SAT prep courses are an integral part of SAT preparation. That said, simply attending a course and “somewhat” listening to the instructor will accomplish nothing. A student must take a proactive approach to SAT preparation. The most important part of any learning is feedback. Simply taking a practice test does nothing other than frustrate the student and perhaps even frighten him or her about the level of difficulty on this test. After all, this is a college entrance examination which is designed to weed out those students not adequately prepared to perform on the college level.
Regarding the feedback, after twenty-seven years in the classroom, I am convinced that true learning takes place when a student goes over what he or she has just practiced. In my SAT class, my students never do anything that we do not evaluate and discuss that period. I want my students to know why they missed the questions they did so they might avoid falling into those traps (and yes there are traps on the SAT) when they actually take the test. (I suppose the “traps” are another article altogether.)
For the student wanting to prepare at home, I would suggest purchasing a book published by a reputable test prep company. Kaplan and Princeton Review are two of the most popular. Now, here’s the next, but very critical step, the student must actually open the book and begin reading. I’m always amazed at the number of students and parents who think the acquisition of the book is the thing. Not so. Once a student has read the introductory material and the strategies, he must allot sufficient time to take work through a section and go over it. How is this done? Both Kaplan and Princeton Review provide detailed answer explanations after each practice test. A student must develop the habit of feedback on his or her performance in order to understand his own test-taking habits.
How much practice should a student do in one sitting? I would suggest starting small and working up to the full length practice test. I believe when students look at a practice test that requires 3 hours and 45 minutes of their MySpace time, they simply cannot force themselves to take a test that long and arduous (a great SAT word) on their own volition. Working through a section (and the corresponding answer explanations) will take between 40-60 minutes depending upon the length of the section and the student’s performance.
Once a student has taken all sections of the test several times (in small increments, of course), he or she should, if possible, set aside the time to work through an entire test AND go over the results. The benefits of this are two-fold: (1) The student is better acclimated to the physical and mental requirements of a test of this nature and (2) Analyzing the results allows the student to recognize his strengths and weaknesses and will allow him or her to answer a bit more selectively (omitting some) on the SAT (because of the wrong answer penalty). Of course, there is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT; students should never leave an answer blank on this test.
I might add a word about the rather new Writing section of the SAT. The name, in itself, might appear to be a misnomer to some, but it is actually quite accurate. The two portions of the Writing section are a 25-minute essay and multiple choice questions regarding sentence correction and revision. (The essay counts approximately 1/3 and the multiple choice questions count approximately 2/3 of the 800 points in the Writing section.)I would suggest reading carefully the guidelines in the prep books regarding the rubric for grading the essay. Providing providing sufficient support for your position is paramount. Students will be asked to take a position on a rather generic topic and then support that position with detailed examples from their own experience, literature, history, current events, etc. For example, if the question involves the issue of learning from one’s mistakes, a student might discuss (with details) how he or she made the fateful decision to break curfew one night.
Another example, might be a literary character from a novel read in class that year. The most important aspects of the essay are clarity, organization, and support. Grammar and punctuation are obviously important, but the graders can tell who makes the occasional error and who cannot write a complete sentence. You are asked to provide a writing sample in 25 minutes, not a perfect essay produced after prewriting, rough draft, and final draft. The sentence correction and revision questions simply take practice, and once again, feedback. So often students will come back and say that all of the sentences looked correct. Of course they did because the students did not have a systematic approach for checking correctness of a sentence. This approach and these grammar issues are provided in the test prep books.
I would imagine most student would rather do anything rather than practice for the SAT. Doing so independently can be a true challenge, but it can be accomplished. Students must take a serious approach, start small, and access their progress as they go. Feedback is most definitely the key!