Why We Don't Like the ACT (Part 1)

The ACT has transitioned to a Computer-Based Test (CBT) format this year for international locations. Test centers should have banks of computers and students will have options on taking the test in the morning or the afternoon of Friday or Saturday on test weekends. CBT formats are used for many other standardized tests such as the TOEFL and GMAT but employing this technology with a test like the ACT presents many challenges.

Test format and availability aside, in this issue we will dwell on official practice materials. The College Board has made available eight full SAT tests for free, legal download. These tests are as close as you can get to the real thing and come complete with scoring guides, answer descriptions, and scoring tables. College Board has also partnered with Khan Academy to make freely available on-line resources for SAT preparation. Eight tests is more than enough for any student and we heartily recommend our students avail themselves of this resource.

The ACT is using international students as a trial for the new CBT test format. We will get into the specific drawbacks of Computer Based vs. Computer Adaptive in the future, but a core issue is that there is only one test available for practice on the ACT website. It says "five tests" but it actually just one complete test with five sections, not five full tests. This one test is only available behind a registration-wall used to data capture details on potential testers. What is more, this actual test dates back to June 2013 (Form 71C) and there are several format differences between it and what kids will presumably encounter on the real test (double passages, specific math content, and number of science passages). There is one official paper-based test available with some skilled Google work, but the fact that there is only one option for practicing the cumbersome computer-based test interface belies the ACT's commitment to the international market.

While the College Board hasn't garnered much praise for its work with international students on the SAT, at least there are ample practice materials and hence students know exactly what to expect.

Why not to rush into test prep

The SAT/ACT test what students learn in school. Therefore, the more students goes to school, the higher the scores will be.  The tendency to start prep for the tests too early in the summer before 11th grade is a common one, but ultimately foolish.  The time would be better spent on any number of other activities that will make for a stronger application and ultimately better personal grown.  Students will learn much more about the world and themselves scooping ice cream than taking a stack of practice tests over the summer.  

There is a fair amount of math content on both tests that isn’t normally covered until the first half of 11th grade such as complex numbers, basic trigonometry, circle equations, and absolute value.  It is much better to wait until these concepts are covered normally in school than trying to read ahead of normal course work. There are of course the really cool kids who are in honors math and go to math camp, but such students will probably excel in the math portion if they take it in August, and score even higher if they wait till December or March with no additional effort.  Similarly, reading and writing/grammar skills will improve over time and scores tend to float up naturally with normal school work. Students should try to read as much as possible – anything without too many pictures is better than nothing.  

The danger is students rushing into test prep too early, taking the test early in 11th grade, scoring ok but not great, then feeling the need to prepare again for December, rinse, and repeat in a Sisyphean quest for a few more points that won’t make a difference for admissions.  Better to hold off until the second half of 11th grade or the December test at the very earliest.  Prepare once, do well, and then worry about making varsity volleyball or getting the lead in the school play.  You can take the test again if needed, but best to go in with a positive attitude.

What To Do Instead Of Test Prep This Summer

  • Read a book/magazine/newspaper
    The more you read, the better you write. Try to get through a book every couple weeks. We don’t expect you to read Shakespeare for fun, so anything without too many pictures is a good start. Google search “100 Great Books” if you really want some inspiration. A good place to start would be reading a magazine like Time or Newsweek. If you can read and understand every word and concept in a more sophisticated publication like The Economist, you probably don’t need our help.

  • Volunteer or get a job (or both)
    Work experience is a great way to learn more about yourself and understand the real world. Just volunteering at an animal shelter or old folks home will help broaden your perspective, not to mention look really good on a college application.

  • Play a sport
    American universities like students who have had experience in sports as it shows an ability to focus and act as part of a team. Go ahead and do organized sports, even if you aren’t that great at them, or even if they aren’t played competitively in America (e.g. Netball!). Sporting activities alone probably won’t get you into an American university unless you are nationally or world-ranked, but they certainly do help as the majority of top students in America play competitive sports.

  • Research schools
    Get on the interwebs and start looking at universities. Let’s face it; your chances of getting into an Ivy League school or Stanford, MIT, etc. are incredibly difficult, so start looking at other high-quality schools with programs that interest you in locales and with cultures that pique your curiosity. Talk to your school university counselor or consult the United States Education Information Center (www.useic.org) for some ideas of places to start. The College Board website also has a decent search engine for schools.

  • Visit schools
    If you happen to visit the U.S. during your break, take the time if possible to visit nearby universities, even if they may not be on your early list of target schools. Exploring a campus environment and imagining yourself as possibly being a part of it in the near future can in itself awaken your inner drive to take the college search and application process a bit more seriously (and not go through the process just for the sake of satisfying your parents). Take a tour and talk to people there - you’ll be more relaxed about the visit since it is not on your list, and who knows, you might actually end up liking the school enough to apply to it after all.

  • Connect with us
    Join our Facebook group by searching for “Testtakers Singapore”. Also check our Study in America blog at www.testtakers-sg.com with links to articles that may interest you. Follow us on Twitter (Testtakers_SG) Email us at info@testtakers-sg.com if you have any questions.

Summer Test Prep is a Waste of Time and Money

My name is Jeremy Craig and I’ve been teaching test preparation since 1993. I know altogether more about the test than nearly anyone I know and I can stay silent on this point no longer. Simply put: Summer test preparation programs are largely a waste of time and money. All of our competitors in Singapore run formal test prep programs over the summer months, but we don’t. We know the test well, and we won’t take your money for something that isn’t optimally effective. We are an ethical business.

The tests are not factually based, they are reasoning tests. The best way to prepare for the tests is to understand how the test is put together and then master the best techniques for approaching each type of question. Therefore, the best (and usually only) time to prepare for a test is in the immediate lead-up to a test date. This is why all of our programs lead to a test date. Preparing in June and July is akin to preparing for a 10 km race 8 weeks in advance and then sitting around for 6 weeks after you have achieved peak fitness. In my 25 years of SAT preparation experience, nearly every student I’ve worked with in the summer has come back to me in September in a panic, having forgotten most of the techniques.

Of course, some students may actually do a practice test per week in August and September and review their course notes with a religious fervor. Good for them. Their time would have been better spent doing other things to make them a more complete applicant.

Everyone has a peak SAT score and very few can hope to challenge for a full 1600/36; it just doesn’t work that way. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet thanks to his natural ability and an awful lot of hard work on training and honing his technique. Any young runner could hope to improve his or her time with training and hard work but could any of them challenge for an Olympic gold medal? Similarly, at Testtakers we help students achieve their full potential on the one or the other test. Any time spent on test preparation after that is reached runs into the law of diminishing returns and should be better spent elsewhere.

So this begs the question: What should my child do over the summer months? The short answer is nearly anything other than test preparation.

Admissions directors from elite schools have personally told me that they wished more kids would learn about the “real” world by taking up a summer job or internship (Playing computer games all summer, not so great; see the other post for additional suggestions). It is important for students to gain some real world experience and perspective which should hopefully be reflected in their college essays. Imagine the collective groans around an admissions committee table when they see an essay entitled: “My Summer of test preparation and IB/AP Study.”

We know that kids in school now are very busy with their school work and myriad other activities and many claim this as a rationale for doing SAT prep over the relatively calm summer months. We don’t buy this. The SAT is available 6 times per year and with proper planning there should be a window when a once or twice weekly SAT preparation program can be fit into the 6 or 8 weeks leading to a test date.

Here is a little secret which we have been divulging for years now: SAT scores alone will not get you into an elite university. In fact, as admissions have grown more competitive a great SAT score and near perfect GPA or IB result will also not get you automatically into your dream school. Investing hundreds of hours for another 50 points on the SAT is foolish as that time would be better spent working on artwork, training to make the varsity football team, playing an instrument, community work, etc. Anything to set the applicant a bit apart from all the other high- scoring kids applying from Asia.

We do some tutoring for students over the summer months who are back from prep school in the States and who may not have access to a top test preparation program like Testtakers at their school. These students aside, we spend our summer recharging and planning for the new season ahead, and turning away potential revenue every day. Desperate for something to do? Register for one of our programs early and you can start working on our Study Buddy flashcard box. Don’t do a stack of practice tests as this will only reinforce bad habits and make it harder for you to really master the test in the end. Read a book or magazine instead.

Have a great summer! Enjoy yourself!✪

How Not to Prepare for the SAT/ACT

For centuries, aspiring civil servants in China spent years of their lives in study to prepare for examinations that focused on rote memorization of the classic Confucian texts.  This type of exam continue today in China with the “Gao Kao” (高考), the results of which dictate where students go to university.  The Gao Kao is best prepared for through sheer brute force and mock test after mock test.  This type of testing is common throughout other Asian nations and the normal preparation process lasts years and in many places offerings are made at shrines of various religions beseeching for divine help, such is the importance of these exams - in many cases the sole criterion for university admission.  

 The ACT or SAT is certainly an important part of the American university admissions process but as we have said again and again, there is no minimum score for any American university.  Every year elite schools reject students scoring full marks and accept other students scoring much lower who are more “complete” applicants. Hence, spending hundreds of hours on test prep at the expense of playing sports and participating in other CCAs is sheer folly.  

 Both the SAT and ACT are not tests of knowledge or memorization skills.  As the College Board states, it tests what you already have learned in school: Reading, Writing and Mathematics.  As such, learning how the test is constructed and specific strategies for different question types is the most efficient way to prepare.  The Testtakers approach is just this: new techniques and strategies rather than tedious practice and rote memorization.  Our programs range in length but seldom involve more than 30-45 hours or so of classroom time as we have found that is enough time to internalize the techniques and apply them to the test.

 Most other SAT preparation providers in the region take a more blunt-force approach with programs ranging up to 200 hours in length, often stretching over Christmas or Summer holidays.  Our research has shown that these extended programs are seldom as effective as our shorter, more efficient programs.  These long programs represent the application of an Asian style of exam preparation to a test that does not lend itself to that approach by the very designs of the tests.  All those additional hours would be better spent working on your other school work and pursuing other noble pursuits (not Pokemon Go!).  High tests scores and top academic marks alone will not get you into a premier school.

 Simply put, very, very few students are capable of getting a perfect score, just as very, very few people are capable of winning an Olympic medal, or very, very few people are capable of becoming a chess master.  Our test preparation programs help students reach their highest potential score as quickly and efficiently as possible.  To use a sports analogy close to the writer’s heart, I know that if I practice golf for 2 hours a day I would certainly improve but no matter what I do there is no way I could ever play against Tiger Woods in a tournament.  It just isn’t going to happen.  Similarly, diminishing returns kick in quite quickly in test preparation and I lament how many over-eager students look to start SAT preparation a year in advance or enroll in course after course chasing a few extra points. For the purposes of getting into a great school, it is just plain stupid.  If you don’t agree with me, give me a call on +65 6728 7476 and I’ll be more than happy to chat.

-- Jeremy Craig, Testtakers Singapore