As the country’s most selective schools become ever more selective, some parents are trying to get a leg up on the competition by starting their kids prepping as early as middle school. But is that a good idea? When it comes to test prep, is there such a thing as “too soon”?
It’s definitely never too early to inspire a love of reading. Many expectant mothers even read to their unborn children! That’s great! As a test prep instructor, the scariest words I ever hear are “I hate reading!” When a student says that, I know it’s going to be an uphill battle–and not just on the Reading section. Those same students are likely to tell me, “I skipped that math problem because there were too many words.” No kidding; I’ve heard it a thousand times. Students who grow up reading tend to love reading, which means they tend to be good at it.
Similarly with math: If you start learning about fractions in Kindergarten, like I did, then you’re less likely to freeze up when the SAT asks you to add 3 1/2 and 4 2/3. Again, I’m not kidding: many high school students have no clue how to add mixed numbers.
The main skills tested on both the SAT and ACT are reading and math, so a good foundation in those areas is crucial. The sooner you start building that foundation, the better.
But buying your child the Official SAT Guide for her 12th birthday may do more harm than good.
Even highly motivated students can suffer from burnout. Good students tend to be curious. But tests don’t teach you anything; they just give you an opportunity to show off what you’ve already learned. While some students will relish the challenge at first, after a certain number of practice tests, it starts getting old.
Another potential problem with super-early prep is that most 8th graders and high school freshmen haven’t learned all of the math that’s tested on the SAT and ACT. Even if you’re the top student in your freshman algebra class, you probably haven’t learned about radians or imaginary numbers. Students used to getting almost every question right on every test in school may feel frustrated and disheartened when they miss ten questions on their first SAT practice test. They may start to question their abilities, and in the worst-case scenario, they may just give up.
Even if your child has the attitude, tenacity, and math chops for four years of test prep, there is one unavoidable problem: the finite amount of official test material. Right now there are only four official SATs and one official PSAT. Third-party guides exist, but their content doesn’t always match the test. For example, Kaplan’s “Eight Practice Tests for the New SAT 2016” is pretty good, but the math is about twice as hard as it needs to be. And the Princeton Review ACT guide dwells on concepts that the ACT seldom or never tests. Official materials are clearly the best, but even if you only take one practice test every two months, you’ll run out of SATs in less than a year. With the ACT you’ve got a bit more to work with–five tests in the official guide plus several others available online–but since the ACT has gradually evolved over the years, only a couple of those are fully up-to-date.
Re-taking tests is actually a very smart way to prep. But after you’ve done a test twice–maybe three times–you’re going to see diminishing returns. So it makes sense to save a few official practice tests for the month before the test. That’s going to be hard to do if you’re starting in 8th grade!
So what’s the bottom line? At MTAT, we recommend the following grade-appropriate plans:
8th grade (or younger): Read every day, take challenging courses, and don’t fall behind in your math classes!
Summer before 9th grade: Same advice, but if you’re dying to get your feet wet, take one practice test to identify your strengths and weaknesses.
Summer before 10th grade: Take a practice test if you haven’t already. Consider doing some moderate prep work to become familiar with the test format and basic strategies. Purchase the official SAT or ACT guide, or enroll in a short-term grade-appropriate program like our PSAT 10 Early Start Program.
Summer before 11th grade: This is the best time to take a full-length prep course and as many practice tests as possible, saving one or two for the month leading up to the official test. Students who did well on their 10th grade PSATs should definitely start preparing over the summer for the junior-year October PSAT. National Merit scholarships are at stake, and summer PSAT preparation will also set students up for success on the SAT.
We’re always happy to answer questions about grade-appropriate prep or anything else! Give us a call at 512-453-7272, or shoot us an email at [email protected] today!