5 Bad Ideas For Your Kid's SAT or ACT Prep



Watching the police car pull into our driveway felt terrible.

I was in seventh grade. A couple of weeks before, my family had gone to Hilton Head, SC, for one of my father's company meetings. When we drove through North Carolina, I was astounded and excited to find something for sale that was absolutely prohibited in Connecticut where we lived.

Fireworks. Glorious fireworks.

I guess my parents were excited, too, because they let me buy a whole bag. Bottle rockets, Saturn batteries, Roman candles, fountains, and more. This was going to be the best 4th of July ever!

When I went back to school after the vacation, I of course told my friends all about it, and even agreed to sell some of the less exciting ones to Ricky. The next day, we surreptitiously swapped a brown paper bag for some cash.

Flash forward to the police car. In a small Connecticut town, the police don't exactly have a lot to do. Someone talked (I'll never know who), and with a feeling of absolute terror, I soon faced the officer, who confiscated my entire stash, and after the obligatory safety warning, went on his way, leaving me with no criminal record but also with absolutely no fireworks.

In retrospect, selling the fireworks at school - or maybe even talking about them - was a bad idea.

Unfortunately, in my current industry, I see a lot of bad ideas, too. As you plan your son or daughter's summer, here are 5 things that, in my experience, are bad ideas regarding SAT and ACT prep.


Bad idea #1: Starting too early.

If your kid is going into sophomore year in the fall, don't worry about test prep yet. It's not worth the opportunity cost. There is plenty of time if you start the summer before junior year.

The better a student's reading and math ability, the easier SAT and ACT prep will be. So rising sophomores should be reading voraciously (pick things they enjoy) and doing what's needed to ace, not just get A's in, their math classes. 

Kids who read a lot and who are great in math are kids who usually have no trouble with the SAT and ACT.

(Readers are leaders.)

Bad idea #2: Using a big company.

If you're a business owner, you know how hard it is to grow while maintaining quality. Big test prep companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review put profits over quality decades ago.

The gist? Hire teachers who are young, inexperienced, and willing to work for low pay. Give them a rigid curriculum to teach and charge 5 times what you're paying them. Then, when they inevitably leave for a more normal career in a year or so, hire more newbies.

Most of our local competitors use this same business model. We don't - and that's a big reason why there are only four of us. There aren't a lot of experienced tutors out there for me to hire!

The most important factor in SAT and ACT prep is the person in front of your kid. Tip: Research the prospective tutor or teacher on LinkedIn to see how much experience they have.

(You doing some research?)

Bad idea #3: Taking the test with no prep.

"My son took the August SAT just to see how he'd do." 

Taking a test with zero prep can be discouraging, since the material and timing are unfamiliar. And the score in that situation isn't very diagnostic. 

The PSAT your kid took sophomore year can be a diagnostic tool - or better yet, she can take an official SAT or ACT in a library study room - for free. Ideally, someone like us would introduce both tests to her first, so she's not thrown off by the material. 

We hold proctored practice tests at our office, too. No need to take the real thing to get a baseline score.


Bad idea #4: Using third-party practice tests.

Another bad thing about companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review is that they write their own practice tests. This is more profitable for them than licensing official SAT / ACT material. But official material is mind-bogglingly more carefully developed. We only use official practice tests for that reason.

In a recent official ACT blog, I learned that each test question undergoes 16 different audits to make sure it's consistent and fair. 16! I know from experience that the person writing the practice question for a company like Kaplan is the most likely the only person who will check - or care about - that question's validity. As a result, questions from companies like Kaplan are often maddeningly inconsistent and not very similar to official SAT and ACT questions.

Bonus Bad: When companies use their own tests, they sometimes give students an unrealistically difficult diagnostic test to make it seem like the kid needs tons of tutoring. And then everyone's happy when the student "improves" by a lot of points on the real test.

Tip: If the program insists that you take a diagnostic test at their facility, this could be why. 

(Also probably not smart to play chess with your cat.)

Bad idea #5: Starting too late.

Taking the SAT / ACT for the first time in the late summer / early fall is a good idea for most kids, since they can use the relatively calm summer to get a lot of prep done. Then, if needed, they can prep again for a test in, say, the spring.

If someone waits until mid-junior year to deal with test prep, they'll have to work on the tests at the same time they're busy with school and all that that entails. Even if someone hasn't taken all the math that's tested, they can still make a lot of progress - and master a lot of the necessary skills - by taking the August SAT or September ACT.

At the very latest, most students should take an SAT or ACT by spring of junior year - but again, probably sooner. As you may know, most kids take the test 2 or 3 times before they're done.


The Bottom Line

Before deciding on an important - and expensive - service like SAT and ACT prep, consult with a real expert. Matt, Blake, Kaitlin, and I have all been doing this for many years and are happy to help.

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