parent helping child prepare for SAT or ACT

Parents often go into a panic thinking about how to help their children through the college application process.

SAT and ACT prep can be particularly flummoxing for parents, many of whom may not be familiar with the material tested on those exams. (It’s challenging! And it’s probably different from what you remember.)

Understanding Changes in the College Process

As a matter of fact, many things have changed since you may have applied to college. Getting into college is incredibly competitive these days—not only because more high school students go to college, but also because on average, each student applies to more schools. To provide a sense of just how much bigger the college process has become, consider these statistics: About 20 million students are expected to enroll in college in the fall of 2019; thirty years ago, that number was less than 14 million. Application submission rates have also been on the rise: As of 2016, more than 80 percent of students submitted three or more applications, and more than a third submitted seven or more. Twenty years ago, just 67 percent submitted three or more applications, and 13 percent submitted seven or more applications. Anecdotally, the need for parent involvement has also increased. While parents want what’s best for their kids, it can be difficult to know what you can do to help your nearly-but-not-quite adult children.

One concrete step parents can take is to help teens improve their SAT or ACT test scores. Strong SAT and ACT scores can certainly help with college admissions—particularly at “selective” schools, which may use quantitative measures such as GPA and test scores to cull applicants worthy of further consideration. Strong GPA and test-score numbers can also help students earn merit-based aid. Anything you can do to help your students increase those quantitative measures is a great idea.

Focusing on Test Scores

Test scores are, of course, easier to raise in a short period of time than a GPA. The first step in helping your student with standardized tests is to get a baseline score. Many schools offer free practice tests for this reason. If your student’s school does not, then you can have your child sign up for a free practice SAT or practice ACT. Your child should get a score report that details the kinds of questions that he or she aced, as well as the ones that presented challenges. That report is a valuable tool for directing your score-improvement efforts.

To give students every possible advantage, we advise that they take both an ACT and an SAT practice test. Though the two tests are similar these days, there are differences that can either benefit students or put them at a disadvantage. With the ability to see the two scores side by side and compare how those stack up against other students’ scores, you can help your child decide which test to prep for. Long ago (parents may remember this), there used to be a perception that the ACT was for schools in the midwest and the SAT for schools on the coasts—but that isn’t true today. Now, virtually every college will accept a score from either test, so go with the one your student does better on or feels more comfortable with.

Creating a Test-Prep Plan

Once your child knows which test to prep for, you’ll need to decide together on a target score and test-prep strategy. There are many options available. Your child might opt for self-directed SAT or ACT prep from a book, self-paced online prep to SAT or ACT courses (which can be online or in-person), or even customized one-on-one tutoring.

Parents, you know your student better than anyone, so you should have a good sense of which prep approach will be the most helpful. If your child is very driven, then self-paced prep can be sufficient. If he or she will get lost in the shuffle of a class with several students, that may not be the best option. If your child’s scores are higher on some sections than others, a tutor can  address key areas of focus, with special attention paid to your student’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Your child’s goals, learning process, and schedule, in addition to your budget, will determine the best course of action. 


Some students are eager to do dedicated test prep—having a plan can have a calming effect in itself! Other students, however, may not be crazy about the prospect of test prep. It’s a good idea to talk about what your student would prefer and what you both expect from the process. Decide together on a test-prep plan that works for the whole family. Then stick with it.

No matter what prep path your student takes, it is essential to set clear expectations. One especially helpful expectation is that your student will do some practice every day (even if it’s only 15 or 30 minutes some days) rather than cramming it in once a week. Also plan out how many practice tests your student will take to measure progress (two or three are usually sufficient), and spread those out over the course of the prep period. Most students do best when they can prep over a period of a few months, slowly absorbing and mastering new skills and checking for improvements by taking occasional practice tests. As you and your child plan the test-prep timeline, make sure there is enough time to retake the actual SAT or ACT in case that’s needed. Students who retake the test often see their scores increase, and there are many schools that will “superscore” the ACT or SAT.

Knowing Your Role as a Parent

It is important to define everyone’s roles within the test-prep plan. Obviously, the student must do the actual work and take the practice tests (otherwise, no learning or improvement can happen!). This doesn’t mean that the parents cannot play a role, however. Again, use what you know about your student to decide the best way for you to help. Does your student do best when he or she makes the study plan? Does your child typically need gentle reminders to keep up with the work and stay on schedule? Whatever has worked with your student for school in the past is likely to work with the test-prep process as well.

If your student wants your help, there are plenty of ways for you to get involved. Start by becoming familiar with the SAT and ACT. (The last thing you want to do is pass outdated information on to your student—for instance, there’s no longer a guessing penalty on the SAT!) Knowing the test structure will also help you make sense of the strategies and techniques your student is learning. As your child learns new concepts, ask for explanations of strategies such as pacing and guessing. Create a calm, quiet environment for your student to study or take tests, and time your child on practice tests if needed. If it is difficult to create realistic testing conditions in your home, consider booking a room at a local library.

If you think it will benefit your student, you can also help check answers to homework and test questions. Keeping track of progress is important, and students tend to focus only on what they get wrong. Point out what went well, and help your child see where additional work is still needed. Sometimes, having a fresh perspective can help your child identify areas where a new approach may be warranted.

Focusing on the Future

As you help your student, keep in mind that your goal is to make the test-prep process easier. If your child begins to get edgy when you talk about testing, back off a little bit. The worst mistakes a concerned parent can make are getting too involved or putting too much pressure on a student. Test anxieties tend to run high, so don’t make your child even more nervous. Encourage your child to focus on areas of strength, praise any progress you see, instill confidence, and focus on the big picture: This test is one step toward an exciting future.