Spring testing is upon us, and this year’s round of tests brings new challenges, since many states are including the ACT or SAT in their battery of school-wide assessments for the first time. While counselors are used to managing the energy and anxiety of test-taking students who are thinking about college, a large number of students will soon be taking a state-mandated ACT or SAT who haven’t really thought about college—and, in some cases, haven’t taken courses to go to college.
What’s the best way to guide these students through a test they feel they may not be ready for? Two words come to mind that are in the wheelhouse of every school counselors: Support, and the truth.
Give them a brief overview of the test—that’s brief. Well-meaning counselors often tend to over-explain a concept to students, and that’s an easy way to lose kids of any age, but especially high school students. Make sure you’re getting through; look at the SAT and ACT Websites, and put together a 25-word speech that explains what the SAT and ACT cover. One other suggestion: no word can have more than three syllables. Your goal is to explain, not define.
Tell them how they are already prepared for the test. The classes students are taking give them a chance to make sense out of new ideas and words every day, and that’s what three sections of the ACT (and half of the SAT) are all about. Some Math questions may ask them about concepts they’ve never heard of; it’s best to let them know that ahead of time, and to let them know that if their best answer is “beats me”, they should try and see if there’s one answer they know is wrong, pick something else, and move on.
Show them the format of the test. Athletes take extra time warming up on fields they’ve never played on; that should be the case here, too. Khan Academy and other Websites offer brief introductory videos and sample problems for both tests. Showing the students the format of the test will allow them to get comfortable with how the questions are asked—and comfort and awareness are about 60 percent of the goal for test prep.
Tell them how the results are going to be used. Students new to the SAT and ACT may fear their scores will be sent to colleges or employers without their permission, so make sure you talk with them about how much they control their own scores. Other students will worry their scores will be shared with the local media, or their teachers. If your school shares individual scores with teachers, explain how this will help students learn more, and that the scores are still confidential. If individual scores are shared with the media without student consent, stop doing that; it’s against the law.
Remind them of the relevance of the test to their plans for life after high school. The results of a bad test day rarely have to be shared with a college, and almost never have to be shared with an employer—and if the student is headed to a community college, they may never see the light of day. Students who aren’t thinking about college don’t know the limits of test scores; our task is to make them less scary, and to make sure students know they’re in control. Does this mean they shouldn’t do their best? Of course not. Plans change, and unimportant things may suddenly matter. Ask any college applicant who never cleared their Facebook page.