Most people grew up hearing two extreme claims about the SAT and ACT: 1) From the test makers, “test prep does not work.” 2) From test prep providers, “We will teach you the tips/tricks/strategies to ace the tests.”
Both claims are mostly false.
It is true that test prep solely focused on tips/tricks/strategy is now largely ineffective. Previously the SAT primarily sought to evaluate academic potential by trying to measure IQ, and there were a lot of tricks to it. But the SAT has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and it now mimics the ACT: both seek to evaluate academic achievement.
Like all other exams measuring academic achievement, the SAT and ACT are best prepared for by learning the content tested on these exams: grammar, rhetorical skills, reading, mathematics, and data analysis. And, although there are some tips/tricks/strategies that help when taking any tests (especially on the Reading and Science sections of that ACT), the tips/tricks/strategies are never enough to substantially improve a student’s overall score.
The SAT and ACT are essentially long, final exams that cover a wide range of fundamental knowledge and skills. Test prep that teaches students content does work — but often that prep unsurprisingly requires substantial teaching and practice (much more than just tips/tricks/strategy) in order to very significantly increase in score.
How does this change how students prepare the week before?
Some of the worst general advice is: “Don’t study for the SAT/ACT the night before the exam.” Admittedly, this is not always bad advice (some students get really nervous from studying the night before, and, if that’s the case, then it’s more important to get a good night’s sleep than to study). But, for most students, this advice makes no sense. When else would we tell students not to study the night before an exam? Never. Telling students not to study is like telling them: “You can’t prepare for this exam.” No, you absolutely can. These exams test academic achievement. Reinforcing the idea that students cannot study for these exams only decreases their motivation to do so and increases their anxiety that their results are mostly out of their control.
Consider this question:
Only about 5% of students will get this question correct. To solve it correctly, students have to have memorized how to find the determinant of a 2×2 matrix (or know how to use the calculator to find it, which they still need to memorize how to do because it is not straightforward):
No tips. No tricks. No strategy. Just memorization. Just like… any other test.
Finding the determinant of a matrix does not come up very often, which is one reason why this question type is so hard whenever it does come up. But, depending on the curve of the math section on a given test, just getting this one question correct could boost a student’s math section score by 1 point. And, if the student was on the cusp of a higher composite point, then just this one question correct could push up the student’s entire composite score by 1 point, such as from a 31.25 (which rounds down to a 31) to a 31.5 (which rounds up to a 32). That’s a very large potential impact: one question can move an overall ACT score from a 31 to a 32.
If students are not studying on their own the week of the exam, then very few of them will remember how to solve the determinant of a matrix and get this question correct. The same is true of many other tested topics.
You might be wondering: “But isn’t it the job of the tutor to review everything?” The best tutors will still not be able to review everything the week before unless they have many hours with a student that week because there is simply too much content that is tested on these exams: 35 grammar topics, 160 math topics, etc. So students need to study on their own as well — otherwise they will make unforced errors (missing questions that they could have gotten correct if they had studied their notes and memorized the tested topics).
Is it fair to test students on so much content?
If not fair, it’s at least necessary. These tests cannot be too easy. If they were, everyone would get an amazing score and the tests would lose their relevance and reason to exist (to differentiate which students have mastered the most academic knowledge and skills). “Competition” has become an unfavorable word as of late, so I’m hesitant to use the word, but that is, in essence, what the SAT and ACT are: a certain type of academic competition.
We need hard tests to be able to evaluate which students have learned and retained more (and the data from millions of students and decades of research show that the inclusion of SAT/ACT scores — measures of academic achievement — help predict success in college, especially at the most rigorous colleges). Some people marvel at those students who can “just walk in and get a fantastic score.” There is no mystery. Those students learned a lot in school and remembered it.
The tests should not and are not used in isolation to make admissions decisions: they do not test students on the full scope of everything learned in high school (Biology, U.S. History, etc) and do capture a student’s full potential if the student does not perform well under the pressure of a standardized exam. But the tests are, at least, standardized (unlike grades, which have become very inflated — most students in college had A-averages in high school). While a perfect measure of academic ability and potential is impossible, the tests are still generally very good at measuring how well a student can demonstrate their knowledge of and skills in fundamental academic areas. And, the more students study for the SAT and ACT the week before the exams, the better they will be at demonstrating their knowledge and skill.