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It's Test Prep Time

Richard McManus


Summer is over and we are all looking forward toward a great new school year. Except for some people, who are experiencing extreme anxiety. These students and parents have pounding headaches and worried demeanors all out of proportion to the upcoming change. The SATs and ACTs are coming, and high school juniors and seniors and their anxious parents are going into overdrive worrying about these very important tests. I know because our schedule is filled with students cramming to prepare for these two tests. Last year I wrote this column for the first time, but things have changed this year, so I am giving you an updated version that reflects these major changes, and this year the SAT will be changing its entire approach beginning in March. Be prepared!

One thing has not changed; remember, and remind your son or daughter, that these tests are not an assessment of intrinsic worth, and while important, are just pieces of paper with pencil marks on them. Do not let them ruin your child’s life – or yours either!

Practice resources:

The SAT has changed the amount of support available online, so there are more free resources available than ever before. I am going to start with the new materials, which are from Sol Kahn and Khan Academy. The goal of this collaboration has been to bring excellent preparation to all students, thereby leveling the playing field for students preparing for these high stakes tests. As is true of the other Khan Academy courses, the preparation is thoughtful and quite complete. The effort is thorough and carefully done, with graduated levels of difficulty so that a student can choose degree of difficulty – in each section of the test. In addition the site includes both online and paper and pencil practice tests. Nothing has been left out!

Critical reading and writing:

I highly recommend Erica Meltzer’s website, Ms. Meltzer has a practical and no-nonsense approach to test preparation, and like me, she is not a big fan of test-taking tactics and strategies. We both agree that the best strategy is to know the right answer – and that building capacity is more important than building strategy. Ms. Meltzer has written several guides to the writing and reading sections of the SAT with accompanying workbooks, and she has recently published a manual the ACT English sections. Her “Ultimate Guides” are fabulous! Her website provides a variety of free exercises for reading and writing. She has a great downloadable vocabulary list, and is an interesting blogger.

Many of Ms. Meltzer’s students possess excellent vocabularies, which is a wonderful attribute, as vocabulary is the most challenging area to improve, particularly when time is limited and there is little opportunity to give the student work at home. To help students who do not, she has an excellent list of frequently chosen SAT words, which she has derived herself from very intense study of the SAT over the past seven years. I recommend her list to anyone who is preparing for the SAT, because a weak vocabulary is perhaps the hardest element to remedy in any of these exams.

Vocabulary specific:

Only a few of the students we meet have excellent vocabularies, and even the strongest students require dedication to vocabulary development. Along with Ms. Meltzer’s site, I would recommend use of the following aids to learning. The most enjoyable for a family or a student is This website was originally created for the express purpose of improving SAT vocabulary, but it has grown much larger. The English vocabulary section is simple, enjoyable, and very fast. Each page gives a test word and a choice among four possible one-word definitions – the web browser can vocalize the test word if the student does not recognize it. Each correct answer results in rice donated to the World Food Programme. The sequence goes from a level that an adept third-grader can handle to words so challenging that only an English professor at Harvard might be able to correctly identify them.

There are two excellent “flash card” sites that provide apps and downloadable vocabulary lists. I prefer, which has some excellent root word downloads, to, which features an even larger number of potential downloads for vocabulary development. Both include vocabulary decks they claim to be optimized for various standard entry exams – either will be helpful, and as above, they are free. We teach roots because they provide flexibility in understanding unfamiliar vocabulary. For the student who is seeking very high scores and has a strong knowledge of roots I like and its partner site,

Math sites:

I know you didn’t miss the Khan Academy materials above. Meanwhile I very much like; Erik Jacobsen knows his stuff and his site is well put together and filled with useful math practice and tips. His practice tests are quite detailed and useful, and his tips are clear. He is a tutor in New Jersey, and he has done an admirable job in making his tools and ideas available to anyone who wants to use them.

One final reminder – please do not take these tests as some life or death challenge. They are only a part of what colleges look at in determining who to accept. Go into these tests without fear and you are already ahead of the game!

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