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ACT/SAT Test Prep Tips from a Family With Three Perfect Scores

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I was still half asleep when Stefan raced into my room, "I just checked my ACT scores online and I got a perfect score! But,” he confessed, “I also opened the cereal box from the wrong end this morning. So I'm not really all that."

We've had three happy mornings like that over the last five years and FAR more boxes opened incorrectly than I can count.

When you have three kids in a row who receive a perfect score on the SAT/ACT test, people clamor for advice. I'm happy to share, but you should know a perfect score doesn't guarantee acceptance into Harvard or even a mention at your school's senior awards night. And it doesn't make you a better, nicer person, but the path to get there might help with that.

A perfect score will boost your odds of acceptance to hundreds of excellent schools, garner excellent scholarships and guarantee you'll be teased for every dumb thing you do for the rest of your life-- "And you're supposed to be soooo smart!"

While the elusive 1600 or 36 isn't a wise goal for a lot of people, improving test scores remains a primary concern for college bound teens. Focusing too much on standardized tests can take time away from the activities that really make a student shine: music, sports, AP classes, IB, drama, service, student government, etc. But boosting those number by even a few points can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

I've compiled two lists for your test prep enjoyment. The first offers long term ideas for parents and kids of all ages, the second for students taking the SAT/ACT in the next two weeks to six months.

Cultivate kindness. Ask any of my kids their top school advice and they’ll respond, “Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.” Our schools are full of overstressed, overscheduled, lonely kids who shiver for a compliment or sympathetic word. Say ‘hello’ to people in the halls, seek out lonely students at lunch, take time to talk to friends who’ve had a bad day. A stack of awards and scholarships don’t mean a thing if you haven’t made your school a happier place.

And while you’re making friends…

Become buddies with Sal Khan. If you haven't checked out khanacademy.org, head over there right now and set up an account for everyone in your family. Khan Academy provides "a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere." Whether you're in high school or preschool, start with Early Math and work your way through. Why start at the beginning? Because you probably had the flu for a week in second grade or spaced off when turning decimals into percentages was explained. Every one of my kids found elementary concepts they'd missed and, as my 15-year-old says, "You just get better at understanding the questions."

In addition to math, Khan Academy offers classes in science & engineering, computing, arts & humanities, economics & finance and test prep (including 11 AP classes).

Maybe you think there's no way your kid will spend time on a math site? Khan Academy is strangely addictive. Kids earn badges and points and as 13-year-old Mary says, "It just makes you feel smart." Sal explains everything beautifully and his automated videos never grow impatient when you need something explained over and over.

Learn to juggle. Or ride a unicycle, or learn card tricks or solve a Rubik's Cube. The confidence kids gain from learning new skills carries over into academic learning. Simply deciding, "I can do anything" changes everything.

Take hard classes. I talk to a lot of teens who sign up for easier classes in order to maintain their grade point average. I feel your pain. The advanced teachers are often the hardest to please, so taking rigorous classes poses a double threat to the GPA. But those demanding classes prepare a student for standardized tests better than any last-minute cramming. All my boys are also AP National Scholars-- which means they scored 4 or better on 8 AP tests. There's no coincidence. Tough classes prepare kids for tough tests.

Buy books. Everyone knows reading expands your vocabulary and increases empathy for others. You've read all the studies and worn a path to your local library. But don't forget to buy books. Research proves book owners have smarter children and there's even a study that found giving 12 books to underprivileged kids offers more benefits than summer school. When families own books they are much more likely to all read them and discuss concepts and characters (which is where the real learning begins!). Thanks to used book stores, school discount orders, library sales and the nation's current obsession with decluttering, assembling a library of classics and favorites for your family can be done at very little cost. Buy digital books if you must, but there's nothing quite like the real thing.

Binge on YouTube videos. Along with a whole lot of nothing, YouTube hosts some of the richest educational sources in the world. When my kids are tired from a long day, they turn on TedEd, Extra History, SmarterEveryDay and MinutePhysics, as well as Studio C, Jimmy Fallon and anything featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Subscribe to the Newspaper. Sure, you've switched to reading news on your phone or your laptop. You're saving the planet from paper waste and reading about events minutes after they occur. But your kids aren't reading the news online. The old-fashioned paper offers multiple rewards to learners. Simply by opening the paper, kids are exposed to new ideas, information about other countries, advanced vocabulary, sports stats, crossword puzzles, etc. Besides, childhood without the comics is just SAD.

Choose good schools. It's worth moving across town or driving daily to good schools. Not simply because they offer superior programs and dedicated teachers, but because your kids will be joining other kids who make learning a priority. Take advantage of positive peer pressure.

Make good use of time. I'm the last person who would make a kid spend hours on a workbook or math website. Kids should be playing outside, joining teams, volunteering with service clubs and playing Mario Kart. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn during the day. Fairly often, my kids' teachers say, "I don't have anything else today. You can play on your phones for the rest of class." As a parent, you can choose to be horrified by this or to teach your kids to take advantage of that time to do homework, study a language on Duolingo, or use a school computer to practice math on Khan Academy. My 7th grade daughter finished all of 8th grade math simply by taking advantage of 'play time' at school.

Work it out. Fit kids = smarter kids. It's that simple. Make sure your kids are getting plenty of physical activity even in the off season. Invest in a pull-up bar, a few hand weights and be ready and willing to walk, run, bike, ski and hike with your kids.

Play an instrument. Learn a language. Music and languages may be losing funding in our schools, but pursuing these classical education skills literally wires the brain to learn. Besides, some of the nicest kids hang out in orchestra and Mandarin class.

OK, along with eating dinner together and watching PBS, these ideas create a foundation for kids who love to learn. But as you get closer to the test it's worth focusing on a few specifics:

Throw your money at your kids. Conscientious parents often want to throw money at SAT/ACT prep companies and programs. Some kids need personalized tutoring but others will learn better at their own pace from a book and the free tests offered on SAT/ACT websites than they will in a class. If you have the money to spend, consider buying a book for $10-20 and offering your kids the difference. You can choose whether to reward them for time spent, tests completed or an increase in score. The Official guides, Barron's and Princeton Review test prep books are all excellent.

Take and then retake. Study all you like, but most teens won't get a good sense of the test until they take it in a formal setting with time constraints. If you're happy with your score then celebrate and shred your study books. But if you don't score as well as you'd hoped, take the time to analyze your scores a bit. Are you struggling with math, science, English? Focus your study time on your weaker areas and just do a quick review on the others. Test-taking wisdom decrees a limit of three times for test takers, but you're an individual. You know if you did your very best on the second time and can't do better. You'll also know if you've taken the test four times but really haven't hit your stride. One of my sons earned his perfect score on the first try, the other two tested three and four times.

Make sleep a priority. A tired brain is a stupid brain. It can be REALLY hard to sleep well the night before a big test. So follow the marathoner's tactic-- bank your sleep for weeks ahead of time. At least ten days before the test, go to bed an hour earlier and schedule more time to sleep on weekends. Get extra sleep ahead of time and you won't need to worry the night before. In fact, just removing that worry might help you get your zzzzs.

Get fishy. I can't remember how many years ago I read about fish making you smarter, but we've followed the advice at our house ever since. Bon Appetit adds leafy greens, berries, walnuts and turmeric to the list. I don't know how many pounds of fish you need to eat to increase your SAT/ACT score, but just the psychological boost of "I'm eating brain building fish" gives kids confidence for big tests.

Pray and cross yourself. I'm not Catholic and I'm not kidding. Taking time to pray or meditate will clear you mind and help you remember the things you've studied. Hey, you're not asking for a miracle, just for clarity. As for crossing yourself, numerous studies prove the brain wakes up when you cross the midline of your body. When you get stumped on a problem, take a few seconds to touch your opposite shoulder, or pull on your ears with the opposite hand. You'll want to save those cross body jumping jacks for another time, but even simple movements will help your brain during a test.

Once the test ends, take some time to relax and have fun. And when those scores arrive a few weeks later, be careful not to assign too much value to high or low numbers. Numbers don't quantify the worth of a human being or predict future success.

No matter what your score looks like, your preparation increases your ability to learn, your resilience and your curiosity. Wherever you go to college and whatever you might pursue, those qualities will serve you well.

Most likely, you’ll continue to do brilliant and stupid things for the rest of your life. But watch those cereal boxes — those can be tricky.

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