How to Help Students With College Entrance Exams

Nov 03, 2023
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Throughout the year, college-bound students are busy preparing for the ACT® and SAT® college entrance exams. Students know that these exams have an impact on the acceptance decisions of the colleges and universities they apply to, as well as scholarship opportunities, so it’s no surprise that they can cause a lot of stress.

But, with some thoughtful planning, mindful preparation, and a healthy perspective, you can help your students take the intimidation factor out of these tests. Here are some easy tips for parents, teachers, and school administrators to make the college entrance exam testing process smooth for students, both before and after the exams take place:

What Parents Can Do

1. Understand the Different Tests

Most parents are familiar with the two primary college entrance exams—the ACT and the SAT exams—but do you know which one your child should actually be taking? Before your child signs up for any test, have a discussion with him or her about what types of colleges he or she wants to apply for. Traditionally, private colleges and those on the East Coast or West Coast lean towards the SAT exam, while public universities and schools in the Midwest gravitate toward the ACT test. Many schools will accept scores from either—be sure to check so that your child doesn’t end up taking both tests unnecessarily.

The SAT exam also tends to focus on more vocabulary and critical thinking, while the ACT test is known for presenting more straightforward questions. If the schools your child is interested in will accept either test, it’s helpful to think about which format he or she will be more likely excel on. It’s also important to note that the SAT Suite of Assessments offers additional SAT Subject Tests™, which some selective schools consider in the admissions process. Finally, make sure that you and your child are aware of the SAT Student Search Service® and ACT Educational Opportunity Service (EOS®) and whether or not he or she wants to opt in for these services.

2. Make the Most of Available Resources

Prep courses, practice tests, and study guides for both the SAT and ACT tests are available through numerous outlets, including schools, community education programs, online providers, and private tutoring services. Do some research on what’s available in your area and what the best fit is for your child. Dedicated test prep is the best way to help your child become familiar with the format of the test(s) he or she will be taking and gain an understanding of which topics he or she needs to focus time on studying.

3. Prioritize Sleep, Nutrition, and Moral Support

Never underestimate the power of a good night of sleep, a nutritious meal, and some heartfelt words of encouragement. These simple things can go a long way in helping your child be sharp and perform to the best of his or her abilities when the time for the exam comes. Avoid scheduling your child’s exam for the morning following any late-night activities, make sure that he or she walks out the door with something hearty in his or her stomach like oatmeal or scrambled eggs and toast, and remind him or her of all the hard work he or she has done and progress made.

You can also serve as test-day logistics manager, making sure that your child brings the proper materials (both tests provide comprehensive what-to-bring lists), wears comfortable clothing, has a snack for any breaks, and brings a jacket in case the testing room is cold. These basic acts of caretaking are some of the most important ways parents can build children’s confidence and support their success on test day.

What Teachers Can Do

Before the College Entrance Exams

1. Review the College Entrance Exams Requirements

As you help your students review for college entrance exams, make sure that the requirements of the exam are communicated clearly to them. 

Having your students know what the format of the exam looks like will help them better prepare. Go over how each test section for the exam will appear, how much time students will have for each section, and what kind of item types they can expect to see. 

These exams are most likely in a format that your students may be unfamiliar with, so plan on spending some time reviewing what these sections will consist of. Work with your students to figure out areas of the exam that are unfamiliar to them and to figure out a few best practices to tackle these sections. 

Resources for the ACT and SAT exams can be found on their respective websites.

2. Help Students Leverage Their Own Data

More and more of teachers’ instruction is informed by data—why shouldn’t students’ preparation efforts for college entrance exams be as well? Make data sharing and analysis from classroom assessments and formative activities as a regular part of classroom routines. When students have a clear understanding of their specific areas of strength and weakness, they can better focus their studying.

3. Study, Study, Study

This tip is an obvious one, but it’s extremely important. 

You’ll want to focus on helping students master the content knowledge that is relevant to each section of the exam. Working through practice questions found online can help familiarize your students with how questions are written and what sort of content is tested. Practice tests are a great way to identify skill gaps in your students and fit in some extra review.

Think about planning a review session or two to help your students get some extra help in a subject area they may not feel as comfortable with before the college entrance exams. Creating a practice plan to help fill the skill gaps of your students will strengthen their content knowledge for the exam and beyond.

4. Register and Prep for the Day of the Exam

Testing day is inevitably stressful. The best way for students to manage that stress is to be well-prepared for what the day will be like. 

Review details like where and when the test will be administered, what time they are actually expected to arrive, and where registration will be located at the testing site. Consider giving your students a checklist of items to bring to the test, like their IDs and sharpened pencils, and review items they cannot bring to their exams, such as highlighters, extra reading materials, or laptops. Be sure to check each exam’s official website for up-to-date info!

While reminding them of the test location may seem like another obvious tip, there is always a handful of students who forget where their exam will be and are late on testing day. 

Be sure to also get families and caregivers on board with helping their children prepare for these exams. 

5. Review Test-Taking Strategies And Best Practices

Ultimately, the ACT and SAT exams are both just more tests. The same general test-taking strategies that teachers focus on in preparation for end-of-course exams or state assessments (and any other timed assessments) will be just as beneficial on these tests. Taking time to review these strategies in the classroom can make a big difference for students when they’re preparing for college entrance exams. Some of the most important test-taking tips for students include being sure to read each question fully, eliminating wrong answers on multiple-choice questions, skipping questions that they don’t know the answer to, and reviewing their answers if they finish with extra time.

6. Connect Classroom Curriculum to Material On The Tests

College entrance exams come with a big intimidation factor for students. But, the reality is that they are designed to measure knowledge that students should be acquiring through standard, college-preparatory curriculum. Of course, teachers can never know the exact questions their students will face on the ACT test or SAT exam, but as much as possible, do some research on what subject matter the tests cover, and point out when you’re working on those subjects in the classroom. Students can get a big confidence boost just by knowing that they are familiar with material they will face on test day.

After the College Entrance Exams

1. Celebrate!

After the exam is over for your students, take some time to celebrate their accomplishments in the classroom. Regardless of how students may feel about how they performed, it’s important to acknowledge how much hard work they put into preparation. 

Take a few minutes out of your next class period to let students know that you’re proud of their efforts.

2. Reflect on College Entrance Exam Performance

After the college entrance exams day has passed, it can be very valuable to have students reflect on their performance, even if they haven’t received their scores yet. 

Ask specific questions. What sections did they struggle with? Did they run out of time on any sections? Were there certain types of questions (multiple choice, essay, etc.) that they spent time on more than others? If they plan on retaking the college entrance exams, how could they study differently?

Considering these questions can help your students build their test-taking skills—just remember to emphasize the importance of keeping college entrance exams in perspective, too. Reinforce with your students that colleges and universities take plenty of other measures into consideration when making admissions decisions, that retaking is always an option, and that a lower-than-hoped-for score will not derail postsecondary goals.

What School Administrators Can Do

1. Make Information Readily Available to Students

Knowledge is power, and school administrators are in a unique position to make sure that students have easy access to all the information they want and need when it comes to college readiness. Post information about the ACT and SAT exams around your school, including info on why these tests matter and how to register. Make sure that students are aware of resources available to them for test preparation and college decision-making within the guidance or counseling office, and consider sending out a communication to all juniors and their parents with ACT and SAT exam registration information at the start of the school year. Distributing a college-readiness timeline and checklist can be a great way to go about this.

2. Offer Access to High-Quality Test-Prep Courses and Resources

Given the length and significance of college entrance exams, extra preparation outside of the classroom is key for students to achieve the score they want. School administrators can help by offering dedicated test-preparation courses on campus before or after school or helping students find trusted local test-prep classes from outside providers. Administrators can also provide students with access to online self-practice programs like Edmentum’s Study Island that they can use during free time during the school day, in school labs before or after school hours, or on their own devices at home.

3. Ensure Use of Rigorous College-Prep Curriculum

The best way school administrators can help prepare students for college entrance exams is to ensure that the curriculum being offered covers the material students will need to know to be successful not only on these tests but also in actual college classes. Make sure that curriculum used in your school meets relevant state and college-readiness standards and, as much as possible, offers students rigorous course options designed for college prep, including International Baccalaureate®, Advanced Placement®, and other accelerated courses. If your school does not have the resources to offer these classes in the building, think about online options like Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy to expand students’ choices.

Looking for more tips, ideas, and strategies to help your college-bound students prepare for the ACT or SAT exam? Check out our blog post on what research says are the most effective learning techniques.

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