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True or False? 5 Test Prep Myths Debunked By an Expert Tutor

By Peter, IvyWise Master Tutor

For many students, mystery can surround the ACT and SAT, with rumors and misinformation circulating as students prepare to take these important college entrance exams. It’s important for students to inform themselves on the content of each test, and to not buy into the hype about which test is “better” and other common myths.

The truth is, there’s no test that’s more valuable or more likely, on its own, to get you admitted to your dream college. Students need to learn about each test, including what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to information about each exam.

Here are some prevalent test prep myths and the truth behind them.

Myth #1: The new SAT is harder than the ACT.
This is perhaps the most commonly heard opinion in the last year or so since the SAT’s redesign. The new SAT has, of course, taken some time to unpack and understand because of just how different it is from its predecessor, but it is important to understand the new SAT is not inherently harder than the ACT.

Differences between the two tests abound: the SAT gives a student more seconds per question than the ACT in general, but the questions themselves tend to require more steps and take more time. The SAT does not have a separate ‘science’ section, but ‘science’ related skills in reading charts, graphs, and scientific units of measure have been directly incorporated into the SAT’s reading section.

The truth is, both tests present difficult challenges, some similar and some different, and the best way for a student to decide for certain which test he or she is better suited for is to take a diagnostic of each exam. Each student has different strengths and weaknesses, so what makes the SAT or the ACT challenging for one student will not necessarily present the same challenges for another.

Myth #2: The ACT and SAT are tests of aptitude so there is no point in preparing for either test.
This is a long-held myth that reaches back to the early histories of both of these tests. The SAT in particular was initially thought of as a test of inherent intelligence, and a test in which preparation would do little to nothing to improve the test. Do well in school, was the logic; this is the best way to prepare for the SAT.

The fact that national averages for test scores over the past several decades, as well as students’ and parents’ awareness of the importance of test preparation, have both increased is no coincidence. It’s important to emphasize just how helpful test-specific preparation can be in translating a student’s fundamental math, reasoning, and reading skills into a test score commensurate with the student’s academic abilities.

Of course, skills in reading, composition, and logical reasoning developed in school are essential, foundational skills for doing well on these tests. Test-specific preparation allows for the student to understand and familiarize him or herself with the way in which the structure and style of test questions reflect these essential reading, composition, and logical reasoning skills. This is no easy task!

Myth #3: Don’t guess on the SAT or ACT.
This is another decades-held myth that often relates to conflicting ideas about how to best prepare students for either test. The previous version of the SAT did have a guessing penalty; now, neither the SAT or the ACT has a guessing penalty. This policy can be taken to mean that students now have free license to guess on questions, but the reality is that guessing answer choices at random will not produce good results for the student with or without a guessing penalty.

However, there’s guessing and then there’s educated guessing, and the latter is an essential part of test preparation. Many prep books call this the ‘process of elimination,’ or the way in which a student should be crossing out answer choices and thinking about different answer choices – how they are different, how they are similar, how they relate to the question. Educated guessing and narrowing down answer choices is a particular and teachable skill that students can practice, and an important part of a student’s test preparation.

Myth #4: I’m bad at science so I shouldn’t take the ACT.
This is the most frequent myth heard from students! It’s not their fault; the ACT’s designation of a separate ‘science’ section is misleading because the section does not actually test for scientific knowledge. The section includes scientific content – experiments in biology, physics, chemistry – but the student does not need to have a deep or meaningful understanding of the scientific concepts behind a given experiment in order to answer each and every test question correctly.

What the ‘science’ section does test for is, in fact, a highly specialized form of reading comprehension; the student is tasked with reading for trends in charts and graphs, identifying different units of measure, and making basic inferences about what the data in a chart means given the purpose of the experiment. For this reason, the science section is best paired with the reading section as opposed to the math section. The way in which test preparation books are marketed does not help persuade parents or students of this misconception because ACT math and science sections are usually bundled in one book and English and reading in another.

Myth #5: The essays are optional so I don’t have to take them
Both the SAT and ACT are long, grueling tests that stretch on for over three hours. The essay section is the last section for both of these tests, and it is indeed optional, so it is understandable why many students prefer not to write the essay section. But it’s important to keep in mind what ‘optional’ means in context; it means that the ACT and SAT will generate a full test score and report without completion of the essay section.

What ‘optional’ does not mean is that the essay section is less important than, or less a part of, a student’s admission application to a university. For students who are applying to competitive universities, it is absolutely vital that these students write the essay and perform competently on essay section, as the score provides an important metric that is used by admissions offices.

Students will encounter a lot of outside opinions and information when preparing for the ACT or SAT, with some of it being true and the rest based on long-held myths that have been proven false time and time again. When in doubt, do your research and educate yourself on each exam’s formatting, timing, content, and more, in order to better understand what to expect and how to prepare in an effective manner. Don’t let common test prep myths keep you from taking the test that’s the best-fit for you or reaching your goal score!

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