When did all of our lives become so maddeningly busy? My memory may not be as sharp as it once was, but I recall high school as a period with lots of free time to pursue my interests, attend to my studies, and have a little fun once in a while. I even found time to read books of my own choosing! Today’s teens, on the other hand, seem to require the time management skills of a C-suite executive. With all these academic, extracurricular, professional, and social commitments to juggle, where does test prep fit in and how long should it take?
On the one hand, you cannot cram for the SAT and ACT. Well, you can, but your results will show a profound lack of effectiveness. These two tests measure such complex reading, writing, and math content in such specific ways that the test prep process often requires students to finally understand material they’ve struggled with their whole lives (semicolons, anyone?) Plus, mastering advanced testing strategies often requires advanced learning strategies like spaced repetition and retrieval practice. Greatness takes time.
On the other hand, Parkinson’s Law assures us that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I appreciate every student’s commitment to working until he achieves his target test score and have met many over the years who achieved just that, no matter how long it took. But open-ended training schedules overwhelm most people, whose fixed stores of dedication and intensity only become diluted with extra time.
Initial planning for test prep should respect both of these realities in the way that high school coaches and activity moderators do: look at test prep as a season. The typical high school sports season runs about three months from tryouts to championships. Rehearsal for a school play or musical probably spans a similar length of time. Three months–just one quarter of a year–can be magical in terms of growth when a student commits to coaching and practice.
Why can three months be better than four or six or twelve? For one, everyone has too much on their plate. The soccer coach may want to keep her athletes in practice all year long, but those kids all have classes, clubs, family activities, and even other sports or leagues to focus on. So, for that matter, does the coach!
But intensity also impacts performance in a big way. Just as the concept of the weekend led to greater productivity in the workplace, time away from an activity can replenish enthusiasm and commitment. Not even professional athletes earning millions of dollars a year commit twelve months per annum to their sports, though hockey seems to come close. Coaches understand that intensity can only be stoked for so long before eventually waning and dissipating. A student’s commitment to higher test scores is subject to the same laws of gravity.
Imagine a group of students preparing for the Winter Musical. The process begins with auditions, casting, and crew assembly. Then, basic rehearsal begins. Performers are allowed space to make plenty of mistakes while practicing dialogue, songs, and stage positioning. As the set comes together and opening night approaches, the director demands higher levels of acting, singing, and dancing with fewer mistakes each time. Practice after practice, hour after hour, the entire cast has to focus on this one activity in a way that precludes involvement in other ones. But, before you know it, the time for dress rehearsals arrives, signaling the moment that all aspects of the performance must come together seamlessly. By the time opening night arrives, performers have reached their peak of ability. Sure, the director might want an extra week or two, but reality dictates that, after a week or two of performances, the entire cast and crew will be moving on to their next challenges. That’s show biz, but that’s testing too.
Test prep as a season works very well, especially when looking at a full year in the life of a high schooler. Look at a junior’s schedule from July to June. Block out all the important commitments such as sports seasons and AP exams. Is there a two to three month period leading up to SAT and/or ACT test dates? There is your test prep season, the defined length of time your teen has to master all of the content, strategy, and psychology essential to reach your target scores. Coordinate that course or tutoring program as far in advance as possible with the test prep professional of your choice… this model only makes sense when coaching is involved. Set that date certain by which official testing should begin and then support your teen through an intense process. If all goes as planned, the season will end in victory with the scores everyone worked so hard to win. If not, the good news is that you won’t have to wait until next year to try again; another test date will be one to three months away!