Standardized tests give many students the heebie jeebies, especially tests that are known by three letters and determines many factors about life after high school. I’m talking about the ACT and the SAT. As a an academic and college coach, I either have to help students reduce their anxiety about these tests or light a fire beneath them. My true preference is to have students in the middle of these extremes. Students should have a healthy respect for these tests. They should not feel that their intellectual identity is reflected in the scores they make. However, they should not take it lightly either.
While it has been nearly 17 years since I have had to prepared for the ACT, the test has changed very little. My test preparation was trial and error over the course of my high school career. My family did not have the resources to take a full course by the top test preparation companies. And, neither one of them attended college so these tests were foreign to them, which means they could offer minimal help. So, I purchased a $25 test prep book and went at it on my own for about two hours during the week and five hours on the weekend. I religiously did this from my sophomore year to my senior year. My score was enough to give me a competitive edge for scholarships and awards.
Throughout the years, I realized that my study methods, nor the result, were a common practice or experience. I really wanted to empower students to conquer the ACT regardless of the hand life has dealt. I began to offer workshops and personal coaching services. While the students benefited the most from the information, parents were comforted knowing that they were able to provide support for their child. Here are the top 6 tips that I always provide families embarking on their journey of test preparation.
Start early. A majority of the ACT is based on skills learned in 7th – 10th grade. Most students wait until junior or senior year to take the test. By then, they have forgotten most of the concepts, especially in math. Arrange for your child to take the test in their spring of their 9th grade year.
Take the ACT often to decrease anxiety. Taking the ACT is like any other performance activity. The more students practice in real conditions the more comfortable they will be when it counts. Also taking the ACT frequently can help students recognize patterns of questions that will help them streamline their study strategy. Taking the test one or two times raises the stakes for students and causes pressure, which in turns breeds fear and anxiety. Start with taking the test once a year during 9th and 10th grade years. Increase attempts to two times in the fall and spring during their junior year. Seniors should take the test as many times as possible until the desired score is reached. Taking practice tests at home under similar testing conditions is also useful.
Dedicate special study time. Slow, consistent and steady wins this standardize test race. Starting ACT prep as early as the 9th grade prevents cramming which leads to anxiety. Help your student set aside quiet time that is dedicated to practice. Schedule a few, intense, short study sessions (30 – 50 minutes) per week during the academic year. Increase the frequency during the summer to prevent summer melt.
Divide and conquer. The ACT is perceived to test students on everything they have learned. This is a myth that paralyzes students with stress. There are a set number of skills and concepts that the ACT focuses on. You can find a complete list of topics on act.org and in most preparation books. Devise a strategy to attack the content and create a schedule to cycle through content. Use scores on official and practice tests to determine weaker areas. The ACT administration can provide students with their actually answers along with the answer key for an additional fee. Paying the additional fee may be worth the cost, as students can gain valuable wisdom and insight into own their testing habits. I often find students getting wrong answers because of 2nd guessing, simple mathematical mistakes, or misunderstanding the question and not because they could not answer the problem.
Invest in affordable resources. There are many free and low-cost resources available to aid students in their preparations. A test prep book is an essential resource. However, they are not all the same. To get the most bang for your buck, make sure the book has a diagnostic test, at least two additional practice tests, and skill building sections where students can refresh on concepts. Another type of prep book is a workbook that walks students through specific content in-depth. Workbooks allow students to become their own tutor and interact with the material. There are some preparation books that are just a series of practice tests. These types of book offer very little help on individual concepts, however they offer great information on how to eliminate the wrong answer and attack common questions. Lastly, there are also books that just provide tips and strategies. Besides books, you can also find flash cards, mobile apps, and email subscriptions. ACT.org has free and paid practice material. Sites like Kahn Academy and YouTube have free videos that help students work through particular problems and concepts.
Talk positive. Words, positive or negative, can impact a student’s mindset and mindset has the greatest impact on performance. I often hear parents say, “She’s not good with tests.” “He’s never been good in math.” I see the result when students are in front me in a workshop. Students give less than 100% effort while saying, “I don’t remember this or “I could never get this.” When students think they are already defeated, they won’t commit the time or effort into improving. This is known as a fixed mindset. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their talents, traits or performance can never improve. Those with a growth mindset Parents can help shift students’ mindset from fixed to growth by calling attention to their hard work, quality time dedication and their persistence. Parents should recognize small improvements no matter if it is getting one practice problem correct or improving their score on the official test. Focusing less on skills or ability and more on effort and strategy can help your student improve their performance on the ACT as well as get them in the college mind frame.
While I am a part-time college coach, I am also a full-time higher education administrator who works to improve the number of students who complete college. Understanding the full picture from admissions to graduation, I know that grades and scores are shallow predictors of success especially for minority students. There are plenty of smart students who are college drop-outs. Those who persist to the end are the ones who take advantage of resources, practice self-management, confidently face challenges, acknowledges their weaknesses and appreciates learning. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that I give these same tips to parents during freshman orientation on how to help their child succeed in college. How a student prepares for the ACT can give more insight into college performance than the score by itself. Helping them to connect quality effort and discipline to high performance can be as valuable of a win as achieving the score alone.
By Erin Wheeler, Ph.D.
Erin Wheeler, Ph.D., is the founder of BePreppy.com, a college counseling site dedicated to providing quality low-cost, college planning assistance to all. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.