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Sample Education Essay: An Overview of ACT/SAT Test Preparation

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    The ACT and the SAT are standardized tests that play a huge role in the college admissions process. This sample education essay explores the stress of preparing for the ACT and SAT tests.

    The purpose of the present sample essayis to explore the subject of preparation for these standardized tests. The essay has four parts:

    1. The first part will describe why these tests are so important within the context of the college admissions process.
    2. Then, the second part will consist of a general overview of the tests themselves and what they are meant to measure.
    3. From this point, the third and fourth parts of the essay will explore two different strategies for preparing for these standardized tests in an effective way.
    4. The first strategy will be called specialized preparation, and the second preparation will be called natural aptitude. Favor will be given to the latter of these strategies.

    Importance of the ACT and SAT tests

    Preparing for ACT and SAT tests are important to college admissions. To start with, then, it is worth discussing the basic fact that the SAT and the ACT are very important tests within the context of the overall college admissions process. These are tests that students take in high school in order to determine their qualifications for future academic pursuits. Berry has put the matter in the following way:

    Most competitive colleges value standardized tests more than ever. Over the last 25 years, more and more competitive colleges have emphasized high test scores because it gives them a way to evaluate students with disparate school records. (paragraph 3)

    In other words, a given student's scores on the SAT and ACT could potentially have an even greater impact on his academic future than other factors such as the grades he got over the course of the years he spent in high school. Low SAT and/or ACT scores could effectively lock that given student out of serious consideration by competitive colleges.

    Schools use different results during admissions

    It should be pointed out, however, that the importance of standardized tests in the college admissions process tend to differ on a school-by-school basis. As a blogger called Unigo has indicated, for at least some schools, it is the case:

    The test scores are just one piece of the puzzle and do not define you as a student or person. Whether they are really good, not so good, or somewhere in the middle, don't let them be more important than they are. (paragraph 2)

    In fact, there are several schools of higher education that do not care about standardized tests at all as a matter of principle, or that consider standardized test scores to be an optional part of the admissions process. However, it is still the case that there are many schools, and especially prestigious schools, that place a great deal of weight on standardized test scores. So, if a given student has his ambitions set on such schools, then it would behoove him to pay careful attention to the tests themselves.

    The rest of the present essay will proceed on the basis of the assumption that standardized tests are in fact a very important part of the college admissions process within the context of the aspirations of a given student. Given this assumption, it will clearly be necessary to gain a better understanding of what the standardized tests known as the SAT and the ACT actually require of the student.

    After this is properly discussed, it will then also be appropriate to discuss what the student can do (if anything) in order to more effectively prepare himself for these tests and thereby ensure his future academic success. These will be the main subjects of the following sections of the present essay.

    Overview of the ACT and SAT tests

    The SAT Test

    This is how Petersen's Staff has described the SAT:

    The first section is always a written essay, which takes 25 minutes, and the last section is always a multiple-choice writing section, which takes 10 minutes. The other parts of the test—six 25-minute sections and two 20-minute sections—can appear in any order. (paragraph 1)

    The SAT in its current form has three main parts: the critical reading part, the math part, and the writing part. The SAT used to not include a writing part. This is why students who took the test several years ago will probably remember the maximum score for the test as being 1600 (800 for reading and 800 for math), whereas the maximum score for the test is now 2400, after including 800 for the writing section.

    In general, the test as a whole is meant to test for general cognitive aptitude, or the capacity to be confronted with a given intellectual problem and respond to it in an effective way. Also, the SAT testing organizers changed some of the SAT test requirements in 2016.

    The ACT Test

    Turning to the ACT, now, the maximum score for this standardized test is 36.

    Kaplan Test Prep has indicated that "generally, you'll take the ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This allows you to reserve the summer months for college applications or enough time to re-take the test during the fall of your senior year if you're not satisfied with your score" (paragraph 2).

    The ACT is somewhat broader than the SAT; it covers the subjects of English, mathematics, reading, science, and writing.

    At one level, then, the test is meant to evaluate whether the student has in fact acquired the basic knowledge that he should have acquired from a general high school education. At another level, though, the ACT is like the SAT in the sense that is more meant to get an idea of the student's general cognitive aptitude than to measure specific knowledge in certain areas.

    SAT and ACT testing strategies

    Just like post-midterm stress, preparation is essential to preventing ACT and SAT anxiety. However, the very nature of the SAT and the ACT is such that it is possible to try and understand the tests as effectively as possible and to prepare specifically for the kind of cognition and knowledge that will be evaluated by the tests and thus help determine the academic futures of high school students.

    Strategy #1: Specialized preparation

    There are several different companies and services that offer preparation for standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT. The College Board, for example, has a website that allows students to take practice SAT tests in preparation for the real tests. There are also several private companies that provide the service of preparing students for tests such as the SAT and the ACT. In a way, this could be explained through the simple laws of supply and demand (see Heakal).

    Essentially, there are many students who would very much like to get into competitive colleges; they understand that scoring well on the SAT and/or ACT would enhance their odds of beating their rivals for their colleges; and there thus emerges a supply of services that can meet this demand on the part of the students to prepare more effectively for the standardized tests. These services became very popular after teachers in Atlanta were caught falsifying test scores.

    These preparation courses for the SAT and the ACT are not really about enhancing the actual educational level of students or providing them with long-lasting intellectual skills. Rather, the courses primarily prepare students to think in terms of the test, so to speak. That is, the SAT and the ACT use specific kinds of language in formulating their questions, and specific kinds of logic in formulating the possible answers to those questions.

    The general idea is that students with a high level of cognitive aptitude would be able to pick up on the underlying logic of the tests in a relatively easy way and thereby pass the tests with high scores. However, it is also possible to conceptualize this understanding as a technical rather than a general skill, and then attempt to teach that technical skill (and not general cognitive aptitude to students).

    This is essentially the strategy pursued by private companies and programs that are dedicated to preparing students for standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT. They essentially teach to the test or attempt to cultivate the very specific skills that would be needed in order to understand the tests themselves and pass them with success.

    These programs often cost a considerable amount of money trying to get students to pass the tests and stand a chance at admissions to the popular and cool colleges. But for many families with high school students, this money can be easily conceptualized as an investment in the future. As Detweiler has put it:

    Parents often agonize over whether to pay for test prep classes or tutors, but ultimately many spring for it; the tutoring and test prep industry make billions of dollars a year. Often, when they do pay for it, they wonder if it's worth it. (paragraph 7)

    But parents, being parents, want to make sure that they provide their children with every possible opportunity for maximum success; and within such a context, a "maybe" generally turns into a "yes". Of course, this potentially raises questions about the justice of students being able to get into college on the basis of this kind of financial support and the ways in which this may perpetuate existing wealth disparities within the United States. For present purposes, though, the important point is that specialized preparation for the SAT and the ACT is not only possible but a thriving industry within the contemporary United States.

    Strategy #2: Natural aptitude

    The SAT and the ACT, however, are primarily meant to test general cognitive aptitude; they are not meant to simply test the extent to which a given student is good at taking the SAT or ACT. This means that in the end, specialized preparation may or may not produce the desired effects. To quote Detweiler again, regarding the SAT:

    "Overall, though, the track record isn't so hot: a 2009 paper published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling says research has found the average gains from test prep to be more in the neighborhood of 30 points" (paragraph 9).

    In most cases, this is virtually nothing, and it surely does not justify the extent to which families invest financially in specialized test preparation services. To a significant extent, then, attempts to "hack" the standardized tests, including using those silly strategies found in those top study apps for college students, would seem to be a failure. They would seem to substantially succeed at measuring what they were designed to measure, which is nothing other than general cognitive aptitude.

    This brings us to the other possible strategy (other than specialized preparation) that could enable one to meet with success with the SAT and the ACT, which is simply developing one's own mind and intelligence in a general way, without focusing too much attention on the tests per se. The present writer, for example, scored very high on both the SAT and the ACT when he was back in high school, and he never gave a second thought to either of those tests in and of themselves.

    The tests are meant to measure general cognitive aptitude—which means that if one just tries to develop one's general cognitive aptitude over time as a way of life, then one should have no problems with the standardized tests when they come around. The SAT and ACT are designed in such a way that "cramming" for them is probably not the best way to truly prepare for them.

    Rather, if one learns what one should learn while in school and develops one's skills of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking over time, then one should do fine with the tests, not to mention any other cognitive problems that emerge over the course of one's life. This is, of course, a message that the test preparation industry would not like to hear. But it would also seem to be the plain and simple truth.

    Conclusion

    In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of preparation for the standardized tests known as the SAT and the ACT. A key conclusion that has been reached here is that although one could take specialized courses to prepare for these tests, it would probably be a better idea to simply develop one's natural cognitive aptitude in a more organic way. This is what the tests are meant to measure in the first place, and simply fulfilling that condition would probably be both more effective and less expensive than trying to hack them.

    Works Cited

    Berry, Dave. "SAT/ACT Importance." College Confidential. n.d. Web. 3 May 2016. http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/satact-importance/.

    College Board. "SAT Practice." Author, n.d. Web. 4 May 2016. https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/practice.

    Detweiler, Gerri. "Is an SAT Prep Course Worth the Cost?" Credit. 8 Apr. 2015. Web. 4 May 2016. http://blog.credit.com/2015/04/is-sat-prep-worth-it-113551/.

    Heakal, Reem. "Economics Basics: Supply and Demand." Investopedia. n.d. 4 May 2016. http://www.investopedia.com/university/economics/economics3.asp.

    Kaplan Test Prep. "The ACT at a Glance." Author, n.d. 4 May 2016. Web. 4 May 2016. http://www.kaptest.com/act/kaplan-act-prep/all-about-the-act.

    Peterson's Staff. "SAT Scores: About the SAT." Peterson's. 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 May 2016. https://www.petersons.com/college-search/sat-scores-about-test.aspx.

    Unigo. "How Important Are Test Scores to College Applications?" U.S. News World Report. 14 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 May 2016. http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-admissions-experts/2011/12/14/how-important-are-test-scores-to-college-applications.

     
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