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    All About the SAT

    What to do before you grab your No. 2 pencils.

    Interview by LaTonya Taylor

    Got questions about the SAT? We've got answers. Pastor and author James Stobaugh is an SAT expert with more than 30 years of experience preparing students to do their best on this important test. He's also the author of The SAT & College Preparation Course for the Christian Student (Great Expectations Book Company). We asked Dr. Stobaugh to answer common questions about the SAT—what it is, why it matters so much, and the best ways to prepare.

    Why is the SAT so important?

    Dr. Stobaugh: Because each high school is different, with different grading systems and curriculum programs, admissions offices need an objective way to measure students' potential. Standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT provide that objective measuring tool. They allow admissions professionals to compare students from different backgrounds and different types of schools—public schools, private schools, and kids whose parents homeschool them. The test is the primary way American universities determine admission and financial aid, so it weighs pretty heavily. The SAT I Reasoning Test is one of the most important elements of your admission application.

    The SAT II is an achievement test, similar to the Advanced Placement (AP) or College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, which are based on a specific subject area like history, philosophy or a foreign language. As you apply to colleges, you can take these tests to demonstrate your strength in a certain subject. You can also earn college credits based on your scores.

    Can you study for the SAT?

    Dr. Stobaugh: You can, but test preparation is different for the SAT than for other tests. Some tests are based on learning a certain body of information. If you've learned the information, you'll probably do well. The SAT is different. It's a skill-based aptitude test similar to the IQ test. Because of that, I recommend preparing for the test well in advance. I don't recommend devoting every day to SAT preparation, but I think it's wise to spend about three years—9th grade to 11th grade—doing some sort of occasional SAT preparation.

    How do you recommend that students prepare for the SAT?

    Dr. Stobaugh: I really believe it takes from one to three years to prepare for the test. That kind of preparation is what I offer in my book. But whether or not a student buys my book, I think it's good to have some kind of organized plan that includes an aggressive reading program, since 80 percent of the SAT verbal section is reading. Reading about 25 books a year, especially the classics, is great preparation. I find that students who read a lot of good, solid literature usually do well. People who use their minds in challenging subjects usually do well—for example, musicians and debate students tend to score highly. And some studies show that students with a strong religious faith and a strong prayer life often perform well, too.

    What should students do if the test is coming up soon, and they don't have years to prepare?

    Dr. Stobaugh: I recommend taking a lot of practice tests, especially if you only have a few weeks to prepare for the test. These sample tests are good preparation. You can find sample tests in books from the College Board at major bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble. (Editor's note: SAT prep books and practice tests are also available on the College Board website, www.collegeboard.com.)

    Most of all, don't panic. That doesn't help at all. Through my experience as an SAT coach, I've discovered that your state of mind and heart affects your score. Again, students who have a strong prayer life and a focused walk with God benefit greatly from the way their faith helps them deal with stress. As a result, they often do better.

    Many teachers and guidance counselors say the best way to prepare for the SAT is to do your best in school—that strong students generally score well. What's your thought about that advice?

    Dr. Stobaugh: I think that's good advice. The student who works hard building good discipline, good reading habits, and good thinking habits is likely to score well. But, in my opinion, it's still important to have a study plan that prepares you for the SAT.

    Let's say the test is just a week or two away. Is there anything students should do between that time and the day they will take the test?

    Dr. Stobaugh: Actually, I tell my students to start preparing for test day a few weeks in advance. For example, if you don't already, start getting up early in the morning the way you'll need to on test day. Let's say you'll need to get up at 5:30 on test day to get ready and get to your test site; start doing that ahead of time. After about six weeks, your body will get used to that schedule and you'll be at your best on test day. Also, pray with your family often about the test.

    About a week in advance, drive to the test site so you'll know where you're going and won't be worried about getting lost. On the day of the test, ask your parents to pray with you and for you. Make sure you get a good breakfast.

    Then, gather your test materials, like your pass, a picture ID, your approved calculator and several slightly dull No. 2 pencils. It's also a good idea to bring a healthy snack, like a turkey sandwich. You're allowed to eat a snack during the break time. Make sure you get there early, and get a good seat—away from high-volume travel areas like the door near the bathroom.

    If you're comfortable with this, it's a good idea to have your parents go with you and to pray for you as you go in to take your test. That's much better than waiting in the hall with other nervous test-takers!

    Can a student who has special needs—such as a learning or physical disability—arrange for accommodations?

    Dr. Stobaugh: Yes. Absolutely. If you have a documented disability, you may be eligible for some accommodations to help you perform at your best. If you have certain learning disabilities, you may be able to get more time to take the SAT. You may also be able to have the SAT read to you. A student with a visual disability can get a large-type answer sheet. But you need to request this type of allowance in advance—I recommend a year. If you need an accommodation to help you perform at your best, there's a form on www.collegeboard.com that you or your parents can submit. You may also be able to get this form in your guidance counselor's office.

    How many times do you generally recommend taking the SAT?

    Dr. Stobaugh: I always suggest taking the test formally as few times as possible. Many schools use your highest score, so there's no need to send several formal scores. I recommend that students buy some practice tests, and take 8 to 10 of those between freshman and junior year. Simulate the test conditions as accurately as possible—for example, time it carefully; only allow yourself three hours and 45 minutes to take the test.

    If you've taken some practice tests and scored them, you'll have a pretty good idea what scores you're likely to earn when you take the official test. Then, May or June of junior year, take the first formal test, and retake it if necessary senior year. Keep in mind that you need to have your score ready by the fall to apply to college later in the fall or early in the spring of your senior year.

    How do you know if you should take the SAT a second time?

    Dr. Stobaugh: It's difficult to know. But talk to your parents and your guidance counselor. If your first score doesn't seem to reflect your abilities or the range that they think is reasonable, consider retaking it.

    What should a student do if she finds herself in the "almost" range—with a score almost high enough to get into her top choice school or almost high enough to push her into a higher level of scholarship eligibility?

    Dr. Stobaugh: If you've taken the test during the spring of your junior year, you'll get that first set of scores by June or July. That way, you'll know if you're in a good position to receive scholarships or get into the schools you're interested in. But you might find yourself a few points away from a better position—for example, if you earned an average score, but 50 or 100 more points might bump you into the above average range. In that case, I'd recommend putting some time in over the summer—working pretty hard by reading good books, taking practice tests, and finding ways to reduce your stress. Then, go ahead and retake the test in the fall.

    I think it's possible to increase your score by between 150 and 175 points by working hard this way. But I think the threshold is about 200. It's virtually impossible to increase your score more than that.

    What advice do you have for the student who is hardworking and may even have a high GPA, but just doesn't test very well?

    Dr. Stobaugh: Keep in mind that colleges do consider factors other than your SAT or ACT score. So if you believe there's a dramatic difference between your scores and your grades or true ability, then let the colleges you're applying to know about it. In your application materials, include a letter with this information. You could also mention it in an essay, or ask your guidance counselor to mention it in a letter of recommendation.

    What if your score is very strong in one area, but weak or average in another? For example, what if you score very high on the verbal portions, but are much weaker in math?

    Dr. Stobaugh: Let's say a student scores maybe a 750 in critical reading, 700 in writing and 550 in math. That's a fair score—a 2000—but it's clear that he's quite a bit weaker in math. Here's what I'd suggest in that situation.

    First, I'd recommend applying to a liberal arts college, where math is not as important as, say, an engineering school. And if you believe you're going to major in a subject where your verbal abilities are a strength, like English, go ahead and state that on your application. Another thing that student could do is to take an SAT II test in composition to show that he's a stronger student in that area and really worth some attention because that's his gift.

    One of the students I worked with had an extremely low verbal score. But he wanted to be an engineer. He applied to an engineering program and made his case by taking a physics and chemistry SAT II in addition to the SAT I.

    Well, guess what? That school really wanted people who did well in physics and math. He ended up graduating at the top of his engineering program. If you are really talented in a subject, find ways to show you shine in that area.

    What is the role of faith and the student's relationship with Christ in preparing for the SAT?

    Dr. Stobaugh: I'd encourage students to see SAT preparation as a way to prepare for college—and a way to become salt and light in the world by getting an education that can equip you to serve God. Also, know that God is with you. Your faith journey is an important part of your college decision, and it will affect the way you handle stress as you prepare for the SAT.

    Dr. Stobaugh's book, The SAT & College Preparation Course for the Christian Student, is available on christianbook.com. Dr. Stobaugh's website is forsuchatimeasthis.com.
    What About the ACT?

    Obviously, everyone doesn't take the SAT. Some college-bound students take the ACT instead. Many of you take both tests. Here are some resources to help you prepare for the ACT.

    act.org. On the official ACT website, you can sign up to take the test and get information about the four sections it covers: English, math, reading and science. There's also infor-mation about the writing test option. Check out act.org/path/secondary/resources.html for downloadable information, including the ACT prep booklet with a practice test, and a "Planning for College" booklet you can read with your parents.

    ACTive Prep. This software, available on act.org, uses questions from the ACT to help you focus on the subject areas measured by the test.

    The Real ACT Prep Guide. This book is filled with practice tests, explanations for each answer, and information about the writing test. You can find it on act.org, amazon.com or at bookstores like Borders.

    QuickStudy® Charts. These four-page laminated guides come with basic information and study tips you can study between classes or whenever you have a few minutes. For the ACT, they come in a Math & Science chart and an English & Writing chart. Find these at Christianbook.com, or barcharts.com.

    —LaTonya Taylor