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Prepping for the Future

Tips for SAT and more

Spring is in full swing and in high schools across the Tampa Bay area and the nation that means preparation for prom, graduation and other school-based rites of passage are in full swing, too. It also means that it’s time for those high-stakes tests that can have a significant impact on the choices available to students for their steps after high school. Of course, I’m referring to the SAT and the Advanced Placement or AP exams.

Strong SAT and AP scores alone generally will not get you in to the college of your choice. Weak ones, however, very well could keep you out. While there continues to be much debate surrounding the true educational value of these tests — and for very good reason, in my judgment — they are not going away soon, so it’s best to help our students prepare to do their very best.

AP Exams: AP courses are basically intro-level college courses taught at high schools. They are graded on a scale of one to five, with threes, fours, and fives considered to be passing grades. Each college has the discretion to grant either full college credit or course placement credit for passing grades or just for fours and fives or fives. As such, many students can earn college credit with strong AP scores.

The best recipe for AP success includes having a great AP teacher. In fact, I recommend that students and their families seek out those great AP teachers, even in subjects that may not be of the greatest interest for the student. That’s because a great teacher’s passion, energy and technique will generate deeper interest from the students and, ultimately, a great educational experience. The enthusiasm of great teachers is absolutely infectious. It can spark interest in adolescents with remarkable power. It also can bring about one of the most important experiences a high school student can have before college – a level of rigor and expectation way beyond what even good students have come to expect.

A teacher at my school is well-known for creating an AP program that goes well beyond the normal expectations for high school class work. At first, many students do not believe that they will be able to handle the workload. But the teacher inspires them to keep at it and to work harder than they ever have before. They give up their lunch periods with the rest of the student body to eat with the teacher and the class to extend their lessons every day. The teacher guides them on the climb to the top of the mountain and, when they get there in May, they can hardly believe how much they know and how strong they have become. They have enormous pride in the view they have from the top of the mountain. They grow as students, workers and human beings in ways that make me so proud, regardless of their scores, which usually wind up being overwhelmingly fours and fives.

I polled some of my school’s AP teachers and students for advice. Notice that there is a great deal of self-direction and initiative involved. If your student is not prepared to be self-directed, perhaps she is not ready for AP.

Do Your Homework: By this, I don’t just mean study every night, but go to the College Board website and learn all you can about your AP courses, even as early as the summer before you begin the class. It is wise to write yourself a summary sheet about the test date and time, the number and types of questions. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid surprises.

Use Flash Cards: There are some great Web-based flash card sites that will store your flash cards, let you flip through them and even generate tests.

Form a Study Group: Sharing the experience with your peers will not only help you do well, but it also is great preparation for college.

Work to Understand the Material, Not to Achieve a Grade: Don’t be shy about supplementing your study by using published review books. Each review book has a slightly different bent. Use multiple ones to help you understand.

Practice With Released Exams: Using actual test questions from past years will help you a great deal. Many can be found on the College Board website. Throughout the year, find questions that contain the material you’ve just learned, write the answers, then open the grading rubric on the site and grade your answer.

Review Frequently: Take opportunities to review after each unit or topic, but then begin your year-end review at least a month prior to the AP exam. Here again, the teacher is key. Teacher-led review sessions outside of class time are very productive. Whether on weekends, evenings or after school, teachers who take the time and show the requisite dedication by example go a long way toward generating great enthusiasm, effort and learning from the students. They also help with the scores.

Essays: AP exams are not the only end-of-year exams that require essays. Both the ACT and the SAT now also have writing sections. You should organize your response by following the rule of three. Each essay ought to have a thesis, a main idea or topic sentence that tells the reader what you intend to prove; the body or proof of your thesis; and a conclusion that briefly ties your ideas together.

Your thesis section should be short and to the point. Don’t waste your time on a flowery introduction. The body is your longest section and should include the content that supports your thesis. Try to use three examples to prove your thesis, with a paragraph on each point. You can then move on to your conclusion.

Reading Comprehension: Both the SAT and the ACT have reading comprehension sections. Most of these tips apply for each, but there are slight differences.

General: Annotate: As you read each passage, make some notes or underlines. Note advanced words, especially those you don’t know, metaphors and similes, lists and shifts in setting. These notes will help you answer the questions that follow the passage.

Eliminate Answers: As you eliminate answers, cross them off. Once you make your decision, point to the place in the passage that undeniably proves it is the correct answer.

ACT: The ACT questions follow no specific order. Therefore, read the entire passage, annotating as you go, before you tackle the questions. Remember that the ACT does not penalize you for incorrect answers; it only counts the number you get correct. The SAT does deduct partial points for incorrect answers. Thus, it pays to guess on the ACT, but guessing is only a wise strategy on the SAT if you can narrow down the choices to two or three.

SAT: The SAT reading comprehension questions generally follow the order of the passage. Thus, we suggest reading the first and last paragraphs, then the questions. Determine if the questions are about vocabulary, main idea, detail or inference. Then go back and read the entire passage. Answer the vocabulary questions first, then the main idea questions, saving the inference questions for last.

Even a bad test-taking experience can be a positive learning experience for a student, especially if it teaches that more effort and intensity will be needed for academic success in college. Though these tests are important, make sure your students know that their performance on these instruments is not a measure of their worth. There are plenty of bright, capable adults in great careers who did not test well. Ultimately, the attribute these tests do the best job of measuring is how well a student can do on these types of tests. In no way do these tests measure the attribute that is most important for leading a successful life — the content of each student’s character.


Academy at the Lakes AP teachers Paul Hagenau, Lynne Grigelevich and Dr. Amy Jordan contributed to this report.


Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3 – 12th grade independent school that serves families in the North Tampa Bay Area. Visit Academy at the Lakes at www.academyatthelakes.org.

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