The college prep process starts sometime sophomore year and ends when your child opens a letter that reads “Congratulations.” This is not an easy time to be a parent. The process is financially and emotionally draining and, worst of all, it involves the future and happiness of your child. So what exactly does the college prep process entail, and how can you come out the other end relatively unscathed?
The main adversary in the college prep experience is the SAT. This three-hour-and-45-minute test will pretty much determine which colleges your child can’t go to. It does not necessarily determine which colleges your child can go to, as that involves an amalgam of other factors. Some of you will opt for tutoring, and others will send the child to a class or camp. Some of you will spend hundreds of dollars on test prep services, and others will spend thousands. All of you will hear from your child that they don’t like studying for the SAT. Some of you will want to give your children the responsibility of arranging their own tutoring sessions or making it to their SAT class on time, while others will be standing exactly three feet away to see if the 25-minute timer has been correctly set during practice exams. So how can you survive the stress and strain of this SAT tutoring process without pulling your hair out?
Your children are terrified of disappointing you. They will never tell you this, but what you think about them really matters, and they want you to be proud. Teens don’t hear things the way we do. If someone were to say to me now that it would be nice if I could get my work done a little faster, I would hear, “I need to work faster, and I should look into ways that I can more effectively manage my time.” If someone told me that at age 16, I would have heard, “You’re too slow, you don’t know how to manage your time, and you better figure it out if you’re ever going to be successful in college.” This is a normal reality during the college prep process, but it’s not an easy one to navigate.
If you want your children to arrange their own schedule so that they are ready to go out there at 18 and be fully prepared for college life, consider the risk-to-benefit ratio. There is often a happy medium in this situation where a teen can make their own arrangements but the parent is still informed. If you are hiring a tutor to come to your home, you will know how long the lesson was and you will probably have an idea of what was covered. You can also contact the tutor to see if all is well while still allowing your child to choose between afternoon and evening study and allowing them to choose whether or not they want to study on the weekends.
On the other hand, asking your children to fully organize all of their responsibilities might be a lot to ask, considering that the average college-bound American teen has a busier schedule than the average American 20-something. Today’s 16–18 year olds are balancing school, AP classes, sports, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, volunteering, and now SAT prep. That is a lot of stuff to manage. Tutors and teachers can offer concrete suggestions for the level of organization that is appropriate for each subject.
3. Make a Timeline
Start your SAT prep timeline about 9–12 months before your children plan to take the SAT. If they will be taking the SAT in June 2015 or October 2015, the fall of 2014 is the right time to get started.
Call a consultant. Ask them to give a reasonable timeline for your children and ask for help on how to get started and when to follow up on certain things.[CC1]
Buy an SAT prep book. Before they start tutoring, your children should take a full-length practice test (three hours and 45 minutes) on any given morning. They should eat breakfast beforehand and not have any exciting plans that would be a distraction until much later that day. They should take two breaks, one after section three and one after section six. The breaks should be five minutes long. After completing the test, they can self-score using the directions in the back of the book. The initial test will give them a baseline score and help them understand how much time they will need to put in to reach their goals.
Arrange for a tutor. Ask the tutor to keep you in the loop, and be upfront with the tutor about how many hours of tutoring you will be paying for. The tutor will want to make a plan of study for each student, and they will be able to do this more effectively if they know how many hours they have to work with.
Start the tutoring process. Once you have a baseline test score (the national average is about 1500), sit down with your child and look at some colleges that are within 100–300 points higher than the baseline score. If your child scored 1500, then look at some schools that accept a score of 1650–1800. If your child’s dream school is outside of the 300-increase range, then think about the time and money that will be spent to attempt to reach this score increase. Ask your child if they are willing to put up to six hours a week of SAT self-study in order to attend Dream University. Six hours of study a week may be no sweat during the summer months, but it may be crushing in the month of May (AP test month).
Call the tutor every four to six weeks and ask for an update. Ask the tutor to be totally honest with you. How is your child doing? Are they mentally present during the sessions? Do they seem tired or overwhelmed? Are they doing the assigned self-study? A tutor can readjust a plan of study throughout the year, so let them know if there are any scheduling or personal changes.
Bump up the tutoring. The three months prior to the exam should be heavily focused on taking practice exams, self-study, and tutoring sessions. College research should be done before you reach this point of the timeline to avoid unnecessary stress. If your children are pushing themselves to score a 2100 but their dream school only requires a 1750, then they can relax a little. On the other hand, if they are scoring a 1990 and the minimum required score is a 2000, then that extra tutoring may be well worth it.
You need time to yourself during this process. Take at least one day a week and step away from the college prep experience. Maybe this is quality time with your children doing something completely non-academic, like going to the park or the beach or out to lunch. Maybe it’s a cup of tea and a yoga class, or watching the football game with friends. The important thing is that you, as the parent, get some time to relax and not worry about this two-plus-year process.
The SAT tutor is there to help, and they are a great resource. If you have noticed that your child is getting too tired to complete all of the assigned self-study but you know they will be crushed if they walk away from test day with less than a 250 point increase, ask the tutor to break the news. Many tutors are or were teachers at one point and have experience giving constructive criticism and feedback. It’s a lot easier for a tutor to sit down with a student and tell them that the chances of meeting their 250 point increase will only occur if they spend an additional two to three hours a week on self-study than it would be for a parent. The tutor goes home at the end of the workday to their own personal life, but for you, this is your personal life.
6. Look for support
I guarantee that anyone you know who has a child between ages 16–18 is feeling the same amount of stress that you are. Try getting together once a month to chat about the rigors of the college prep process. This is more fun when consuming coffee and cake. Talk to some parents who have a child a few years older than yours and ask them to help you navigate the stress of the process.
When you get to those really stressful days, know that soon there will be a letter that reads “Congratulations” and that the college prep process will be over. Now all that’s left is figuring out how to pay for four years of college tuition.