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Test Savvy

By Austin Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #70, 2006.

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Austin Webb


It's one of the most feared words in the English language, able to reduce normally confident students to convulsive wrecks in seconds.

As you probably guessed, the word is "test."

Like it or not, top colleges view test scores as good indicators of academic potential, so you must test well to be competitive.

Why You Need Tests

A number of factors will affect how you will perform in college: innate ability, work ethic, and preparation. To assess these, top colleges generally require you to submit one reasoning test (the SAT or ACT) and some combination of two or three SAT subject tests. Be sure to check all colleges of interest, because testing requirements vary widely. Additional knowledge tests such as Advanced Placement exams can be very helpful, but are not required. You can choose not to jump through the testing hoop, but that will severely limit your opportunities.

The College Board is Your Friend

The College Board website at www.collegeboard.com provides detailed test information, registration services, preparation books for AP and SAT tests, practice exams, and other resources, free or for sale. College Board resources are generally to be preferred over those of other companies since the College Board actually designs the tests.

SAT & ACT Reasoning Tests

Virtually all colleges require a reasoning test. Some will take the ACT, but the SAT Reasoning Test is always accepted and generally preferred, so I advise taking it. Take the ACT only if you score substantially better on it than on the SAT.

The SAT Reasoning Test doesn't require much specific knowledge. All you are required to know is basic math (including elementary topics from geometry, statistics, algebra, etc.) and some grammar, vocabulary, composition, writing and reading comprehension skills. This does not go beyond what is reasonably expected of high school juniors. If the student is proficient in these things and has prepared thoroughly, natural ability will largely determine his scores. Here, natural ability is an combination of being able to work under time pressure, recognize patterns, recall information, and solve problems quickly.

To score well, the student needs substantial preparation. There are lots of guides hawking supposed secrets for success, but don't spend much time on them. Pick a guide or two you like and learn the testing strategies, but use timed, realistic practice tests from the College Board as your primary preparation. This will help you get a feel for the test and find the strategies that work best for you. Taking up to 7-10 practice tests will increase your scores, but it's not worth doing more than that, since at that point scores tend to level off.

Knowledge Tests

It takes more than quick thinking to do well at college. A student needs self-discipline, study skills, and a large general knowledge base. Knowledge tests are used to assess this. Though knowledge tests do involve reasoning, the emphasis is more on knowing a particular subject than on speed, as in the case of reasoning tests.

The two most common types are SAT subject tests and AP exams. These should be taken immediately after completing a class in the subject. Study with a good test prep guide (I like Kaplan) to make sure that you know what the test will cover, even if you have had a good class in the subject. Other options are interactive software (again, Kaplan has an excellent product), and, for AP exams, online pre-test review mini-courses from APEX Learning (apexlearning.com, now sold through princetonreview.com). Once again, the best preparation is taking practice tests, from the College Board when possible.

SAT II Subject Tests

SAT subject tests come in various subject categories. Offered six times a year, they are one hour long, multiple choice, and assume a previous high-school-level course in the subject. Preparation for the subject tests should involve both study and as many practice tests as you can take under timed, realistic conditions.

Advanced Placement Exams

AP exams require more knowledge than SAT subject tests. They assume that the test taker has completed a college-level course in the subject. These exams are offered only once a year on a specific date, usually in May.

AP exams are somewhat harder to prepare for with self-study, because they contain considerable essay sections that require substantial preparation. However, with enough self-discipline it can be done. Note that some homeschool textbooks that call themselves AP level don't prepare you well for the test. Check what is required for the test and find additional materials to round out your knowledge.

The College Board has a number of useful AP resources. Particularly helpful are the released exams (real exams used in the past), which are available for several subjects. There are lots of online AP prep resources, so you'll need to do some research if you are interested in this option. The Apex Learning Exam Review was helpful to me and I had an excellent experience with one of the PA Homeschoolers online AP classes (www.pahomeschoolers.com).

Be Honest

If you call something an AP class on your transcript, always take the test and base the final grade on the AP score. Depending on who you ask, a 5 is an A or A+, a 4 is a high B or a high C, a 3 is a passing C, and a two or below is a problem. Once you take a test, it is permanently on your record and will be sent to a college any time you send them any AP score. Don't call it an AP class unless you take the test, and don't take the test unless you are confident of scoring at least a 4 on it.

If you are going to take an AP test, go ahead and take the related SAT subject test. It makes life easier later on.

Test-taking Health Tips

How you feel during a test can have great effect on your score. I've learned a few techniques to help you do your best.

Hard, physical exercise in the months of preparation leading up to the test can help maintain a healthy sleep pattern and keep your head clear so you can study more effectively.

When you take practice tests, start them at about the time the real test will start.

At least several weeks before the test, determine how early you will need to get up in order to get ready and arrive at the test site on time. Be there about thirty minutes earlier than recommended so that you have some flex room in case something happens on the way. If possible, visit the testing site ahead of time to see if their facilities (namely desks) fit you.

Determine how much sleep you need to function optimally. At least two weeks out from the test, start going to bed and getting up at the same times you will be on testing day. Be sure that you get plenty of sleep the two nights before the test. The day before the test avoid studying or working very much at all. Take it easy and focus on calming down.

Diet is also important. Avoid sugar and caffeine leading up to the test. On test day, you might need a little caffeine to be alert. Try drinking a small cup of unsweetened tea. Another thing that will help you stay alert is to put a few drops of herbal peppermint oil on a handkerchief and breathe it periodically. The scent is very strong and will keep you awake, alert, and focused. I also studied with peppermint oil nearby to help with recall of the information.

Summing Up

Tests are a fact of life and especially important to homeschoolers. Play them to your advantage by knowing what's coming and being prepared.


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