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SAT and ACT Test Prep: Help Your Students Succeed on the Exams

SAT and ACT Test Prep

SAT and ACT test prep is big business. Parents can pay thousands of dollars for services to help their kids do well on college admissions tests. It's no wonder private tutoring and test preparation is a $12 billion industry in North America, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc. But not everyone can easily swallow test prep costs. Fortunately, teachers can direct students to free options to help them succeed on the SAT and ACT.

Well Worth the Cost (If There Was One!)

One resource that's getting a lot of attention is the Official SAT Practice from Khan Academy, which was developed in partnership with SAT administrator College Board. "I recommend Khan Academy for all of my students," said Acacia McCombs, a science teacher at New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA) in Santa Fe. In her role as senior seminar teacher, she also instructs students on college test prep. Besides being free, McCombs listed many other positives attributes of the Khan Academy resource; for instance, it integrates with the PSAT, importing students' results on those tests, and uses that data to help customize practice problems. Additionally, "there are a lot of good college resources on Khan Academy that help students with admissions essays and interviews and getting good letters of recommendation," she said.

Among other recommended free resources is PrepFactory.com, which offers interactive content and test-specific strategy modules that map to both the SAT and ACT. Also getting a thumbs up for ACT test prep are sites like Number2.com, and Union Test Prep, which have offerings that range from tutorials and study guides to flash cards, practice questions, and tests. The ACT also offers some no-cost help, such as sample questions, study guides, and practice tests (including downloadable printouts to simulate the test-day experience).

Teachers could also direct students to their local public library, advises Ruth A. Wilson, founder and director of development at Brightmont Academy, which has 11 campuses across multiple states. Typically, libraries stock multiple test prep resources to use on-site or check out.

Strategies for In-School Help

When it comes to SAT and ACT test prep, schools or districts may pay for subscriptions to services with features like practice tests to help students sort out what they need to work on. That's the case at NMSA, which uses Method Test Prep and Naviance. Neither program, however, has a time limit as strict as the ACT or SAT on practice problems, according to McCombs. "The time limit seems to be one of the most important strategies that I work on with the students," she said. "They have probably never had a time limit where they have to solve each math problem in a minute or less." Getting a feel for the structure of the tests is why she recommends that "all students take one full-length exam timed as a practice."

McCombs also said she works with the students on doing basic math without a calculator for the SAT exam and scientific reasoning for the ACT test. "We do a lot of graph reading and using the scientific method to predict outcomes," she said. "The test seems very much based on logic, not on science content."

Another Vote for Keeping It Real


Brightmont Academy follows McCombs's same logic about acquainting students with the actual test-taking experience. "It is one thing to review content and feel comfortable with each individual subtest, and quite another to experience the fatigue associated with maintaining focus throughout the entire exam," said Wilson. The school purchases commercial prep books that typically include full-length tests, like The Official ACT Guide.

"Sometimes a student will become frustrated and want to leave the test early," she said. "We are always grateful to have these emotions emerge in our school setting where the student can regroup, engage in additional practice, and build up the necessary stamina to complete the exam."

It's important for teachers to familiarize students with the directions and test format so they don't waste time on test day figuring out what to do, Wilson added. Soft skills like memorizing directions and recognizing time limits "are all teachable strategies that contribute to the student's confidence and most accurate score," she said.

Review and Adjust to Fill Knowledge Gaps

High schoolers generally take the SAT and/or ACT two or three times during their junior and senior years. So, another way educators can help students achieve their best scores is to regularly review test results. That model is followed by the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District in New York, which includes John F. Kennedy High School.

There's no specific college test prep support offered in the classroom, though the district pays for students to access Castle Learning and Method Test Prep online. But according to JFK High School's Director of Guidance Laurie B. Lynn, "based on the trends and any identified gaps we see [during the review], we can and do make adjustments in the types of skills that the classroom teachers address."

SAT and ACT test prep is already a stressful time for your students — there's no need for it to be a financial burden as well. Share these free resources with them or talk to your administration about getting access for your students so they can knock their results out of the park.