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Helping Good Students Do Better on the SAT

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Updated on Sep 19, 2008

When a student who studies hard and earns good grades doesn’t perform well on the SAT, it can be a crushing blow. “Your GPA gets built up over the course of four years, but the SAT happens in one day,” points out Kristen Campbell, Director of College Prep Programs at Kaplan, Inc., a test preparation service. Given its importance in the college admissions game, it’s no surprise many students panic at crunch time.

“Smart, well-prepared kids can test badly for many reasons,” says Richard Bavaria, Ph.D, Senior Vice-President for Education Outreach at Sylvan Learning Center. “The most common reason is stress. Stress can rob a student of confidence and even cause forgetfulness – the worst thing when you’re taking an important test.”

While some anxiety is healthy, too much can be crippling. Want to make sure your students doesn't choke when test day rolls around? Experts recommend the following stress-busters:

  • Sign up for a test prep course or take practice exams so the material and format are familiar. Campbell recommends doing at least four dry runs: set the alarm for 8:00 a.m., place the exam in a room with some distractions, and run a timer while the student fills it out.
  • Eliminate extra sources of stress by knowing where the exam is being given, packing sharpened pencils and other materials the night before, and leaving plenty of time to get to the exam.
  • Encourage your child to start studying well in advance rather than cramming at the last minute. A good night’s sleep and a well-balanced breakfast will help him concentrate.
  • Tell your child that when all else fails, deep breathing and positive visualization can help her focus.


Ironically, high-achieving students may find the habits that help them succeed academically hurt them on the SAT. “The SAT is very different than tests in school,” says Naomi Zell, Product Manager for High School Programs at test prep center Princeton Review. “Good students tend to like to understand the material and figure things out, but (on the SAT) it’s more efficient just to weed out the wrong answers.” Furthermore, while most tests need to be completed to earn an A, “most students will do a lot better (on the SAT) by slowing down and not trying to answer every question.” Tell your child to answer the easy questions before tackling the more time-consuming ones.

Many college admissions committees now acknowledge that SAT scores don’t always reflect a student’s academic potential, a development that should ease the minds of high school juniors everywhere. “Our extensive research confirms that there is very little correlation between test results and first-year grade-point averages or graduation rates, and that high school preparation is a much stronger predictor for student success,” said Gregory E. Eichhorn, vice president for enrollment management at Albright College. As a result, these schools have made submitting SAT scores optional for applicants.

When all the tips and tricks don’t help your child ace the SAT, moving on may be the best medicine. “My son Garrett had a 4.2 or 4.3 in high school but was wait-listed and then turned down by the local University of North Carolina (because of low SAT scores),” says Kasey Sellati. “Maybe he will give them another chance when he applies to medical school.” Garrett is now ranked number one in his class at another university.

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