(The following is a guest post from Erika Oppenheimer, an SAT and ACT test prep coach in New York City and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test.)
The SAT and ACT preparation process is challenging, regardless of a student’s life or educational background. An independent education provides students with an incredible opportunity to learn in a way that fits into their lives and learning styles. Homeschooled students may have some advantages in the SAT and ACT prep process over their traditionally educated peers. For example, homeschooled students may have more experience directing long-term projects and self-motivating.
However, there may be some aspects of the SAT and ACT that homeschooled students initially experience as greater challenges than their peers who have spent more time in school settings. By paying attention to their individual strengths and limitations going into the prep process, students can achieve optimal results on their college admissions test.
Here are a few aspects of the SAT and ACT prep process that are important for all test takers, but which may be especially important to highlight for students who have been homeschooled in the years leading up to the SAT and ACT.
The SAT and ACT are administered over 3-4 hours, depending on whether students take the Essay Test, which many colleges require of applicants. The longest section on the SAT lasts 65 minutes; the longest section on the ACT lasts one hour. If your independent program includes frequent opportunities for the student to stand up, stretch, or dialogue (generally good practices for learning and wellbeing), then you may want to begin incorporating longer periods in which students must work independently and without a break. Building endurance for the test can happen both through taking SAT and ACT practice tests and through completing other coursework. Either way, it is important for students to be able to direct their attention for long periods of time in order to perform well throughout the SAT and ACT.
- Test Prep Action Step: Work independently and without interruption for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break to stretch or move around. Build up to one hour of focused productivity.
Working around Other People
Students without special testing accommodations will take the SAT or ACT at a local test center, surrounded by other test takers. If your homeschool program consists mostly of the student working alone in a room (supervised or unsupervised) or in small groups, then the student may want to gain experience focusing in less isolated or familiar settings. The public library is a great place to take SAT and ACT practice tests. The library is mostly quiet, but still has more activity than an empty room.
- Test Prep Action Step: Move your SAT/ACT practice test—or your homeschool or homework session—to a local library or other public space.
The SAT and ACT are, of course, timed tests. The element of time shouldn’t be thought of as an obstacle to top performance, but rather an aspect of this particular “game.” The challenge of the game is answering as many questions correctly as one can within the time limits.
There are three elements of this challenge: first, a willingness to adapt one’s approach to tasks such as reading passages so that time isn’t wasted rereading portions of the passage or reading for details that won’t later be covered in the test questions; second, developing a strong understanding of the concepts being tested; third, discovering an overall pacing strategy that balances the quality of a student’s answers (his or her accuracy) with the quantity of questions answered—disproportionately favoring one over the other will have a negative impact on a student’s scores.
- Test Prep Action Step: Rather than simply taking practice test after practice test, do an initial review of the concepts tested on the SAT or ACT and the format of the test for which you are preparing. After this review, apply your knowledge within the test through taking practice tests. See where you get stuck, and review those concepts in greater depth. At first, you may not finish a given section, but as you build comfort with unfamiliar topics and the test format, you’ll naturally begin to work more quickly. Within the Reading section of either test and the ACT’s Science section, which depend less on preexisting knowledge, you may not need to do an initial review, but you can spend time considering what approach to reading the passage will enable you to work most efficiently. You may also do timed drills, in which you break the section into smaller parts to get a better sense of your pacing and experiment with different approaches.
(Does your student need practice testing? Check out the Performance Series Tests from True North Homeschool Academy.)
Given that the tests are an important part of the college and scholarship application processes, they often bring up nerves for students. This stress is compounded for students who will take the test in unfamiliar settings. By exploring and adopting habits that help manage stress and nerves, students will be better able to apply what they know in the test room.
- Test Prep Action Step: Try taking a few full, conscious breaths breathing in for four counts, holding for two counts, and exhaling for four counts. Do you feel any different after than you felt before? A conscious breath is a habit that can be easily incorporated into test taking. Take a conscious breath in between test sections and halfway through each section or if you begin to feel overwhelmed by a test question.
If you feel overwhelmed within the test prep process, consider partnering with a tutor or coach (like me) who is an expert in navigating the test prep process. There’s a lot of information out there about the SAT and ACT, and the person with whom you work will help you determine the strategies that will work best for you. You may also use my book, Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test, as a more complete resource for learning how to effectively navigate every step of the SAT and ACT process.
Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach in New York City and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test. In addition to teaching test content, she helps students manage the stress of the test prep process. Coaching sessions may take place in Manhattan or over Skype.
Learn more about Erika’s coaching programs at ErikaOppenheimer.com.