't usually go up significantly. Of course, if your student is only a few points away from some numerical threshold that you feel might make them look better to a given college the temptation may be too strong not to try again. Bob says you're welcome to take the test as often as you like. But officially, the College Board does not recommend taking it more than twice.

Taking the test for free

There is a nominal fee to register and take the SAT, but even small fees can be a problem for economically stretched families. The College Board realizes this. Alig says last year, 1-in-5 students who took the SAT took it for free. That equates to 400,000 free tests. Students can obtain free waiver vouchers from their high school guidance counselor and then input the voucher's number during online test registration. It's obviously worth trying if you're feeling pinched by the economy.

How to prepare for the SAT

I've already mentioned that familiarity is a key to SAT access, and how taking the PSAT as a freshman and sophomore helps. But even more important is practicing on the side. The College Board makes this easy by providing free practice tests online at collegeboard.com/practice. Also available here are old SAT tests with the answers included. Students who do the best on the test spend private time making use of these resources. There is also a practice book you can order with practice tests included, if that's easier. It costs about $20.

Private learning centers also offer SAT Preparation courses. Officially, the College Board does not recommend these sometimes expensive programs, stressing that everything a child needs to succeed is offered for free on their website. But some parents who can afford private lessons may feel more comfortable exploring this option. As with the question of how many times to take the test, the decision on whether to sign up for private tutoring is a personal one and up to the individual.

Other resources

Parents and students will likely make use of the www.collegeboard.com main page for many other reasons throughout the college search. In our case, we found it to be an inviting resource. Even if your kids are still in grade school, I'd advise visiting the site to familiarize yourself. You can do searches for colleges based on majors offered, geographic location, cost, and GPA. We found it helpful to ask our high school aged children about their favorite classes and then search the list of majors on collegeboard.com to find a logical fit, whether it was Animal Science or Aerospace Engineering. From there, it was easy to explore lists of all schools offering a given major within the geographical and size requirements preferred by our kids. But we didn't stop there. We also added schools outside the ideal requirements and talked over those options as well. In this way, by the time we had a final list of prospective colleges prepared, we felt very well researched. Of course, the website also includes links to SAT test dates and locations, as well as all information you need on signing-up.

The ACT Test

A second option is the ACT Test, an unrelated but similar high school evaluation test offered across the country and accepted as an appropriate evaluation tool by most colleges. Some kids try both the SAT and the ACT in case they're predisposed to do better on one than the other. All information about preparing for and taking the ACT can be found at the ACT Test Home Page. This site also includes practice materials.

David Murphy's College Search series

I first published my series of 25 blogs on getting your kids into college last year, but the information is still just as relevant. I'm including links to my series (ten of them above in the "related content" section and the others below). Meanwhile, you can submit comments or questions to me directly through my fan page on the Action News Fan Page on Facebook.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: High School Course/Activities, ACT/SAT, How Many Colleges Should I Put On My List?, Compiling A List, Unsolicited Brochures, Campus Visits, Applying For Admission, Types of Applications,, Submitting Applications, Trouble Deciding, 529 Accounts, Myths About The Cost, Can I Ask For More Aid?, Upromise, The Best Way To Pay, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface, Read more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on 6abc.com.

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