Maybe your child has just started high school when you first hear the conversation. Maybe it happens in middle school. The talk has turned to college, and a fellow parent is touting a tutor. You lean in to hear more. The private tutor arrives at the house twice a week to prepare the young student for the SAT.
SAT? Wait. Isn't that for college?
Yes, it is the all-important exam for college admissions, but don't be surprised to discover that students are starting as early as freshman year to prep for the big test. A freshman, by the way, is more than two years away from taking the test.
While it's hard to find reliable national data on trends in college testing preparations, a quick chat to a few local test prep professionals suggests that in Bergen County, at least, families are starting work earlier than ever before.
The norm, they say, is still to start studying and preparing for the SAT or ACT between four and six months before the test date, for a few hours each week. That puts most students on a timeline that generally starts in the fall or winter of their junior year. But more and more families, it seems, are pushing the envelope.
"It is not uncommon to see students as young as ninth grade preparing for these tests," says Eileen Huntington, the founder of Huntington Learning Centers, which provides, among other services, SAT/PSAT and ACT tutoring in hundreds of locations around the country. "Parents really want to give their students an edge, so we do see students who are younger and younger each year."
Mark Weinfeld, a math tutor, concurs. "As time goes on, the tests seem to loom larger for everybody, and many parents' preferences are to get their kids started as soon as possible," he says.
Testing professional Vito Tirone, who works with students on the verbal and writing parts of these tests in Bergen and Essex counties, says that he's even tutored seventh graders preparing to take the SATs as part of the Johns Hopkins University Talent Search for gifted students. Although, he adds, he doesn't advise starting that early. Those were extreme situations, he says, and the children were pretty miserable during the sessions.
Which brings up an important question: Is the trend toward lengthening prep time for college admissions tests effective and/or a good thing for your child? The answer is decidedly mixed. And, as with most complicated parenting decisions, your family's answer will depend on your child and you.
Of course, there is an even more profound issue implicit in this conversation. Should our children be prepping at all for the SAT or ACT tests? One thing to consider is that test prep has become ubiquitous in our culture. The child who doesn't receive at least some basic instruction may be at a distinct disadvantage compared to his peers.
"The SAT is extremely coachable," says Weinfeld. "There are strategies, tricks and techniques that students have not learned in school." Many children will increase their scores by a few hundred points with proper preparation. A couple hundred points on the SATs can potentially open doors to a more prestigious class of colleges and universities for any child.
But if some test prep is helpful, how much benefit is there to adding even more prep time, and earlier?
"It's like learning how to drive a car; the more you do it, the better you get at it," says Huntington. This is particularly apt advice for children who struggle a bit in school.
Tirone adds that the SAT exam has evolved and expanded, incorporating the new writing section as well as new topics in grammar usage and sentence structure. This, he says, offers "some justification for starting earlier."
He does warn, however, against test prep burnout. "Different students have different shelf lives when it comes to this process," he says. He makes a point to discuss this issue with parents before taking on a new student.
"Over-preparing, from my perspective, is a big risk associated with beginning prep too soon," agrees Weinfeld. "At a certain point, kids get tired of it, like everything else. And you can sometimes see students losing it."
Weinfeld also points out the natural tendency for children to improve their scores with maturation alone. Many students, without tutoring, have test scores that improve from the PSAT in sophomore year to the SAT in junior year. They benefit from an extra year of schooling, and the emotional and intellectual growth that goes with it.
In addition, says Weinfeld, starting math test prep as a sophomore can be tricky because many children will not have covered all the concepts they'll be tested on until the end of sophomore year or even the beginning of junior year.
This is especially true for the ACT, which is more content-oriented than the SAT; its math problems are at a higher level but more straightforward than the SAT math problems, according to Weinfeld. So, ACT test prep at this point might include learning certain types of math problems, such as functions and functional notation, for the first time. It would be several months before the student learns the same material in school.
Tips for Test Prep:
1. Start your research early. Even if you're satisfied that your child only needs a few months of prep time in her junior year to score well on the college entrance exams, it's still a good idea to start thinking about study options much earlier. This way you can investigate what's available and consider what type of help would best suit both your budget and your child's learning style. Many popular tutors fill up their student roster months in advance.
2. Ask for a free demonstration lesson before committing to a prep course. In fact, most prep services, whether a class, small group, private tutor or even online setting, will give potential students an opportunity to try out their services at little or no cost, to see if the program meshes with the child's needs and personality. Take advantage of the free tryout.
3. Encourage reading from a young age. Good readers generally get good scores on the verbal section, even without too much preparation. Kids who enjoy reading novels and spend some time reading the newspaper throughout their high school career are at a distinct advantage with college entrance tests (and throughout life). "If a student can read an article in (a serious newspaper) on a subject he is not familiar with and figure it out quickly, that will help a lot," says testing professional Vito Tirone.
4. Discuss the relative merits of the SAT and ACT for your child with the prep source. Many, like Huntington Learning Center, will try to evaluate which one would work best for a student early on and then concentrate on preparing only for that test. "We never recommend prepping for both at the same time," says Eileen Huntington. But some tutors, like Tirone, will occasionally prep a student for both. "You may think it would divide the time available," he says, "but I have found some reciprocal advantages."
5. If the time and monetary commitment for the full course of prep work is overwhelming, talk to the tutor or learning company to see if there are workable options available. "My daughter has a lot of other commitments and didn't have the time to come in for the set two hours of weekly tutoring," says one local mom. "So we agreed to an hour of tutoring every other week, and she's doing a lot of the vocabulary and reading work on her own."