How to Prepare for the SAT: An Academic Approach

The Illinois state-mandated SAT is now seven weeks away (on April 10), and millions of students across the country are gearing up for March, May, and June administrations of the SAT. With so many students sitting for upcoming administrations, we want to offer some insights on how to prepare for the SAT for your student.

How to prepare for the SAT reading section

With the SAT’s 2016 redesign, “going the distance” means something entirely new. The redesigned SAT features a 65-minute reading section, and the number of passages has grown from four to five.  So, our little reading gladiators have entered a new arena, and the endurance requirement of the sport has changed: a reading rumble that involves only 4 rounds of approximately 9 minutes of reading on the ACT, for example, now involves 5 rounds of 13 minutes of reading on the SAT.

How is your child training? Is your child getting in enough reading rounds? How long does your child sit and read complex texts? And let me specify: without interruption! No texting, no Snapchatting, no Facebooking, etc.

In the weeks prior to the SAT, how can we intensify the training? A practice test to simulate the exact reading conditions of the test; shutting off all devices and reading for over an hour without breaks; timed 13-minute rounds of reading bursts to prepare for the passage-by-passage experience.

As parents and educators, we know that mindless drilling does lead to improvement, if not true learning. However, understanding the actual requirements of an academic task – the timing, attention, endurance required – is necessary to create a learning experience that prepares students thoughtfully to maximize their performances. You have to practice how you play.

It’s time to script out that all-important and inspiring Rocky training montage for your child, complete with some extra reading rounds to build endurance for an SAT that promises a new, important, and extended reading challenge.

How to prepare for the SAT grammar questions

How good is your child’s grasp of grammar? Or how well does your child grasp grammar?   

Even the two questions above raise an important grammar question—what’s the difference between “good” and “well”?  That’s easy, right?  “Good” is an adjective, and “well” is an adverb. But hold on: can’t you say, “I am good,” and “I am well”?  In the second case, “well” is an adjective meaning “healthy.”  And hold on again: can’t you say, like James Brown famously did, “I feel good,” and isn’t “feel” a verb?  Oh well, maybe we should just call the whole thing off.

Writing off grammar is not really an option for student’s taking the SAT, preparing for college-level curriculum, or, for that matter, anyone who wants to avoid costly mistakes in life. This point has been made especially clear in a very expensive class-action lawsuit amounting to $10M in overtime pay a dairy company in Portland, ME owes its workers—all because of the importance of one little, missing comma.

The lack of an Oxford comma in the following state law absolutely impacts its intended meaning, which was to state that overtime pay does NOT apply to the following:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.

The key question: does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three food types that follow, or does it mean to exempt only packing for the shipping or distribution of them?

Attorneys for the truck drivers argued that because of that missing comma before “or,” only packing for was exempt from overtime pay but not the actual work of distribution, which amounted to $10 M of overtime pay the company owes its drivers. Well, there it is: we can’t exactly write off grammar, can we?

The SAT’s Evidence-based Reading & Writing section features 44 passage-based grammar questions dispersed among four passages, each of which is 400-450 words in length. These questions cover a host of relevant grammar rules that college-bound writers must know: everything from commas to logical transitions to proper diction and idiom has a home on the SAT.

While standardized testing can be a controversial topic, most of us – parents and educators alike – feel that mastery of proper written standards of English is not. What’s more, it’s a tremendous opportunity to feed two birds with one seed. Any of the grammar rules relevant to SAT performance are undoubtedly relevant to better performance on essay composition in your student’s high school classes. The rules assessed on the SAT are rules that matter greatly to clear, logical written expression, the standards of excellent writing that teachers at school expect.

One exercise your student could do in the 11th hour before the SAT is to grab the last three or four English and Social Studies essays he or she has written, review the teachers’ feedback, noting all the little mechanical mistakes the teacher highlights, and study those. Go to office hours to review these mistakes to make sure the message and teaching are clear. Your student’s teachers will be impressed, and your student will also pick up a few more grammar skills right before the SAT.

In the end, your student will do well on the grammar portion of the SAT, and that’s a good thing!

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How to prepare for the SAT math section

We all appreciate the value of proper method. Whether following step-by-step directions in assembling our children’s toys safely, or expecting our physicians to adhere to best practices in our care, or going through a formal job application process, we recognize that best-practice methods are required for the best outcomes. Yet, how often do we look at our student’s math homework worksheet and consider the quality of that work? It’s in these step-by-step solutions that the foundations of proper problem-solving methods are built and trained.

But are we watching closely enough? 

The redesigned SAT makes us take a closer look. Twenty of its 58 questions must be solved without a calculator, unlike the ACT, which allows calculator for all questions. While a useful tool, the calculator can breed dependency, leaving students uncertain of how to perform key procedures by hand. And 13 of those 58 questions are free response, meaning no multiple-choice answers are offered, while ACT is all multiple choice. When considering how to prepare for the SAT, this aspect of the test is key. On the SAT, students will find themselves confronted with questions with no multiple choice to test and no calculator to support them. It will be up to them and their mathematical methods, and those methods must be sound.

So, how are students’ methods these days? 

Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice have elevated the importance of method for schools by focusing on attention to precision, modeling with mathematics, and persevering in solving problems: all core principles that support careful step-by-step problem solving. However, students are seldom evaluated on the quality of the work they produce but instead are more often assessed only by the correctness of the answer they offer. In a recent study of schools that a university partner of ours conducted, it was found that only 3% of students were writing out their work in their test booklets.  These students answered the questions, but largely by relying only on mental math, which greatly increases the possibility of error.

As parents and educators, we want our students to be disciplined problem solvers, evidence-based thinkers who can follow a logical process. The redesigned SAT will hold them to that same standard.

So, it’s time to help our students improve their methods. Look at that math homework and make sure that pencil is being used generously. Encourage your students to “think with their pencils,” proving all conclusions with neat, step-by-step work. Committing to a disciplined method is the first step towards improving performance dramatically.

Thoughtful preparation

In the end, an academic approach to SAT preparation means looking at the specific needs of each child and tailoring the right-fit plan. Feel free to contact us today to help customize the right solution.

Matthew Pietrafetta

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