Preparing for College Entrance Exams – the ACT and SAT
by Elaine Ernst Schneider
College entrance exams are designed to test cumulative knowledge – in other words, what the student brings with him or her from high school. But that isn’t all. The tests are also targeting deductive skills. For instance, both the ACT and the SAT sometimes give the test-taker answer choices for which the high school graduate is expected to understand all but one – the correct one. The idea is for the test-taker to use what is known to him or her about the other choices to eliminate them as correct answers. The answer left may be unfamiliar, but it is a logical choice because the student knows the others are definitely inappropriate. This type of skill comes from the use of deductive reasoning.
Skills are key to these college entrance exams. For instance, instead of testing a specific scientific point, a question may require the test-taker to read a graph. Regardless of the student’s background, teacher, or course history, he or she should have been introduced to reading graphs and should be able to use that skill in answering the exam question.
Cumulative knowledge is sometimes the “rub” when students think about preparing for College Entrance Exams. Many of the math problems assume remembrance of standard formulas, for instance. Rules of grammar and punctuation are tested in the writing sections of the tests. These are basics that can be reviewed.
HOW AND WHAT TO REVIEW
Parts of Speech: A review of the parts of speech is helpful because usage in sentences can be determined by the part of speech that is supposed to be represented. For example, consider the sentence “I did not know how great a battle (his, him) going was.” To know the correct answer, the student must recognize that “going” is a noun – a gerund, to be more specific. If “going” is a noun, then the word preceding it must be an adjective (because adjectives modify nouns.) The only form of a pronoun that can be used as an adjective is possessive. Hence, the correct answer is “his.” “His” is the possessive form of the pronoun “he.” “Him” is objective case and is therefore incorrect. (For a quick review of the eight parts of speech, see http://www.lessontutor.com/ltgram9home.)
Spelling:A test-taker may be given a sentence and told that there could be an error in it. The choices for correcting the sentence might include a spelling error. The test-taker must know if the word listed is spelled correctly or incorrectly. If it is incorrect, then the error is one of spelling. If the student believes that the word has been spelled correctly, then the error could be one of the other choices. A review of 12th grade spelling/vocabulary words could prove helpful. Many students make 3X5 study cards and flip through them casually for several weeks before the test. When a word continually is a problem, that card can be placed in a conspicuous place (like a bathroom mirror) so that it is viewed with its correct spelling every day.
Punctuation and Sentence Structure: Writing samples may contain punctuation errors. The student is given choices as to how the sentence or passage might best be “fixed.” A review of commas, semi-colons, and colons is helpful. The test-taker should be able to spot fragments and run-ons. Punctuation and sentence structure may be related. For instance, a run-on sentence is generally the result of comma misuse.
Algebra: Math concepts to review include basic operations using whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and integers. Square roots may be asked as calculated answers or estimations. The test-taker should be able to work problems using exponents, factors, ratios and proportions. The student will be asked to solve problems using algebraic expressions that contain variables. Quadratic equations will need to be factored. Functions, matrices, roots of polynomials, and complex numbers will also be covered, though not with as much frequency.
Geometry: Questions in this content area are based on graphing and the relations between equations and graphs. Points, lines, polynomials, circles, and curves will appear in problems, as well as slope, parallel and perpendicular lines, midpoints, and cones. Problems are presented that require knowledge of formulas relating to angles, perpendicular and parallel lines, circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids. A review of formulas before the test is helpful. The 3X5 review method works well for this, as it did with spelling.
Trigonometry: Although the majority of math questions focus on Algebra and Geometry content, some questions may pertain to trigonometric relations in right triangles, graphing functions, and solving trigonometric equations. These problems comprise a small portion of the math section.
The best preparation for test day is a good night’s sleep. It is a proven fact that long-term memory information is best retrieved from a brain that is rested. Students should eat a good breakfast. Statistics show that a hot breakfast stimulates blood flow and students tend to perform better. However, students should avoid a large breakfast. Too large a breakfast will draw oxygen from the brain to aid the body in digestion and the student will find him/herself sleepy.
Students will want to take several pencils, so that they have back-ups when leads break. Candy for a quick pick-me-up is acceptable for consumption during breaks.
GENERAL TEST-TAKING HELPS
Both exams require that the test-taker pace him/herself and not take too long on any one question. However, accuracy is important and the student should not rush through the questions, either. A student should work as quickly as he or she can but not at the expense of accuracy.
Both exams allow the student to write in the exam booklet. Test-takers may draw diagrams for math problems or make notations as to word spellings in the booklet. This is encouraged as it helps the student visualize concepts. However, one must remember to confine marks to the test booklet, not the answer sheet. If a stray mark is made on the answer sheet, or if an answer is changed, the student should take care in erasing the answer thoroughly so that the scoring machine can distinguish between the intended answer and the one that is erased.
Students should check frequently to be sure that they are marking the answer sheets in the right spot. Answer “bubbles” are arranged in groups of five. It is a good idea to check every five questions to be sure of answer placement. For example, if the student is reading question 11 in the test booklet, it is a good strategy to check to see if the next available question on the answer sheet is also question 11.
With both exams, the easier questions begin the sections and then progress to more difficult ones. However, there may be questions further on in a section to which the student knows answers. Students should NOT stop just because a question has been encountered for which he or she doesn’t know the answer. Sometimes, a question near the end of a section may jog the student’s mind so that he or she can answer a prior question that was skipped.
Test-takers should be sure to carefully read questions. They should not assume what the question is probably asking. College entrance exams are designed to measure a higher level of thinking – questions may NOT be traditional. Test questions may sometimes carry too much information as a tactic to weed out careless readers, or the problem may take on a little bit different twist to cause the mathematician to use more than one problem-solving technique.
Students may want to mark a troublesome question so that it can be re-thought later if time is left. Such questions may be marked in the test booklet. Stray marks should not be made on the answer sheet. Students are forbidden to return to sections of the test where time has closed out.
If a student finds him/herself panicked or even sleepy, the best thing to do is place the pencil calmly on the table and take deep breaths. This sends oxygen to the brain, relaxing the feeling of panic and stimulating the mind in the event of sleepiness. This should not be overdone.
Above all, students should remember to keep a level head and reason out the questions. Answers that the student feels strongly are wrong should be eliminated, leaving less choices. Statistics are then in the student’s favor for making an educated guess from the remaining answers.
Review resources have been published by several major companies. These usually offer sample test questions and answers with explanations. Links to possible resources are provided for you in the left margin.