The college prep process starts sometime during sophomore year and ends when your student opens a letter that reads “Congratulations.” This isn't 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?
One of the main adversaries in the college prep experience is the SAT. This test will pretty much determine which colleges your child can’t go to. Some parents opt for tutoring, and others will send their students to a class or camp. All parents hear from students is that they don’t like studying for the SAT. Some parents will give them 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 prep process without pulling your hair out? Here are five important tools to utilize.
Your teen is 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. Be kind and understanding as your student navigates the stressful process that is standardized testing.
If you want your student to arrange their own schedule so they're fully prepared for college life, consider the risk-to-benefit ratio. There's often a happy medium in this situation where a teen can make their own arrangements but the parent is still informed. If you're hiring a tutor to come to your home, you'll know how long the lesson was and probably have an idea of what was covered. You can also regularly check in with the tutor to see if all is well while still allowing your teen to choose between afternoon or evening study and whether or not they want to study on the weekends. On the other hand, asking your student to fully organize all responsibilities might be a lot to ask, considering the average college-bound teen actually has a busier schedule than the average person in their 20s. Today’s 16–18-year-olds are balancing school, AP classes, sports, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, volunteering, and now SAT prep—that's a lot to manage. Tutors and teachers can offer concrete suggestions for the level of organization that's appropriate for each subject.
3. Study timeline
Create an SAT prep timeline with your student about nine to 12 months before they plan to take the SAT. If they want to take the test next June, the fall before that is the right time to get started.
The first month of planning
- Call a consultant: Ask them to give a reasonable timeline for your student and ask for help on how to get started and when to follow up on certain things.
- Buy an SAT prep book: SAT practice books are a staple that will always be helpful in study prep. There's no better way to study than with official example questions from previous SATs. After taking a practice test, students can self-score using the directions in the back of the book.
- Take a full-length practice test: On any given morning, help your teen simulate what test day will be like. They should eat breakfast beforehand and not have any plans that would be a distraction until much later that day. They should take two five-minute breaks: one after section three and one after section six. The initial test will give them a baseline score and help them understand how much time they'll need to put in to reach their goals.
- Arrange for a tutor: Getting your student a tutor is a huge asset if it isn't too expensive for you. Ask the tutor to keep you in the loop, and be upfront with them about how many hours of tutoring you'll pay for. Tutors make a plan of study for each student they assist, and they can do this more effectively if they know how many hours they have to work with.
Months 2–6 of planning
- Start the tutoring process: Once your student has a baseline test score (the national average is about 1500), sit down and look at some colleges that have admission requirements about 100–300 points higher than that. If your teen scored 1500, then look at schools that accept scores of 1650–1800. If their dream school is outside of the 300-increase range, then consider the time and money needed to reach this score increase. Ask your student if they're willing to put up to six hours a week of SAT self-study in order to attend that school. Six hours of study a week may be no sweat during the summer months, but it may be crushing during AP test month in May.
- Call the tutor for updates: Check in with your teen's tutor every four to six weeks and ask them to be totally honest with you. How is your student 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.
Months 6–9 of planning
- Bump up the tutoring: Three months before the exam should be heavily focused on taking practice tests, self-study, and tutoring sessions. College research should be done before you reach this point of the timeline to avoid unnecessary stress. If your teen is 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're scoring 1990 and the minimum required score is 2000, then that extra tutoring may be well worth it for the extra 10 points.
As a parent, you also need time to yourself during this process. Take at least one day a week and step away from the college prep experience. Maybe this will be quality time with your family 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 by yourself, or watching a football game with friends. The important thing is that you, the parent, get some time to relax and not worry about this long process you're supporting your student through.
A student's SAT tutor is there to help, and they're a great resource for you too. If you've noticed your teen is getting too tired to complete all of the assigned self-study but you know they'll be crushed if they walk away 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 or 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.
I guarantee anyone you know who has a student between the ages of 16–18 is feeling the same amount of stress as you. Try getting together once a month to chat about the rigors of the college prep process. It's more fun when consuming coffee and cake. Talk to some parents who have students 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 the college prep process will be over. Then all that’s left is figuring out how to pay for four years of college tuition.
Your student can head over to our Test Prep section to find great advice on preparing for and taking standardized tests. We’ve got them covered!