SAT Prep

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