SAT: Tips and Techniques

SAT/ACTs are important for college admissions. That begs the question if parents should be heavily involved in the SAT prep or not? I have always enjoyed standardized tests because I have always been good at them. However, standardized tests are not fun for everyone. Hence, we have to be careful about how we approach the topic of SAT with kids.
My daughter is finishing up her 5th grade and has six more years before she takes the test. However, I have my own experience with standardized tests and I will use that in addition to the numerous books I have read on this topic, to shine some perspective on this important process.

Responsibility: First and foremost, it should be very clear that the test prep is the child’s responsibility and not the parents’. This is very important because this creates a sense of control in the child’s mind which is very healthy for internal motivation. Fear tactics might work in the short run but for the long run, a healthy sense of self-motivation is a much better alternative. And we as parents, need to let that blossom by not taking on our child’s responsibility as ours. Of course, that doesn’t mean not being involved, it just means that our job is to provide information, exposure, and tools but it’s the child’s job to decide whether he/she wants to use them. There are tons of worldly successful people battling depression and anxiety. They made it to the Ivy League schools but were robbed of their control and creativity by years of regimented instruction. And there are others who made it to the Ivy Leagues with a very healthy sense of self-motivation and self-discipline. We want our children to be self-disciplined, not well-disciplined.
Stress: The neuroscientist Sonia Lupien uses an acronym for stress generators called N.U.T.S.We all agree that a small amount of stress is necessary for good performance but a lot of stress will clearly undermine performance. So, the parents’ role here would be to cut out the large stressors.
N- Novelty: Anything new or Novel tends to create some amount of stress in human beings. For eg. going to the test center for the first time on the day of the test, finding parking, trying to find the way from the parking to the exam room, etc. Another example could be not taking a practice test so the test seeming very novel on the day of the test. Here, parents can help by taking the child to the test center a day or so before the test day so that the child can familiarize herself with the surroundings. Parents can also suggest that their child take some practice tests before the real test.
U- Unpredictability: Unpredictability is also a known stress generator. A child could have practiced all sorts of problems and could have prepared to answer questions in a predictable manner by following certain processes. However, she could get surprised by a completely unpredictable type of question. In that event, children should be able to try other techniques like “plugging numbers in”, trying to eliminate answers which look unlikely and other creative strategies. In simple words, children should know that the tests, like life, are not always predictable and they should be ready with some creative strategies on the fly to deal with them. Also, parents should try to keep the atmosphere at home fairly predictable in the days leading to the test day.
T- Threat to Ego: This is probably one of the most important issues to handle in the context of SAT tests. Parents should have a clear understanding with children that SAT scores are not a reflection of their intelligence and self-worth. Parents should themselves not try to derive any self-worth from their children’s SAT scores. When humans feel a threat and are under stress, their cognitive capacity diminishes. In a wonderful book called The Self-Driven Child, the authors suggest that the kids should be in the predator mode instead of the prey mode on the test day. They can prep for this by listening to uplifting, motivational music and feeling confident and ready for the kill (not literally please!).
S- Sense of lack of Control: Control is fundamentally important to living anxiety and stress-free lives. Unless you are spiritually enlightened, lack of control could induce a lot of stress in you. We talked about control in our discussion of responsibility. Kids should know that they are in control of their future and the outcome of the test and college admissions is partially in their control as well. It’s important here to note that we can never be fully in control of everything but partial control or even an illusion of control helps in cutting down stress. Talk to your child about the fact that doing well at SAT is well within the child’s control. The child should also feel that she is driving the decisions around the test prep and test taking so that she feels internally motivated to put in the hours needed to do well on the test.
At a later point, I will post some specific tips around the preparation material itself. It’s more important to first lay down the psychological framework before talking about the technical framework. So, stay tuned.