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Preparing for College Admissions Tests

About three million high school students each year take either the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the American College Testing Assessment (ACT) because approximately 78 percent of colleges and universities require one of these tests as part of their admission process.

SAT--This test has 138 questions, divided into verbal and math sections. There are 5 thirty-minute sections and 2 fifteen-minute sections. The verbal section consists of 19 sentence completions, 19 analogies dealing with word meanings, and 40 reading comprehension questions. The math portion includes 60 questions on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. The two sections are scored separately on a scale of 200 to 800. Currently the nation's three hundred most selective colleges seek a combined score of higher than 1200. Fewer than 10 percent of students score above 1300.

ACT--Administered to the majority of college-bound juniors and seniors in thirty-eight states, it is the more popular of the two major college entrance exams. This test is divided into four sections--English, reading, mathematics, and science reasoning--with subsections that include subjects such as English grammar usage, rhetorical skills, and trigonometry. Each section is scored on a scale of 36 points, then integrated into a composite score, the mathematical average of the four sections. The mean for this test is 20.7; only a very small percentage of students score above 30.

Colleges use these tests as measures to predict the success students will have in college. The ACT Assessment User Handbook (1991) says the program is constructed "to measure as directly as possible [the] mastery of knowledge and skills required for success in college studies." Several studies have shown the ACT composite scores to be a reliable predictor of the first year of college student grade point averages and the subscores for the specific tests to be valuable in predicting specific course performance. The following are some suggestions for taking the entrance exam.

  1. Take a sample test. Make the practice test as realistic as possible by re-creating the test experience. Practice pacing the test. Review results afterward to uncover your weak spots. Then take another sample test.
  2. When taking the test, follow the process of elimination. Skim the answer choices and eliminate those that are obviously wrong. Then focus on the remaining ones. The SAT discourages blind guessing by penalizing wrong answers. The ACT counts only the correct answers, with no penalty for incorrect ones, so even blind guessing will help.
  3. Because the tests are timed, skip difficult questions rather than dwell on them. In each section, questions become progressively harder, but easy and difficult questions all score one point each. Watch the clock.
  4. Beware of the obvious. Test-makers note common incorrect responses to their questions and include them as choices. Consider all the options before answering. If a question seems really easy but is near the end of the test, it is likely to be tricky.
  5. Be prepared for the test. Bring a calculator, scrap paper, plenty of well-sharpened pencils, and all required ID. Arrive early after a good night's sleep.

In addition, well-developed verbal skills give a child an advantage in standardized tests, in college admission, in all college coursework, and in future life work. The following are some practical suggestions about how to develop this crucial commodity.

  1. Build a large, working vocabulary. The student should make a habit of reading challenging publications and books. When he meets an unfamiliar word, he should find out what it means and make it part of his personal vocabulary list. Make flash cards. Learn to use the word correctly.
  2. Use conversation. Talk in adult fashion. Use correct grammar. Avoid depending on popular slang to communicate ideas (i.e., "He's like..."; "I go..."; "y'know"). Make a rule that nothing can be called a "thing."
  3. Study word roots. Roots provide a clue even when the word itself is unfamiliar. If possible, study a foreign language. Latin and the Romance languages provide the origin for many of our English words. Also, studying the structure of a foreign language helps to reinforce the understanding of our own language.
  4. Keep a journal. Use complete sentences. Explore ideas as well as feelings. Help the student to find the exact word to communicate his ideas.
  5. Read! Read! Read! Expand on what the student likes or thinks he likes. Read a variety of authors and genres--classics, old and new. Research has shown that the literature of the nineteenth century (both British and American) is particularly advantageous in vocabulary and usage enrichment.

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