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December 22, 2014

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New twist on college entrance exam preparation: Have fun

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Jared Friedland has taken the SAT more than 20 times in his quest to uncover the secrets behind the college entrance exam.

The 37-year-old Ivy League graduate is the founder of Catalyst Prep, a Los Angeles-based test preparation company that uses humor and pop culture to make studying for the dreaded SAT and ACT tests more fun.

Want to remember what a parabola looks like? Just think of teen idol Justin Bieber's conically-shaped head, said Friedland, a former Hollywood television writer.

"Learning how to ace these tests doesn't have to be a boring endeavor," Friedland said.

Recently, UNLV's School of Continuing Education partnered with Catalyst Prep to offer a course to help Las Vegas high school students master the ACT and SAT exams. The two-day courses will be offered the weekend before the spring test dates (the ACT is scheduled to be April 13; the SAT will be offered May 4).

To help Las Vegas students, Friedland shared 10 of his best test-taking tips:

    • Start preparing early

      Friedland advises students to take both the PSAT (the practice SAT exam) and the PLAN (the practice ACT exam) during their sophomore year of high school. That way, students can see what the tests are like, and see which test they are better suited for.

      "It's sort of like an X-ray," Friedland said. “It's a great analytical tool that gives you a tremendous overview of the SAT or ACT for a very reasonable price."

      The ACT is a curriculum-based test that measures students' English, math, reading, science and writing skills. On the other hand, the SAT is more of a reasoning test that measures a student's logic and thinking skills.

      The ACT is more popular among high school students because it is more closely aligned with the high school curriculum. The SAT is more tricky, because it often has "trap answers," varies the order of its sections to prevent cheating and penalizes guessing.

      Students who are more math- and science-oriented may do better on the ACT, because it has more questions on those subjects, Friedland said. The SAT, which doesn't have a science section and is only one-third math, is better suited for students who like to solve puzzles and memorize vocabulary, he said.

      Despite the differences, Friedland said he is seeing more students — especially in neighboring California — taking both exams and submitting their best score to colleges.

    • Timing is key

      Ambitious high school students will have to juggle multiple tests during their junior and senior years, Friedland said. There are ACT and SAT exams as well as advanced placement and international baccalaureate tests, SAT subject tests and other school-based and state standardized tests.

      Ensuring students have enough time to prepare for each is a challenge, Friedland said. That's why the timing of these tests is so crucial, he said.

      "The large part of success is in the planning," Friedland said.

      Don't tackle the SAT and ACT simultaneously, Friedland said. Students easily can get overwhelmed and suffer text exhaustion.

      Friedland urges his students to take the SAT in winter or spring of their junior year. The ACT should be taken during the June administration or fall of senior year. That way, students will have taken the requisite math required for the ACT, Friedland said.

      The math section on the ACT is more advanced, requiring knowledge of trigonometry – which some students might not take until the end of their junior year. Although the math section on the SAT is trickier, it's not as advanced – requiring only knowledge of algebra and geometry.

      For students taking the AP exams in May, the June administration of the ACT also will help them avoid test exhaustion, Friedland said. Experts also encourage students taking an AP exam in subjects like U.S. history to also take the complementary SAT subject test around the same time to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone.

    • Practice, practice, practice

      Because standardized tests are so predictable, mastering the SAT or ACT is just a matter of knowing the test inside and out, Friedland said.

      "It's just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the questions," he said. "Take as many practice tests as humanly possible. That's how you can crack these tests."

      Friedland encourages students to take a test prep class, hire a tutor or get a test book that breaks down the ACT or SAT questions into different categories and teaches you how to solve them.

      There are also many free resources online that can give students a feel for the kinds of questions on the ACT or SAT, he said. Check the College Board and ACT websites for sample questions and practice tests.

      For the SAT, students should practice identifying incorrect "trap answers" and looking for key terms in a question that would point them toward the right answer. The No. 1 trap on the SAT's math section is for students to ignore key words such as even, odd, consecutive, positive, negative and integer, Friedland said.

    • Prepare an arsenal of essay topics

      Both the SAT and ACT writing sections feature essay questions. Since students don't know the question in advance, most assume there is no way to prepare, Friedland said.

      However, these tests often ask the same categories of questions over and over, he said. That's why Friedland encourages his students to prepare a literary, historical and scientific essay to increase their chances of having some content they can write about on the test.

    • Training for a testing marathon

      The SAT is given over a period of three hours and 45 minutes. The ACT is three hours and 20 minutes long.

      However, with reading directions, breaks and bubbling in names, the actual testing time can easily stretch to five hours, Friedland said. Students who don't have the mental endurance to last through five hours of testing often score low on the ACT and SAT, he said.

      That's why Friedland encourages students to take at least six practice tests from start to finish and in a setting that closely mimics actual testing conditions.

      "You need to build up your mental wherewithal," Friedland said.

    • Take the test more than once – but not more than three times

      Most students can get an optimal score in two sittings, but it's unhealthy to take the test repeatedly, Friedland said. Taking a test twice or three times can help students become familiar with the test, learn from past mistakes and score higher.

      "Most students will need to take the test twice," Friedland said. "Three times is acceptable but taking it more than that puts such a strain on students."

      In general, colleges also frown upon students taking the tests more than three times, Friedland said.

      "I'm not a college admissions officer, but to me, taking it 4, 5, 6 times looks a little bit overzealous," he said.

      One advantage of the SAT is that students can create a "super score" by taking their top score on the math, writing and reading sections and submitting the combined score – out of 2,400 points – to colleges. Because the ACT automatically uses a combined score – out of 36 points – students cannot mix and match their top scores.

    • Rest up before the big day

      The ACT and SAT are mentally draining, so it's vital to get a good night's sleep before test day, Friedland said.

      Don't do any last-minute cramming the night before a big test, Friedland said.

      "Studying the night before only serves to exhaust students and further stress them out," he said.

      Instead, Friedland recommends his students read a book, newspaper or magazine the night before a test. It may help with the essay component of the exams, he said.

      "You'll fall asleep having engaged your verbal faculty of your brain," Friedland said. "You might find something in your reading that helps with your essay."

    • Prepare the night before

      Test day often presents students and parents with frazzled nerves. Questions abound: Where is the test site and where is my classroom? Did I forget my calculator and No. 2 pencil?

      That's why Friedland encourages students to prepare everything the night before and arrive early.

      During his 20 test-taking experiences, Friedland has often observed students who forgot their No. 2 pencil or their calculator. Students should make sure they have all the necessary tools the night before, including batteries for their calculator.

      Arrive early, Friedland said. Testing locations are often chaotic, with hundreds of students but only a handful of administrators.

      "It can feel disorderly, like getting on an overbooked flight," Friedland said. "Get there early and find your assigned classroom. It will diminish your anxiety."

    • Bring snacks but leave your phone at home

      Eating breakfast on the morning of the test is important, but often students will get hungry during the test, Friedland said. That's why he encourages students to bring small snacks, a sandwich and water to nourish their body during testing breaks.

      "Remember, it's an endurance test," he said. "It's a mental marathon."

      As difficult it is for teenagers in the era of social media, Friedland stresses that students leave their cell phones at home. Friedland says he has seen proctors throw a number of students out of a test on suspicion of cheating.

      "As painful as it is, leave your cell phone at home," he said.

    • Don't let your SAT or ACT score define you

      While many colleges and universities look at a student's SAT and ACT score as a predictor of post-secondary success, some are moving away from test requirements.

      In addition, the vast majority of employers won't ask for SAT or ACT test scores, rather looking at what a student accomplished academically and professionally. That's why it's important to not let a single test define a student, Friedland said.

      "Allow yourself to realize that it's not an end all, be all," he said. "(ACT/SAT test scores) are just one factor in college admissions."

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    1. If you have to prep for the exam, something is fundamentally wrong. Your years of schooling should have already prepared you for the exam.

      If you need to prep, it's only a bandaid...which will fall off soon.