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From the best time to take it to whether or not online prep classes are worthwhile, here's what educators and college counselors want parents to know about the SAT test.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
February 24, 2021
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The college application process can come with a big serving of anxiety and stress for families as teens figure out what their first steps will be into young adulthood. And it often starts with a couple of No. 2 pencils and a calculator as they sit for the SATs.

The standardized test has long been an important part of college admissions. And it remains one metric that many colleges and universities consider even as some go test optional and no longer require students submit test scores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For parents wading into this rite of passage with their teens, here are SAT tips from educators and college counselors.

An image of a teenage girl using studying tools online.
Credit: Getty Images.

Every Teen Should Take an SAT Practice Test.

When students take a practice test—whether a PSAT at school or a full SAT practice test online or with an SAT class—they gain a better understanding of what taking the actual test is like and can sort out where they might need to shore up their knowledge.

The PSAT, which stands for the Preliminary SAT, is typically taken by sophomores or juniors and is often offered at their schools. Free SAT practice tests can be found online. Through Khan Academy, the College Board, which administers the SATs, offers free full-length tests.

Tiffany Blessing, a master college admissions counselor with IvyWise, who has worked in admissions at the University of Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Colgate University, recommends that students take the PSAT during the fall of their sophomore year to find out where they might need some expert help to bolster their score. "For those who are really comfortable and ready, it's not unheard of or unseen to begin testing support in the fall of their sophomore year," she says.

SAT Prep Classes and Tutoring Aren't One-Size-Fits-All.

So should you sign your teen up for SAT prep classes or tutoring? It depends on the kid, says Blessing. SAT prep classes generally take place in groups of 10 or fewer students, online or, before COVID, in person. "A lot of them are offered boot camp style," says Blessing. Classes usually cover test-taking strategies and simulate the administration of an actual exam. Classes are great for a student who wants to understand better how to take the exam, but instructors won't have time to focus on a specific skill or content, says Blessing. A tutor can offer more specific help for a student who might be floundering in grammar or geometry.

Online-Only SAT Prep Can Still Be Worthwhile.

Ashleigh Taylor, founder and CEO at Empowered 4 College Coaching, who used to work in admissions at the University of Michigan, recommends that the students she works with check out Khan Academy's SAT resources to take practice tests and bone up on testing strategies and content matter. "Khan Academy is not going to work for everybody," she says. "I'm more confident in telling my younger students, 'let's start there,' because you have more time for trial and error."

With online SAT prep, parents can find out if students will be able to prepare for the exam on their own or if an SAT class or tutor might be the better option. "If you don't see significant improvement, then the paid options might make more sense," says Taylor.

The Best Time for High School Students to Take the SAT is in the Summer.

"The best time to take the SAT is when you have the most time to study for it," says Mark Greenstein, founder and lead instructor at Ivy Bound Test Prep. "All other things being equal, earlier is better, which implies, for most people, summer is the best."

Taylor recommends that students try to get the SATs out of the way during their junior year, so they can spend their senior year focused on completing their college applications. She advises juniors to take the test in the fall and, if they need to, again in the spring. "There's no reason to stress over test taking in the senior year," she says.

Even With More Schools Going Test Optional, Your Teen Should Take the SAT.

It's important to know the difference between test optional and test blind, says Blessing. Test blind schools won't consider standardized test scores, even if you submit them. At test optional schools, scores aren't required, but admissions officers will consider them if they're submitted with the application. For families of juniors who might be having trouble securing test dates, Blessing recommends setting their sights on summer or fall dates. "I still want to invest in preparation," she says. "It's too early for any family to say it doesn't matter and I'm not going to consider testing at all."

Students Should Take the SATs Three Times, Max.

No more than two, maybe three times, says Taylor. As far as colleges are concerned, there's little difference between a 1400 and a 1420, she says. And it makes more sense for students to focus on the rest of their college applications, she says, including writing great essays and earning good grades. "You should be using your time a little bit more wisely," she says.

When SAT Stress Strikes? Take Your Teen to Ice Cream.

No really, according to Blessing. And remind them that they are more than a number earned on some random Saturday. In her experience working in admissions at several selective schools, the focus was never a standardized test score, she says. Admissions officers are far more interested in a student's high school classes and grades, extracurricular activities and recommendations.

Taylor agrees. Colleges want to know what qualities a student will bring to campus. "A student's application should easily speak to who they are," she says, "and the numbers aren't going to do that."

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