Back To School: Where Did The Time Go?

Many high school students began their summers with good intentions for fully preparing for the ACT or SAT, understanding that time would be limited once they return to school in the fall.  Now that school is a few short weeks away, how did you do?

Don’t panic.  Here is what you can do this month to help prepare for success.  If you are a rising junior, you’ll have multiple opportunities to take the necessary tests, but you should begin planning now.  If you are a rising senior, you should be registering for Fall SAT or ACT tests: the December dates are the last most colleges will accept, but you really don’t want to go there.  You’ll also want to consider any SAT Subject Tests that may be required or recommended by colleges to which you intend to apply.

Daily: Read some challenging material: newspapers, magazines and nonfiction books, and note unfamiliar vocabulary. You will be amazed how many of these words will appear on the exams.

Week One (August 11-17):  Before you start studying, determine your strengths and weaknesses by completing short sections of the SAT and ACT practice tests that are available online to decide where you feel most comfortable or where you score best. Then, plan your prep accordingly (some districts return to school August 22), mapping out a study schedule concentrates on the sections where you struggled the most. Do not waste time on areas that you do not need to review.

Week Two (August 18 – 24): Begin by focusing on your weakest area. Aim to spend at least three days a week devoted to working through practice problems and learning test-taking tips and tricks for your lowest-scoring section. Because you’re working with a shortened timeline, try to spend one to two hours each study day.

Take the time to review your answers to understand why they were correct or incorrect. At the end of the week, take a practice test for the section you’ve been working on to assess your progress.

Week Three (August 25-31): Once you get a handle on your weakest area, shift your focus to your second and third weakest areas, spending about half your time on each. Learn the components of the sections, including time allotted on exam day, types of questions and strategies for solving problems.

Work through several practice problems and solutions for at least three days a week. Again, make sure you’ve made improvements before moving on to review other sections.

Week Four and Beyond (September 1 –Test Date): Complete as many full-length mock exams, under test conditions, as you can before taking the real thing. Mock exams are the most important component of any test prep routine, and it is extremely unwise to sacrifice sitting for several practice tests in favor of solely reviewing content.

Once the school year starts, these mock tests are the hardest prep items to make time for, so it is likely to be a weekend activity.

When To Test?

According to the College Board, the creators of the SAT, most high school students sit for the college entrance exam in the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year.  That is not always the best plan.  Here are four factors to consider.

1. College application deadlines: First, determine your application deadlines. If you have not compiled a list of colleges to which you will apply, investigate several programs that interest you. Harvard University, for example, requires you to submit your application by Nov. 1 for early action, while regular decision packages are due by Jan. 1.

When scheduling your exam date, remember that your scores will not be immediately available. The Stanford University admissions department notes that the last acceptable ACT and SAT test date for regular decision applicants is in December. Each exam will require a different length of processing time, although three to four weeks is a safe estimate.

2. Balancing multiple exams: It is also in your best interest to ensure your assessments do not overlap. Certain colleges and universities require the ACT or SAT alone, while others, such as Cornell University, may also request one or more SAT subject tests.

Each exam will cover markedly different material, so it’s important to allot each test the individual attention it deserves. Students should also allow for the possibility that they will need to retake one or more exams. Studying for more than one exam simultaneously is difficult for most students, and it adds unnecessary stress and complication to an already challenging process.

Finally, note that subject tests are available less frequently than general exams, which can further complicate matters.

3. Consider school commitments: Even for those students who must only complete the ACT or SAT, there are several advantages to targeting nontraditional test dates.   For students who were able to prep over the summer, October represents an excellent opportunity to take both tests and assess which is a better fit.  All students need to consider their sports schedule, AP exam dates, midterm and final exams and extracurriculars in order to determine the best test date – and the best test date is always the one for which you have ample preparation time.

4. Manage your family commitments: Finally, consider the world beyond academics. Many students have family obligations such as weddings and vacations. Speak with the important people in your life and identify unavoidable commitments. You may find that you must alter your exam dates or, more radically, register for a different test.

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