Any student looking to apply to a private school is faced with a serious set of challenges: interviews, applications, and other hard decisions. Yet, nothing can be as intimidating as the standardized test that is required. Many students will wind up facing the Middle/Upper Level SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test), and it's certainly an important step in the application process – but it doesn't have to be so scary!
Sure, it's nearly three hours long with breaks included. It has five sections, including dreaded vocabulary and math sections, and even an essay. However, with a clear plan and a good head start, any student can walk into the test room feeling calm and ready.
It's not that big of a deal
This is almost certainly the first important standardized test of your child’s life. Although many schools administer state-wide tests, students don't tend to panic about those the way they do with the SSAT. While they'll get used to the format soon enough, be sure to ease their anxiety about their first foray into the entrance-exam world.
They may not be familiar with the odd experience of taking such a dry, clinical test – neither is anyone else taking it. Reassure them that all the other students taking it are 'in the same boat.' Remind them that the SSAT is not a perfect IQ test, and that schools know that. A mediocre score next to great grades and a terrific personality on an application can still get your child accepted into a fantastic school.
The specifics of the test can cause more stress than they need to. For instance, the essay terrifies some students, but it's not even scored – a scan of their response is simply sent to their chosen schools along with their scores.
Most of all, sit your child down with the test and get them practicing. With that, taking the SSAT can become a more familiar and calm experience.
Practice early and often
Maybe your child feels comfortable with math, but is terrified of the vocabulary section. Maybe they can run through those definitions in seconds, but their pencil hovers over math questions for minutes and minutes without progress. Still, they should be practicing every section of the test months ahead of time. Rather than staying up all night before the exam, it's more effective for a student to walk through a few sections each week, from both the verbal and math sides of the test, beginning months before test day.
While a few questions may be similar to what students see on school tests, most will seem strange at first. Even though your child might feel good with vocabulary, they might be more confused by the "analogy" questions than they expect. On the SSAT, math questions in particular will be very different than those seen in the classroom; for instance, no calculators are allowed, but rounding and estimating are very encouraged. All of these formats require practice and familiarity so that on test day, students can skip the instructions and fine print and instead save time for the toughest questions.
Ready, set, go!
After completing a set of practice tests, the most important purchase you can make is a watch. Students need to be as secure in their pace as a marathon runner is – not moving too fast, and not moving too slow. Guessing is indeed penalized on the SSAT, so it's important for students to try and look at every question. As for students who say they're moving fast and that they'll go back and 'check their work?' Well, what may work on a school math test won't cut it on the SSAT. Checking work almost never nets more than one or two extra points. Getting the exact-right pace is key.
So, once your child is used to the basic format of the test, have them start to work through sections with a watch ticking next to them. This will also encourage them to do what the SSAT requires: a lot of educated guessing, process of elimination, and estimation. The math sections, especially, should be tackled via shortcuts and rounding rather than routine, slow work.
Once doing a section 'in time' seems easy enough, your child has graduated to practicing on the whole test. After all, this is a nearly three-hour long test! A 30-minute practice session here and there just won't cut it. Writing an essay fresh-faced at home is one thing, but doing it after hours of bubbling-in and arithmetic, in a sanitized unfamiliar test room – well, that's another.
Take two, even three Saturday mornings to let your child take the entire test, with just the allotted five-minute-breaks between sections. Perhaps there's an older sibling around who wouldn't mind serving as a cruel timekeeper. However it's done, remember that learning about different questions won't help your child's score. Learning about the test is what matters.
The word "studying" causes all sorts of problems with standardized tests. Students think that there are answers that need to be memorized, formulas that have to be crammed into their brains, and that any hard question should be stared at for an hour until they understand it.
But that's not how one should prepare for the SSAT. Guide your child to think of preparation as “practice” and “rehearsal.” It's a matter of staying focused and applying basic techniques like process of elimination, educated guessing, and shortcuts to hundreds of questions – not worrying about one or two scary ones.
If it feels more like sports practice, students will understand all of these tips. They'll calm down and feel like the test is old news. They'll time themselves and enjoy working at just the right speed, and they won't stay up the night before the test with flashcards. When they walk in on test day, they'll be happy, confident, and ready.