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!✪

Revised SAT Feature on the Latest Singapore American Newsletter

We penned our thoughts and advice about the upcoming Revised SAT in the August 2015 Singapore American Newsletter. The feature was written before additional details on the test were released by College Board, so references to grade level in the feature may be a bit confusing (For example, for pretty much all of the International Schools in Singapore operating on the August - June academic year, the Class of 2015 has already graduated this past June). Our previous post is a bit more current, but the advice in the feature still stands:

From the Latest Study in America Newsletter: The Redesigned SAT

There has been no shortage of ink spilled about the new SAT, or the rSAT (“revised SAT” in College Board parlance).  For the last month or so we’ve been picking over the 4 full-length mock rSAT tests released by the College Board to get a feel for the new format.  Concurrently, our development team at Testtakers USA has been hard at work for some time on new materials and we’ll be more prepared than anyone else when the rSAT is first administered in May 2016. 

...We’d recommend most students graduating in 2016 or 2017 take the current SAT on or before December 2015 – leaving the January 2016 test date in reserve.

On first blush, the test does seem “harder”.  Math is a bit more advanced with no calculator allowed in one of the sections.  Arcane vocab is gone with a focus instead of more understanding of common words used in context and “evidence-based reading” – meaning answering inferential questions on the meaning of passages.  The grammar portion shifts to a format that we shall call “inspired by the ACT English Section” with the MCQ questions in the context of longer passages rather than stand-alone sentences.  The guessing penalty is eliminated and the number of multiple choices is reduced to four from five.  Two changes that mirror the ACT rather closely…  We’ve found that as a result of fewer choices on the reading it doesn’t really make it easier as there aren’t as many irrelevant answer choices such as we see on the present test.  The essay is much more challenging, bordering on literary criticism, and longer at 50 minutes.  Though the essay will not be required, most universities will want to see it.  There will be some “science” questions but similar to the ACT, they really just test your ability to understand a chart or graph.

For many students the new format will be a bit daunting at first, especially those who have been silly enough to do SAT prep for years based on the old format.  However, let’s remember that the test is meant to be used by universities as a predictor of academic success so if all of a sudden every kid did “worse” on the rSAT then the test wouldn’t be doing its job very well.  While the rSAT may look harder, if it is to satisfy its claim of being an useful test then the scoring range or curve has to match what we have with the old test.  Kids who do well in school and would do well on the current SAT will do just fine on the rSAT (or the ACT for that matter).  Students who struggle with MCQ tests will do poorly; middling students will perform…middlingly.  Rafa Nadal is strongest on clay courts, but he is no slouch on grass or hard court.  Similarly, students who do well on one (SAT, rSAT, or the ACT) will do well on all and taking all three represents a waste of time and money.

So, the million dollar question is which one to take.  Given that the rSAT is still a bit of a unknown and you get better gains preparing for the SAT over the ACT, we’d recommend most students graduating in 2016 or 2017 take the current SAT on or before December 2015 – leaving the January 2016 test date in reserve.  If you don’t do great the rSAT will be there for you as well as the ACT if needed.