Can you improve your SAT/ACT score?


Even though I do my best to convince students and families that the standardized tests, the SAT and the ACT, aren’t nearly as important to admission as the media might lead you to believe, I still get begged for advice on how to do better.

Can test prep help? The College Board swore prep courses had no impact, but then they started selling prep services too. (Quick test. This is: a) ironic b) dumb c) confusing d) all of the above.) Students can raise their scores using materials from bookstores or online for low costs, or even free at the library. Those students, however, are self-motivated. They take practice tests and learn strategies. Those of you who are more inclined to log into World of Warcraft instead of cracking the books may want to consider a prep course.

The largest factor in test scores tends to be your stress level. So just RELAX! (According to my totally made up survey, one in five stduents has a complete panic attack during the exam. One in ten has nightmares about forgetting to put on clothes before showing up for the test. Weirdos.) While this may appear really hard to do, bear in mind the information from my last post on the tests: the tests aren’t nearly as important as your academic records, and college want to use your best scores! We really don’t care how many times you take the test. Yes, we might snicker about the student who took the test 20 times (while Collegeboard and ACT are laughing their way to the bank on your wasted test fees), but the truth is that even then we’re going to use the best scores, including mixing up the subscores from different test sittings to get the best possible total. The general data does show that most students have some improvement with taking the test more than once, but that’s a broad average and doesn’t mean you should go all nutty. I usually advise that if you feel you could have done a lot better, it’s worth another sitting, but if you really feel you put in your best, give it a rest.

So you can relax, secure that your academic records are much more important and that if you do lousy you can always do better some other time…and strangely, not worrying may just improve your score.

Also, I think the answer is ‘B’. Other than that, you’re on your own. Be seeing you.

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20 Responses

  1. As a professional test prep tutor, I would recommend doing the following:

    1) Relax, just like Dean Flagel says. 🙂

    2) Take a practice test with a test prep company. They always offer free tests and they can help you figure out where you are starting out.

    3) Do some prep. Just even buy a copy of the Real ACT / Real SAT books and do some practice test. Do something!

    4) Go take the test.

    5) Enjoy your scores!

  2. Holy Cow….could y’all be more transparent and self serving.

    Let’s hear from some Admissions employees who are invested in job security.

  3. My new anonymous friend –
    I’m not sure if your post is directed at me or Mark. I’m not sure I could be more transparent, but I’m confident I could be more self serving. And are you under the impression that I am not invested in job security? And what is it about asking people to relax that so unnerves you? Maybe you should see someone about that.

  4. I’m also confused. How is telling students to relax self-serving?

  5. As a professional test prep tutor and Dean of Admissions you know that it is numbers that are the biggest, if not the only, factor in terms of how decisions are made at GMU. Why don’t you both relax and look at applicants as people and not numbers. Better yet, review some glossy marketing brochures and spin some numbers.

  6. I’ll let Dean Flagel handle how GMU treats admissions….

    As far as test prep goes, it’s silly to think that we benefit from telling students to relax. In fact, many test prep tutors do just the opposite. They raise students’ anxieties in order to sell more tutoring!

    We want students to realize that the ACT and SAT are part of the overall application. Yes, they matter at most schools. But they are not the end all and be all of the application process.

    We ARE viewing applicants as people!

  7. I feel very relaxed, thanks.
    Of course numbers are a factor in every admissions decision, but hopefully if you read the blog, you’ll get the idea that it’s your academic record as a whole, and not some particular number, that is the largest factor in your decision.
    To try and find some value in your blather, I believe that most admissions officers do try to view applicants as people. At the end of the day, however, admissions committees only have the information you send them. Even those that interview candidates only get a brief chance to meet their applicants. Another reason to try to avoid focusing on just one school and not to take the process personally.
    If you need a distraction, try reading our viewbook – its nice and glossy.

  8. There are so many free services out there for SAT/ACT prep, I’d say don’t spend a single dime on anything. Not one single book (even if you use an outdated prep book from the library, your school, or a friend, it’s no less useful than the newest version), and not one single lesson (not only do library’s offer services, though I’m not sure of how free they are, but if you have any trouble on any questions, that’s what teachers are for!).

    I’ll admit that my sentiments towards spending money for these types of standarized tests is tainted by my belief that it’s merely a money making scheme by the College Board and not an actual attempt to assess how successful a student has been at preparing themselves for a college education. If this were the case, and if it were truly necessary, it would be funded by the government and/or by the universities. It shouldn’t come out of the student’s pockets. Test prep books only add to the pile of money.

    Regardless of all that, it’s extremely doubtful that purchasing these tools as opposed to taking advantage of the free services will improve one’s score in the least. Personally, I saw a two hundred point improvement without any test preparation at all (but that’s just me).

    In the end, as Dean Flagal stated, the score has far far less importance than your grades, essay, extra curriculars, recommendations, and whatever quality the particular university happens to be looking for at the time you’re applying.

  9. I am taking them this fall. I didn’t actually take a prep course but I do have books (that I haven’t opened yet..). Last year, I was so extremely motivated that I did practice tests online. I was supposed to do that this summer too but.. got a little side-tracked with that. I come from a family that thinks if I don’t get a perfect SAT score, my life is going to be ruined! =] A verrry relaxing message of course.. no pressure!!

  10. @zeezeecakes – I think it’s a bit much to say “Don’t spend ANY money.” Rarely are free services to prepare students for the test well-put together and older books CAN hurt if they are for older versions of the test.

    That’s not to say you need to spend a ton of money. Many students, such as yourself, have the motivation, focus, and drive to improve their own score. And even if you aren’t that focused, those free tools might just make a difference for you if you try them out.

    However, on a regular basis schools and universities DO fund programs like the one I work for. They fund them because they help improve students scores…

  11. Mark – I don’t think I’m going overboard by telling students not to spend any money. Schools are already spending millions of dollars for test preparation books, lessons, and tutors for students who either barely take advantage of them or don’t even have the basic skills necessary to take advantage of them. Why put government spending to waste while throwing more money at big corporations?

    I also tutor, but for a government program that ensures that the students in the program don’t have to spend any money (money they and their parents don’t have anyway) while paving a road towards a college education. The kids I work with are some of the brightest in their schools (low-income inner city schools), and yet some of them read and write at a level several grades below average.

    Students who are going to do well on standardized test will do well without spending money for test preparation. Their school district, from grade K to grade 12, has provided them with the knowledge and skills necessary for test success. Sure they could boost their scores a bit, but it’s not very likely that the difference will result in an acceptance letter that would not have been received otherwise. These are the students that can and will spend money on test preparation and these are the students who need it the least. Students who don’t have the test taking skills to do well either cannot afford to spend money on test preparation or have no motivation to. If their school is paying for test prep lessons due to the overall low performance of students within the school, the students probably won’t benefit much from it because they probably need much more intensive help. Those students, like the ones I tutor, who strive to do better but can’t afford the tools to do so enroll in free programs like mine.

    In the end, your message to buy an SAT or ACT prep book will only reach students who, frankly, don’t need to buy one. This is why I’m telling them save that twenty bucks and use it on a text book.

  12. @zeezeecakes – Let me see if I understand your arguments:

    1) Students don’t take advantage of test prep materials offered to them because they don’t want to or don’t have the skills needed to understand the prep.

    2) You work for a government program that does help kids. I assume this is not a test prep program?

    3) Students who are going to do well will do so without prep. Any test prep for them is useless because it won’t make a difference to their college application.

    These are some bold claims. I’d be interested in seeing the data you’re drawing them from.

    Here’s my take:

    1) Yes, there are students who struggle to utilize the materials provided to them. That’s why it’s my belief that online programs aren’t particularly effective. Students need to see a teacher in front of them to get involved in the work. Some students will always choose not to learn, but I’ve seen students of all socio-economic brackets make drastic improvements in their scores with the help of instruction in our courses and the courses of other companies.

    2) I’m excited to hear that you work for a program that helps students for free. That’s awesome! But it doesn’t preclude private education firms from filling a valuable role. Many students that we work with fall into the economic middle: they are too wealthy to receive free services like yours, but not wealthy enough to attend private schools with tons of individualized attention.

    3) You seem to be asserting that scores are what they are and are a legitimate measure of academic prowess. I have a student in Albuquerque, NM who would disagree with you. Her first ACT was a 15. She took a course with us and worked herself up to a 20 on her last diagnostic. She wasn’t satisfied with that. By the time test day rolled around a week after her last diag, she had improved herself to a 25. That means that she went from the 13th Percentile to the 81st Percentile. That has a huge impact on her college options…

    In short, I think your one size fits all approach doesn’t actually offer anything to students. Some need prep. Others don’t. Some have free resources available. Others don’t. They need to take a practice test, examine their overall goals, and figure out what solution works for them instead of assuming that their score is fine and ignoring the issue.

  13. Those points weren’t exactly what I was trying to say. I was trying to separate students into general groups to ultimately show that each of them does not actually need to go out and spend money on test preparation.

    There are students who come from middle to upper-middle class families enrolled in private or middle-high achieving public institutions. The schools within this category have been prepping these students for years to take standardized tests. Therefore, an SAT prep class will more likely serve as a refresher and a confidence booster than a place where students will actually learn something new about test taking.

    There are students who come from lower-middle and lower economic backgrounds whose schools have some, but perhaps not what one would consider adequate resources to compete with the higher achieving schools. These students can enroll in one of the numerous programs, like mine, which is not a test-prep program. It is program designed to get students enrolled in college, and includes four semesters of a Saturday SAT preparation course. Students within my program are in overcrowded and under-funded schools that strive towards getting students to pass high school exit exams and graduate; not necessarily to get them into college. With a little research, a student is likey to find some sort of program for college-bound high school students in their area.

    Then, there are the students, regardless of background, who are just not motivated to try. Whether or not their education has been hindered by their school system, they won’t put the effort into improving their scores anyway.

    I have not conducted any studies and rely only on articles I’ve read sporadically and my experience as a student and tutor in various educational settings. These factors have led me to believe that those students who can afford and do seek private professional test prep help do not need that private program in order to learn how to take the test, but really use the esteemed name as a way to make them more confident when they go to take the test. I do believe that role is extremely valuable. If a student can go see a private tutor because it will make them feel more relaxed and confident when they go to take the test, then I’d say go for it. I had friends in high school who did just that, and they did well.

    However, I think that telling students that they need private tutoring and need to buy books is not necessarily true and undermines the value of the free resources available to them. So I will concede that my statement that “students who will do well, will do well without prep” is flawed. What I meant was a student who will do well, CAN do just as well without PRIVATE test prep.

    I know there are cases of students who had no idea of how to approach the SAT and improved their scores dramatically after receiving training from a private program. But I think it’s misleading to make students believe that their free resources are inadequate and that the need to spend money. Private firms play an important role in giving students choices, but your claim that some students don’t have free services offered to them, whether they be within the school or working with the school, is simply not true.

    If I sounded at all like I was making a claim most students or students of a certain background don’t need any test prep, I certainly did not intend to. My point is that it doesn’t have to come out of the student’s pocket and that there are other resources that shouldn’t be, but often are, overlooked. I don’t mean to demean your role as a private tutor; I just don’t think it should be put on a plateau above public services.

  14. Sorry, put on a pedestal*

  15. Here’s my response to a few of your quotes:

    “There are students who come from middle to upper-middle class families enrolled in private or middle-high achieving public institutions. The schools within this category have been prepping these students for years to take standardized tests. Therefore, an SAT prep class will more likely serve as a refresher and a confidence booster than a place where students will actually learn something new about test taking.”

    As a test prep tutor, I can tell you that this claim is false. Students who come from these schools generally know nothing about testing since their school does NOT teach it. Where are you getting your data? Do you work with a lot of students from these schools? This is the majority of my client base and I can assure you I can tell when I’m teaching them something new…

    “There are students who come from lower-middle and lower economic backgrounds whose schools have some, but perhaps not what one would consider adequate resources to compete with the higher achieving schools. These students can enroll in one of the numerous programs, like mine, which is not a test-prep program. It is program designed to get students enrolled in college, and includes four semesters of a Saturday SAT preparation course. Students within my program are in overcrowded and under-funded schools that strive towards getting students to pass high school exit exams and graduate; not necessarily to get them into college. With a little research, a student is likey to find some sort of program for college-bound high school students in their area.”

    This sounds awesome! I’m really happy to hear those students are getting helped. Unfortunately programs like yours are extremely rare. I know because we used to run one at a local high school…until the funding was cut this year. Remember that every program costs someone money!

    And finally – “I think that telling students that they need private tutoring and need to buy books is not necessarily true and undermines the value of the free resources available to them. So I will concede that my statement that “students who will do well, will do well without prep” is flawed. What I meant was a student who will do well, CAN do just as well without PRIVATE test prep.”

    I never said they need private tutoring. I never said they needed to buy books. I said they should do some sort of prep in order to be ready for the exam. Which INCLUDES free prep that is available to them.

    I will agree that students CAN do well without private prep. But for the most part they don’t.

    Think of test prep like personal training. Yes, you can lose weight without one. Yes, you can get in shape without a personal trainer. But having a personal trainer is going to make sure both those goals get done.

    I’m not trying to elevate our resources above the free ones available. But I think you should be careful when you make generalizations about students without the data or experience necessary to support them.

  16. […] 28, 2008 I’ve been exercising my blogging energy by commenting on this blog about my faith in public services, and curling my lip at private programs that take away funding […]

  17. I don’t have charts or statistics citing what kind of training students from well funded and/or high achieving school districts get for standardized tests, but being that standardized testing for multiple grade levels has been mandatory in all states for about six years now (and has been mandatory in many states for even longer), I find it baffling that these schools have opted not to teach their students anything about taking these kinds of tests. Did the teacher just one day stop the lesson, hand them a booklet and start administering the HSPA? Obviously these tests are not as difficult as the SAT’s, but the basic principles behind answering those types of questions, time management, and other lessons that go into standardized test prep is universal.

    As far as SAT prep within these schools goes, I find it more than difficult to believe that a school with a higher percentage of students going to college doesn’t offer a single class, after-school program, or lesson plan geared towards SAT prep. Perhaps your students just chose not to take advantage of those options or they just weren’t paying attention to them. But I suppose my assumption that test results, the number of graduating seniors, and college acceptance percentages reflects the quality of preparation offered in the school from which they came is due to my lack of experience. I could understand if you were saying that a school’s scores do not directly translate to the quality of SAT preparation (and I’m sure they don’t), but you’re telling me that most of the high achieving schools dismiss it completely. How can these schools possibly manage that?

    While there could be and should be more programs like the one I work for, they are not extremely rare. TRiO programs (including Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math/Science, Talent Search, Educational Opportunity Centers, Student Support Services, and GEAR UP) are government-sponsored programs that work with over 1,000 colleges, universities, community colleges, and agencies and they’re in multiple locations in every state. I know the most about these programs because I work for one of them, and last year we had trouble recruiting new students because they just weren’t interested! College Summit is another program I know of, but it’s privately funded and not nearly as widespread (you can see a map of their outreach at http://www.collegesummit.org/local/). Not only do they help students get into and stay in college, but they do it for absolutely free. While the goal of these programs is to help low income students, they also cater to students who need help that their schools aren’t offering (though schools that aren’t offering college prep help usually serve lower-income areas). On top of those two programs, there are other programs, most stemming from colleges and universities, providing tutoring and mentoring for high school students within the community. There’s not a huge amount of them, but if a student really looks into it, they can find something.

    My main point was that students don’t have to spend money to get SAT preparation and to do well on test day. Saying most students don’t do well without private tutoring is a statement with so many other factors involved it can hardly be considered an adequate statistic to promote private tutoring over free options. Who are you comparing them to: the kids who can’t afford it or the kids who don’t care? If students looked within their own schools and then demanded satisfaction where it was lacking (especially in these well funded schools that aren’t even talking about SATs?) private tutoring would be saved as a last resort for students in need of special attention.

  18. Thanks for categorizing the great free programs that are available to kids. I’m sure that you will help a good number of students who come here looking for answers.

    However, I didn’t say “most students don’t do well without private tutoring.”

    I said that private tutoring is effective and works. I urged students originally to prep themselves by taking practice tests and seeking out, at the very least, updated prep books.

    Please read my above comments and respond to what I’m actually saying. You seem to believe I think everyone should pay for prep. I don’t believe that and I’m not pushing it.

  19. Great points on a all sides. Just a few thoughts:
    I often paint the Collegeboard as something that looks an awful lot like the Empire in Start Wars (I sometimes hear the “Throne Room theme” when they start presenting at conferences – the one that sounds off whenever Vader enters a room…). The reality, however, is that most of the organization are lifelong educators trying very hard to make a positive difference. The SAT was created, originally, to INCREASE opportunity, and for a long time it may have served that purpose.

    But don’t get me started on the writing test.

    Now where was I? The reality is that there are a lot of students who would benefit from private tutoring but will never be able to afford it, and the cuts in schools and related programs will make such support inaccessible to them. To all of them I send out the encouragement that there are a lot of free resources, and a SLEW of score optional institutions (Go Mason!).

    There are, however, a lot of students who don’t need the tutoring and who could do it on their own, but they won’t. Mark mentioned the number of people who prey on the anxiety of students, and they are surely out there, although in my experience there are more trying to calm families down and who are providing reasonable and helpful service. That’s because there are also those students with the means who do benefit from tutoring, whether on scores or in subjects. The tests are, when it comes down to it, coachable. And there are families that will pay whatever it takes to get that marginal increase in scores that might make the difference to some particular institution.

    From my vantage point this doesn’t highlight a failing of the tutoring industry, which is meeting a funded demand, but instead a failing of the admissions process that inherently benefits students with means. The more we can devise system, like the support system ZeeZee describes, to level the playing field, the better off we all are. Be seeing you!

  20. Hi guys,

    I’ve been thinking for a long time about some of the issues Mark and Zee brought up. I’m a private SAT tutor myself, and also a strong College Board detractor. (It’s not that I’m against standardized testing or absolute standards in admissions. It’s that the SAT and ACT, as currently realized, are both very bad tests in my eyes.)

    For a long time I was trying to think of something I could do to help address what I see as the flaws in the system. I don’t think I can talk colleges out of using the SAT, because it provides useful data for them (I assume–otherwise, why use it?). And I don’t think we can convince the College Board to go away, or to change the SAT in a positive way. So…what to do?

    I decided to try to help every test-taker on Earth get a better SAT score by giving away all of my tutoring for free on a couple of web sites I put up. My goal is to help so many people score so high on the test that high scores eventually become meaningless. Then, I hope, things might change.

    My main site is at http://www.mysterytutor.com, if you guys are interested in taking a look at it. Either way, thanks for giving me the opportunity to chime in, and may the SAT situation improve itself one way or another! 🙂

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