Can you help your child study for the SAT? Yes!
When it comes to gearing up for college, parents can play a major role in supporting their child’s success. Of course, ultimately, it’s the student who’s applying for admission. So, most of the heavy lifting — like practicing for the SAT — will fall to the high schooler. But, as your child goes through the process, you can serve as a couch, cheerleader and time-manager — assisting with test prep, scheduling practice sessions, and maintaining motivation.
Read on for simple guidelines on how you can help your child with SAT practice and help ensure they put their best foot forward on testing day.
Wondering Where to Begin?
You may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the college testing options. The SAT and ACT are the two most widely accepted standardized tests used in U.S. college admissions. Is one a better fit for your child? While similar, there are differences in how each test is structured and scored. For parents and students who want a better feel for the two tests, you can find free online practice assessments for both the SAT and the ACT — including sample questions and scoring.
If you took the SAT back in high school, keep in mind that the test underwent major revisions in 2016. And, in 2021, the College Board (the nonprofit organization that administers the test) dropped the essay and subject tests.
Generally, the College Board advises first-timers to take the SAT in the spring of their high school junior year. This way, they can try again in the fall (if they want or need to improve their score) and still meet most colleges’ application deadlines. Parents can find information about SAT test dates and deadlines, test-center locations, and costs on the College Board site.
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Creating a Plan for SAT Practice
With the exact test and date chosen, parents and students might next turn their focus to SAT practice. Practice can span activities like taking sample tests, understanding the sorts of questions that are commonly asked, and figuring out how the test is scored.
Setting Baseline and Goal Scores
When starting out, many students choose to take a free practice test. This gives them a baseline score and can help identify tough topics they need to brush up on. Practice tests can also help you and your teen pinpoint the specific types of questions that tend to trip them up over and over.
Knowing the practice-test score can help students set an ambitious-yet-realistic goal score for the official test. Other supportive figures on your child’s “SAT team” (relatives, teachers, guidance counselors, mentors, or tutors) can also help them identify an achievable and motivational target score to work towards.
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Creating an SAT Prep Schedule
Beginning SAT practice earlier can help alleviate your teen’s anxiety in the buildup to the scheduled test. The nonprofit Khan Academy, which partners with the College Board to help students prepare for the SAT, recommends starting test-prep about three months before taking the official test.
Months of SAT practice might seem a tad extreme, but it’s key to remember that some students need longer than others to get up to speed on the subjects covered in the SAT. Building in a cushion of prep time also gives teens ample time to adapt to the standardized test format — allowing them to sniff out the common types of questions asked and get used to the time constraints required by the SAT.
Some students can cram last-minute for the SAT and still earn a solid score. But many of the best test-taking and SAT study strategies call for repeated practice over multiple weeks. Given months instead of a few weeks to get ready, you can set up practice sessions that mimic test-like conditions, encouraging your child to further hone their time-management and concentration skills.
Leading up to the test date, families may also benefit from a shared calendar that includes important SAT deadlines as well as other school, work, and social events. A shared calendar can help students dedicate regular study windows — when they’ll work alone, with a parent, or with a tutor — that won’t clash with prior commitments.
To Push or Not to Push?
Some teens are disciplined studiers and may already have a test-prep routine that works for them. Others might need occasional encouragement (or more concrete guideposts) from a parent or educator to set aside adequate time for SAT practice.
Some students also respond well to personalized pointers provided by a test-prep service or tutor, whereas others value a more DIY or independent approach to SAT prep — perhaps working off a commercial study guide or online testing site. (Khan Academy, for instance, offers tailored practice plans, videos, test-taking tips, and other official content created in partnership with the College Board.) In either scenario, parents can help their child determine which method of test-prep works best with their study habits.
Recommended: College Planning Guide for Parents
What About Paid SAT Prep Services?
When deciding whether to pay for a test-prep service, families may want to ponder a few factors. You might begin by comparing a child’s baseline score (on a practice test) with the goal score they’re hoping for on the actual test day. This might help you decide if investing in a professional SAT prep course would be worth the cost (some services cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Another factor to consider is the average SAT scores of applicants at your child’s target schools (compared to their current scoring range).
You might also want to investigate whether any test-prep services are already offered at your child’s school or any local educational organizations, which may be free or low cost.
When looking at paid prep services, you may want to consider the best study conditions for your student’s personality and academic strengths — some approaches offer more guidance, while others stress independent practice.
Also consider: Would your child benefit from a structured schedule and in-person classes? Or, would they prefer a more independent study approach? You might want to consult with a guidance counselor or teacher for input before signing up and paying for a private SAT prep service. Family friends with children already in college might also offer an opinion based on their previous experience. (But, be sure to double-check this advice with any recent changes to the SAT.)
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What Else Can Parents Do for SAT Practice?
Perhaps the most important role parents can have in helping their children prepare for the SAT is to do what they’ve always done — and that’s to support and encourage their child’s growth. Here are some ways parents might motivate students, helping them to stay on track toward that college-admission goal.
Avoid Adding to the Stress
Students can feel a great deal of pressure when preparing for the SAT. They may fret about disappointing their parents’ or teachers’ expectations. Some might dread feeling embarrassed if they score lower than a sibling or classmates. And, if a student has dreamed about attending a specific college or pursuing a precise career path, they may worry that the “wrong score” will sabotage their future plans.
Given the potential for SAT practice to turn into a psychological pressure-cooker, you may want to remind yourself that your words and deeds can lessen or intensify a child’s stress. Raising “concerns” about your teen’s current scores and/or pushing your child to excel or “do better” could increase your child’s test anxiety (and potentially make it harder for them to learn new material).
To minimize the at-home testing drama, you may want to avoid showing disappointment or frustration about practice test scores. It may be more helpful to celebrate incremental successes during weekly or daily practice sessions — honoring the progress being made towards the goal, not the distance still left to run. Gentle reminders that it’s possible to retake the SAT might also reduce a child’s overall testing anxiety.
Encouraging Healthy Habits
Studying late into the night or having a jam-packed schedule can leave high schoolers feeling burnt out. To avoid SAT practice burnout, consider instituting a regular “timeout” from test prep — whether it’s a quick snack break or carving out down time for a walk around the block. Parents can help kids stay healthy by providing nourishing meals, scheduling time for exercise and other social activities, providing plenty of water and nutritious snacks, and helping their teens get ample rest each day.
Recommended: 10 Ways to Prepare for College
Providing a Good Study Space
To help your child set up a focused study environment, you’ll want to first identify a quiet space for studying and practice sessions. Next, you can help your child gather all the study guides, calculators, pencils, paper or computers they’ll need to prep.
In addition, you may want to encourage your child to download an SAT prep app — this will allow them to practice during free time or when they’re riding the bus. Many apps offer practice problems or a “question of the day.” If time is tight, a student can still squeeze in some studying in down moments.
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Keeping Things in Perspective
Parental pep talks can help test-engrossed students to keep things in perspective. Although an SAT score is a significant factor in many college admissions decisions, it’s not the only (or primary) factor universities take into consideration when evaluating applicants. Most admissions committees review a student’s academic record, school and community involvement, personal statement, and letters of support.
Some schools have even moved to a “test optional” admissions policy in recent years. This means students are not required to submit an SAT or ACT score with their application. Open communication about the college admissions process can help students to focus on the short-term tasks at hand.
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The SAT isn’t the only aspect of college planning students might want or need help with. You may be enlisted to lend a hand with researching schools to apply to, choosing a major, making college visits, and proof-reading essays and applications.
Your child will also likely need your financial help to cover the cost of attendance at their selected college. Fortunately, both students and parents have a number of resources that help make college more affordable, including financial aid.
To apply for financial aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will let you know if you are eligible for aid, which comes in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans (which may be subsidized or unsubsidized). If those do not cover your costs, you may be able to fill in the gaps with a private student loan.
Private student loans are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms vary, depending on the lender. Generally, borrowers (or parent cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.
Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and deferment — that automatically come with federal student loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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