Focused student surrounded by books

If you PCS-d this past summer, hopefully by now you’re settling into your new home, your kids are settling into their new school, and the new patterns of your family’s life are beginning to take shape. For those who moved with their high school juniors and seniors, however, despite the upheaval of your move this summer, “hectic” probably doesn’t even begin to describe your family’s current state.

According to the Military Child Education Coalition, the average military child moves up to 9 times during their grade school career, and given those numbers, many of those students are moving during their junior and senior years, making the transition from childhood education to college even more challenging.

Eye rolling and exasperated huffing aside, right now your transitioning high schooler needs the love of a parent and the support of a great School Liaison Officer. In addition to taking on a new school, for high school seniors (and ambitious juniors), this time of year is crunch time. Between standardized tests, challenging classes, and college applications, this pre-holiday season is rife with stress.

For those students also preparing to take the SAT, the dreaded essay stands to make your little tension-filled fiery spirit combust into a full-on teenage-angst inferno. Pumpkin candles alone provide enough flames at this time of the year, so let’s redeem this season by breaking down the great object of torment—the SAT–into manageable steps. Follow these, and you’ll soon return your home to its normal level of teenage angst just in time for road trips to visit family for the holidays. As for managing that kind of family angst, you’re on your own!

studentsLet’s break down the big test.

Chances are, your student has already completed the PSAT. The PSAT has 5 short sections, each amounting to 25-30 minutes each in length. The PSAT tests math, grammar, reading, and writing; however, it does not require your student to write anything. There are no short answers, no essays; there aren’t even any fill-in-the-blank questions.

Meanwhile, the SAT starts its foreboding 3 hour and 45 minute length endurance race with a timed 25-minute essay. Ouch! What a reality check for your poor kiddo! As with the PSAT, the remainder of the test is divided into 9 sections of 10-25 minutes each in length, testing math, grammar, reading, and writing, on a far more challenging level than that of the PSAT. The SAT has three sections: 1) Writing, 2) Critical Reading, and 3) Math. Unlike the version of the SAT that preceded this post-2005 version, the verbal section now comprises two-thirds of the sum score of the SAT.

Even for non-military children who have the benefit of preparing for these tests in summer programs that are offered by their school district either for free or relatively inexpensively, the test remains a great mental challenge both in pure testing endurance and its level of complexity. For military children who miss out on these preparation programs, here are some tips for preparing independently.

1. Buy the Official SAT Prep Guide.
Nothing, not even the best tests that Kaplan, Princeton, and Barron’s have to offer, can compare to getting material directly from the College Board. This material comes directly from the mouths of those who make the test, so take advantage of it. This book costs around $20.

2. Don’t use the Official SAT Prep Guide right away.
Okay, so now I sound like I’m really contradicting myself, but hear me out. With this prep guide, your student only has a total of 10 practice SAT tests. I don’t want you to waste them while you’re still learning the test format. This is why the test prep books come in handy. They break down each section and introduce your student to the style of questions asked in each question. This allows practice time before using the ten tests available because once your student run out of the ten practice tests, there are no more! The test prep books do have tests for your student, but while those are good, any experienced SAT tutor will easily find questions littered throughout the test that the College Board simply would not ask; sometimes the tests are much harder, but sometimes they’re easier. You don’t want to have to listen to the griping of your student on the afternoon following his first SAT only to hear how he prepared for an easier test!

3. Practice taking timed SAT tests.pocketwatch
If your student has two months before the SAT, then have him take one SAT each weekend. Ideally, make sure that he is sitting down to start the test by 7:45 AM. This will help mentally and physically prepare him for taking a lengthy test on a weekend morning; few teenagers find morning tests their strong suit. During the week, have your student review the entire test. If he has limited time available mid-week, then have him review only the questions he answered incorrectly. If he is continuing to find that he is struggling with the same errors, then you may want to consider a tutor for a few sessions to quickly address these style of questions and boost his score in this area of the test. Few test prep programs can compete with the benefits of weekly timed practice tests accompanied by the student’s independent review or review with a tutor. Taking the test without reviewing it; however, will yield little positive progress.

4. Understand the impact of the essay on the overall test.
Despite the fear this one section inspires, know that the essay comprises only one-third of the total of the Writing section. The Writing section amounts to a total of one-third of the entire SAT; therefore, the essay is only worth about one-ninth of the entire test. While this is still a relatively large proportion, it’s helpful for students to know that not achieving a perfect 12 on the essay will not have a significantly detrimental effect on their overall score. In fact, the best test prep tutors in the world encourage students to aim for a 10 (a very manageable goal) and the focus more time on preparing for the remainder of the Writing section rather than waste time on achieving a perfect essay score in order to yield the greatest reward for study efforts. To achieve a 10, an essay must comprise of
– A position: Select one side of the prompt and stick with it.
– A thesis: Imagine that someone asks you “why” you have taken a certain side in the argument, for instance, why did you pick time management? You know as well as any kindergarten student that a “why question” deserves a “because answer.” The thesis is the “because” statement.
– Two to three reasons: You need reasons to support your “because” statement!
– Topic Sentences: Each reason gets its own paragraph!
– Two to three examples: In each paragraph, you should have two to three examples to support your reason. Reasons are big picture ideas; the examples are specifics.
– A counter argument: You need to show that you’ve considered the opposite side of the prompt, and why, based on your thesis you can reject it.
– Strong vocabulary: Don’t use “nice” when “aesthetically pleasing” is more appropriate.
– Two or less minor grammatical errors. The test is scored holistically, so no one is counting your number of errors, but ideally these are kept to a minimum.
This format is not the only way to achieve well on the essay, but it’s as close to a rubric as statisticians who analyze the College Board’s essay grading can provide.

5. Breathe! Not achieving a high SAT score isn’t the end of the world. College is still an option. The ACT may be a better fit for your student. While the SAT is a stronger test of logic and reason, the ACT is a strong test of academic success. Taking practice tests for both will help your student best determine which test is the best fit.

Tutors by Base


Thank you to Karina Gafford from Tutors by Base for sharing these words of wisdom!