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College Entrance Exams: What Parents, Teachers, and School Administrators Can Do to Help Students Succeed

Friday, October 20, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

The two major college entrance exams—the SAT® and ACT® tests—can cause stress for college-bound high school students every year. These exams are certainly important, as they can have a significant impact on which colleges or universities accept a student. However, with planning and preparation, there’s no need for these tests to be a fear-inducing experience. Here’s what all of the adults in students’ academic lives—including parents, teachers, and school administrators—can do to support success on college entrance exams.

What Parents Can Do:

1. Understand the different tests

Most parents are familiar with the two primary college entrance exams—the ACT and the SAT exams—but do you know which one your child should actually be taking? Before your child signs up for any test, have a discussion with him or her about what types of colleges he or she wants to apply for. Traditionally, private colleges and those on the East Coast or West Coast lean towards the SAT exam, while public universities and schools in the Midwest gravitate toward the ACT test. Many schools will accept scores from either—be sure to check so that your child doesn’t end up taking both tests unnecessarily. The SAT exam also tends to focus on more vocabulary and critical thinking, while the ACT test is known for presenting more straightforward questions. If the schools your child is interested in will accept either test, it’s helpful to think about which format he or she will be more likely excel on. It’s also important to note that the SAT Suite of Assessments offers additional SAT Subject Tests™, which some selective schools consider in the admissions process. Finally, make sure that you and your child are aware of the SAT Student Search Service® and ACT Educational Opportunity Service (EOS®) and whether or not he or she wants to opt in for these services.

2. Make the most of the available resources

Prep courses, practice tests, and study guides for both the SAT and ACT tests are available through numerous outlets, including schools, community education programs, online providers, and private tutoring services. Do some research on what’s available in your area and what the best fit is for your child. Dedicated test prep is the best way to help your child become familiar with the format of the test(s) he or she will be taking and gain an understanding of which topics he or she needs to focus time on studying.

3. Prioritize sleep, nutrition, and moral support

Never underestimate the power of a good night of sleep, a nutritious meal, and some heartfelt words of encouragement. These simple things can go a long way in helping your child be sharp and perform to the best of his or her abilities when the time for the exam comes. Avoid scheduling your child’s exam for the morning following any late-night activities, make sure that he or she walks out the door with something hearty in his or her stomach like oatmeal or scrambled eggs and toast, and remind him or her of all the hard work he or she has done and progress made. You can also serve as test-day logistics manager, making sure that your child brings the proper materials (both tests provide comprehensive what-to-bring lists), wears comfortable clothing, has a snack for any breaks, and brings a jacket in case the testing room is cold. These basic acts of caretaking are some of the most important ways parents can build children’s confidence and support their success on test day.

What Teachers Can Do:

1. Help students leverage their own data

More and more of teachers’ instruction is informed by data—why shouldn’t students’ preparation efforts for college entrance exams be as well? Make data sharing and analysis from classroom assessments and formative activities as a regular part of classroom routines. When students have a clear understanding of their specific areas of strength and weakness, they can better focus their studying.  

2. Review general test-taking strategies and best practices

Ultimately, the ACT and SAT exams are both just more tests. The same general test-taking strategies that teachers focus on in preparation for end-of-course exams or state assessments (and any other timed assessments) will be just as beneficial on these tests. Taking time to review these strategies in the classroom can make a big difference for students when they’re preparing for college entrance exams. Some of the most important test-taking tips for students include being sure to read each question fully, eliminating wrong answers on multiple-choice questions, skipping questions that they don’t know the answer to, and reviewing their answers if they finish with extra time.

3. Connect classroom curriculum to material on the tests

College entrance exams come with a big intimidation factor for students. But, the reality is that they are designed to measure knowledge that students should be acquiring through standard, college-preparatory curriculum. Of course, teachers can never know the exact questions their students will face on the ACT test or SAT exam, but as much as possible, do some research on what subject matter the tests cover, and point out when you’re working on those subjects in the classroom. Students can get a big confidence boost just by knowing that they are familiar with material they will face on test day.

What School Administrators Can Do:

1. Make information on college entrance exams readily available to students

Knowledge is power, and school administrators are in a unique position to make sure that students have easy access to all the information they want and need when it comes to college readiness. Post information about the ACT and SAT exams around your school, including info on why these tests matter and how to register. Make sure that students are aware of resources available to them for test preparation and college decision-making within the guidance or counseling office, and consider sending out a communication to all juniors and their parents with ACT and SAT exam registration information at the start of the school year. Distributing a college-readiness timeline and checklist can be a great way to go about this.

2. Offer students access to high-quality test-preparation courses and resources

Given the length and significance of college entrance exams, extra preparation outside of the classroom is key for students to achieve the score they want. School administrators can help by offering dedicated test-preparation courses on campus before or after school or helping students find trusted local test-prep classes from outside providers. Administrators can also provide students with access to online self-practice programs like Edmentum’s Study Island that they can use during free time during the school day, in school labs before or after school hours, or on their own devices at home.

3. Make sure that rigorous, college preparatory curriculum is being used

The best way school administrators can help prepare students for college entrance exams is to ensure that the curriculum being offered covers the material students will need to know to be successful not only on these tests but also in actual college classes. Make sure that curriculum used in your school meets relevant state and college-readiness standards and, as much as possible, offers students rigorous course options designed for college prep, including International Baccalaureate®, Advanced Placement®, and other accelerated courses. If your school does not have the resources to offer these classes in the building, think about online options like Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy to expand students’ choices.

Ready to learn more about how Edmentum can support college entrance exam preparation in your school or district? Check out our college- and career-readiness brochure!