As one of the first major steps in applying to college, taking the SAT® and ACT® exams can be a stressful time, for both students and parents. In fact, 38 percent of students and 32 percent of parents polled by The Princeton Review said that taking the SAT, ACT or AP exams is the toughest part of the college application experience.
A little stress is par for the course, but there are some things parents can do to help alleviate the anxiety.
1. Discuss Test Prep Together
Deciding how to prepare for the SAT and ACT exams can be overwhelming, so your child might welcome a bit of help. Sit down together and research the best ways to get ready for the test. Those include:
Lois Lavrisa, a mother of four in Savannah, Georgia, recently helped her youngest son — a 17-year-old senior at Savannah Arts Academy — through two SAT exams and one ACT test. She helped him gather all the proper test materials, books and study guides so that he felt prepared.
"As parents, we were there to give him the tools necessary to succeed," she said, "but our son had to take it upon himself to study, take the practice tests, register for the tests and so on.
"I would like to think that my husband and I guide our children, but also give them room to be independent," she added.
Private tutoring firms are another option. That's what Annette Gendler of Chicago, Illinois, did for her son, a 17-year-old senior, who just took the test.
"We hired a tutoring firm that we had already used with one of our older children," she said. "Jonathan began working with them in the winter, as we knew it would take him a long time to ramp up."
"The most important thing, as he got closer to the test date," she continued, "was taking a practice exam every weekend that was facilitated by the tutoring firm. It helped him get accustomed to the test, and the tutor was able to tailor their lessons to areas that my son needed to improve on."
The Princeton Review offers different levels of private tutoring plans. You can also ask for private tutoring recommendations from family and friends who have been through the process with their own kids
2. Provide Emotional Support
Lavrisa likens the day of the actual test to running a mental marathon. "Taking the tests can take up to four hours or more — exhausting!" she said.
To send her son out the door on the right foot the morning of, Lavrisa and her husband made sure he went to sleep early the night before and got up on time the day of. He had a good breakfast, left with his admission ticket and ID, along with several #2 pencils, a test-approved calculator, healthy snacks like Clif Bars, bananas and water for fuel.
These additional steps — while potentially not as important as the weeks and months of studying leading up to the test — help students to be physically ready, energetic and alert during such an important time.
3. Put Things in Perspective
While it's true that the SAT and ACT tests will likely be an important factor in your child's overall admissions package, they're just that: One important factor. If your child has a good GPA and great extracurriculars and has written a stellar essay to boot, having fantastic SAT or ACT exam scores will just be icing on an already appealing cake.
In other words, try keeping the pressure about the significance of the test to a minimum, suggests Ann Schmidt of Burlington, Vermont. Her son, a 17-year-old senior, took the ACT and SAT tests earlier this year.
"Junior and senior year are very stressful," she said. "Kids are taking AP classes, trying to jump through hoops to make sure they do community service, sports and a part-time job to present a 'well-rounded' package for colleges. I felt that the added pressure of having to train to take these tests was over the top, and I'm not sure it inspired the best results.
"While Schmidt did ensure her son was prepared for his SAT and ACT exams by studying ahead of time, he didn't spend so many hours that his test prep became an undue focus. And, in the end, she says she's glad he invested more of his time throughout the year to his passions and community service.
"He did well on his SAT exam, but not above the average acceptance score for most schools he was targeting," she said. "However, in the end, my son has a solid GPA, he is an Eagle Scout and works as an Emergency Medical Responder for two local, rural towns. His college essay focused on his experience with patients he has helped save during medical emergencies, and of the seven schools he has applied to, within a week, three colleges have sent acceptance letters."
"My assumption is that if you're a solid, well-rounded student," she continued, "these test scores don't weigh [as] heavily on acceptance."
4. Do Your Own Research
Part of helping your child through SAT and ACT testing is understanding how the process works yourself. That means being prepared for your child to take the test more than once (potentially up to the three times even, as is sometimes recommended by Peterson's, a college resource center), and understand that nerves can play a big part in not doing as well the first time around.
Tackling SAT and ACT prep as a team is a great way to help your child feel supported during a stressful time. It's also a great way to ensure you're doing everything you can to help them succeed and achieve their college dreams.
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