Casual Fridays: Does SAT-Prep really help?

It's test-taking season for high-school juniors in the U.S. Most students take the SAT test, which claims to assess mathematical, verbal, and writing ability to help the college/university admissions process. The pressure to succeed on this and other tests has led to the creation of a whole cottage industry, selling books, software, classes, and even summer camps devoted to getting better scores on the tests. Some parents spend thousands of dollars preparing their children to take the test, in addition to the hundreds they might spend to take and retake the test, searching for the elusive perfect score.

But does all this preparation really matter? Are students who work harder on the test rewarded with better college educations -- and better careers, later on? We may be able to answer some of those questions with this week's Casual Fridays study.

Click here to participate

As usual, the questionnaire is brief, with 20 or so questions. It should take just a few minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, April 16 to respond. There is no limit on the number of respondents. Don't forget to check in on Friday for the results!

[We covered the SATs a few years back with our massive Blogger SAT Challenge. If you haven't seen that study, you should definitely take a look.]


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I had the same issue as Whistler. Didn't prepare more between test sessions, but my score went up a whole lot.

Back in the days when I took the SATs (1958), there was no SAT prep, at least not that I or any of my classmates was aware of.

More recently, my daughter won a National Merit Scholarship with no prep at all, just taking the tests both junior and senior years.

I found that taking practice exams was of virtually no help at all. What did help was understanding the structure of the exam (I'm speaking solely to the SAT here, have no experience with ACT) enabled me to maximize my score.

In 1990 (when I took the SAT) the test was divided into multiple sections, each of which had 15 questions. The first 5 questions were the least difficult, the middle were moderately difficult and the last were difficult.

By first answering the easy and the moderate questions, the tester was left with the maximum amount of time possible to answer the difficult questions while still answering all of the easier questions.

Additionally, the second most beneficial strategy to beating the test was to understand the guessing penalty. I can't remember the exact formula for the penalty but it boiled down to that if you could eliminate one of the possible answers that it was then in your favor to guess. If you couldn't eliminate any of the answers then you should leave the question blank.

Understanding the test structure certainly falls under test preparation. Anything more than understanding the above information for the test given in 1990 (I have no idea, nor do I care what the test is like today) was pretty much all the prep necessary.

I felt like doing some practice tests made a difference. I didn't do anything too extreme to prepare for the tests. I took the SAT twice. The second time I scored something like 100-150 points higher. I think the main reason was that the first time, I was sick.

Taking the GRE was fun for me - I really enjoyed taking the practice tests. Knowing the format of the test beforehand seemed helpful. I never would have felt the need to take an extensive formal course, though.

I took both the ACT and SAT twice (same with the GRE).
With the ACT the composite didn't actually increase, but I improved on two sections and went down on the other two (by a couple of points at most)- I always wished you could have taken the best from each individual section and pool them.

With the SAT, I first took it at 14 before having taken most of the math and I didn't do remarkably well. The second time was much later, and my test score went way up (but then, so had my actual knowledge).
For the GRE, I test prep might have helped. I improved both verbal and math about a hundred points each after some fairly short term intensive studying. The analytical writing was consistent though (curse you analytical writing, curse you!!!).

I took the SAT first when I was in 6th grade as a qualifying exam for a summer program. I also took it in 8th grade before taking it in high school. Only the tests I took in high school were reported by the College Board. This survey does not distinguish between scores on the first test ever (which I reported for the survey) and scores on the first test in high school. Obviously, the performance of an 11-year-old might differ from that of a 16-year-old for reasons other than greater test preparation or testing experience.

I just took the test once, but did prepare before the test, so I ended up leaving some of the survey questions blank.

While I don't like how the SAT makes it like "THE" determining factor in college education, the process of preparation did help me learn a lot of.. um.. "esoteric" words, greatly improving my vocabulary. (Including the word "esoteric" as well. :P)

I took the SAT twice and the ACT once (which I almost aced) but I didn't need either to get into college. My first university accepted me on admissions day...just had to show up with my app and $50 and I was in. And no, it was not a good school. It sucked. The second school I went to was a transfer from the first, so they didn't care about these tests either. In the end, it was a huge waste of time (and my parents' money!)

my results are similar to tm's my scores went up considerably but I took the test once in the summer following 6th grade, once in the summer following 9th grade and once as a high school senior. The first two were for various early admissions/TIP programs. I also applied to a very limited set of schools because my degree program was narrow and already decided by the time I did admissions.

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink

I prepared for the SAT by getting drunk, as that had worked so well for the ACT. Of course this was many, many moons ago.

A little over 10 years ago, I worked for an SAT prep company. I specialized in teaching the verbal section.

We definitely helped our students. For someone scoring in the 0-50% percentile, we could usually get the score up 100-150 points. In the higher percentiles, gains were smaller, but almost always present.

The course of study was very much about how to maximize your score through educated guessing. This was when there were only 3 sections (analogies, fill the blank, and reading comprehension). We taught exercises about how to best guess on analogies when you don't know the words, how to eliminate choices for fill in the blanks, and the general strategy for reading comprehension (which merely involves proper paraphrasing of the selection).

Also, the repeated practice exams did help alleviate test anxiety.

I didn't teach the math section, but it had a different strategy based on your score on a practice exam. At the time (and I'm not sure if this is still true), the questions were arranged in order of difficulty. So the teacher would actually tell each student what question # to work up to. Then they spent the rest of the time using some brute force methods on the questions they were most likely to get right, while ignoring those questions they had a low probability of raising their score.

Sadly I cannot participate in this survey, as in the UK we do not have SAT tests. University admissions are usually done either on predicted A-level results, or occasionally a test or interview set by the University itself.

By Abigail O (not verified) on 11 Apr 2009 #permalink

I am European so I didn't take the SAT but I moved to the US recently and I took the GMAT to apply for business school. I studied for about 150 hours adn I took a preparation class. My score improved of about 100 points. After the preparation, I felt I was thinking in a much more critical way about everything. I felt "smarter." After a while, I forgot how to do the test and I felt I was back to my starting point. I am wondering if practice for the SAT or other tests activates some areas of our brain. This is - i guess - the way we become more skilled about a lot of stuff. However, if we stop practicing after we take the test, our brains get back to normal and we loose the benefits of the practice. What do you think?

By capthecat (not verified) on 11 Apr 2009 #permalink

In the parent's education field, you have options for bachelor's, masters, and doctorate degrees only. I know an associates degree isn't much, but I feel badly about putting my mother's degree as "Some college and no degree"

In my 17 years of test preparation, 6 years as a big-company tutor,8 years on my own and 3 years running a cutting edge academic tutoring and test preparation company, Test Prep New York (, I've helped countless students improve their score to help them get into their choice school(s). Yes: preparation can be instrumental in providing students with the tools and skills necessary to 'beat' these tests. However, in all my years of teaching I/we give the most important gift that helps on the test and in life: belief in oneself, the desire to succeed and the intellectual and emotional tools to meet their goals (in this case the SAT/GMAT/ACT/LSAT, etc.).

No amount of tutoring will help a student if they don't play the game and accept the SAT/ACT as a particular rite of passage, for better or worse. Nor will skills development be worth anything if the student goes into the test anxiety ridden and unfocused. This needs to be addressed alongside of content study.

The ACT/SAT and more so, other tests (like the GMAT, LSAT and MCAT) don't only indicate knowledge and flexibility with academic material, but act as a metaphor as how one may perform in particular academic arenas - - and in the professions that follow. They don't measure one's smartness or IQ - - otherwise how could so many improve with practice and study? Within their 'special writing' they've figured out a way to measure how well one navigates the test. Critical thinking, smart guessing (getting rid of the absurd answer choices), understanding the test-writers (and their right answers) call for strategy. Students need to learn how to stay the course and align their intellect, and their emotional and intuitive selves - - not only on the SAT but in life.

Just a couple of comments on the survey - There was no place to point out that my first SAT scores were from 7th grade, so simple maturity/life experience had much more impact on the difference between my scores than the few hours I think I may have studied. In addition, in 1994, they re-scaled the scoring, so increases around that year could be misleading.

There should have been a question about the country of origin.
non-Americans will certainly give different answers to that poll.

By ChristianK (not verified) on 11 Apr 2009 #permalink

Don't remember how many times I took the SAT, nor my scores. I do know I took the GRE twice, because I was so unhappy with my scores the first time (no studying). Not sure how the general GRE works now, but then there was a logic section. Went from something mediocre to an 800 by doing logic puzzles out of GAMES magazine over breakfast! Eating while doing them helped encourage me to do all the level 1 ones with no pencil or paper.

The math sections of the SATs were pretty much the only part I really concentrated on improving. For the verbal, I just left it up to luck on guessing correctly and hoped I would happen to know the words. I was (and still am) convinced that to raise my verbal score, I'd had to have memorized the majority of a dictionary (i.e. I gave up on studying for verbal).

By Monimonika (not verified) on 11 Apr 2009 #permalink

Add yet another person who first took the SAT after 6th grade to get into TIP (the Tallent Identification Program @Duke University). Another confounding factor: I said on the survey that I didn't get into my first choice school but was still very happy with my education. What doesn't get me tioned is that I was happy because I later *transferred* to a different school.

I have always wondered how I would have done on the SAT. I took the test the first time with no preparation and just missed the 1300 mark that was my goal (I was not a 1600 type of girl). I prepped before the second taking only to get in a car accident on my way to the test. A pick up truck loaded with furniture pieces lost its load on the front of my car. I was so shaken up that I did a pretty bad job on my second taking. It almost prompted me to try to take them a third time (I was terribly embarrassed by my score report), but I was too lazy as a senior to do that.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

Isn't it a creation of well-educated society without creativity, logical thinking skills or common sense? Why trying to learn how TO PASS TESTS instead of how TO USE KNOWLEDGE IN REAL LIFE? I don't get it...

I took both the ACT and SAT without any preparation and scored quite well through intuition and guesswork. I didn't worry at all either time, and didn't study more than an hour, tops. The GRE, now, that's a different story. I studied for a full week, and I can assure you that my resulting score was at least 100 points higher than it would have been had I not studied at all, since I'd gone and forgotten everything I'd ever learned in high school math (hello, cylinder volume formula!).