What Disney World Can Teach you about Test Prep

During the Spring of 2013, my wife and I decided that it would be a good time to take our kids to Disney World for the first time.  The twins were going to turn six in April, our youngest would be able to get in to all the parks for free, and it was the first time that we were going to be headed to Florida as a family.  While there were some minor hiccups along the way, we had a great time. The kids got signatures from all their favorite characters, we saw fireworks and parades, rode all the rides with minimal waiting, and managed to keep happy kids and happy parents throughout the entire week.  So why do I consider this experience to be important information when writing about ACT or SAT prep? Because they have three very key points in common.

Preparation – Start Early

Perhaps the greatest reason for our successful week at Disney was the amount of preparation we put into getting ready for the trip.  I had heard plenty of horror stories regarding taking a family to Disney World – the expense, the lines, the grumpy kids. I found a fantastic website (www.touringplans.com) that helped guide us how to get through our day.  After deciding what rides we wanted to ride and shows we wanted to see, it organized the perfect “route” for us through the parks.  I knew it was golden when on the first day we got in line for “Winnie the Pooh” and waited for about 7 minutes. When we got off the ride, it said the wait time was now 30 minutes.  Throughout the entire day we felt like we were one step ahead of the crowds and it allowed us to enjoy each day with minimal waiting.

Planning for a standardized test (or everything to do with college, for that matter) is incredibly important, and proper planning can greatly decrease the stress of testing.  For instance, did you know that for a small fee you can purchase your question-by-question results from the ACT for the April, June, and December tests only? Why is this important?  Let’s say you have an 11th grader who you believe will be taking the ACT on more than one occasion. Then it may make sense for them to take it first in December and then April so that they can actually see what problems they missed and then practice those particular problems.  Then, if they want to take it one last time in July, September, or October they know for what specific topics they need to prepare most.  Or for that matter, did you even know the ACT is offered 7 times during the year? Doing your research about each individual test in advance can provide you with a wealth of information to best prepare your student for test day.

Then there’s the importance of practicing the type of questions that will show up on the test.  Standardized test questions may look very different from what your student would normally see in their classroom.  While the topics are likely to be similar, the way the questions are presented may not be. If a student takes the time to practice a lot of questions in the weeks and months leading up to a standardized test, they are less likely to be surprised during the testing period.

Know What’s Right for You and Your Family

When we started our planning for Disney, we had a difficult time trying to figure out which parks to attend because, well, we wanted to do it all but couldn’t with a 4-day pass.  But what I finally realized was that this was not going to be the trip where I’d get to ride Space Mountain – this trip was about the kids, not me. So we decided on 2 days at Magic Kingdom, 1 at Animal Kingdom, and 1 at Hollywood Studios (I at least got my Star Wars fix!)  We decided to skip Epcot because there wasn’t a whole lot there that our kids wanted to see or do. We enjoyed great shows at AK, they got to fight Darth Vader at HS, and met every character imaginable at MK.

As you begin looking at standardized testing, it’s incredibly important to understand the differences between the ACT and the SAT.  Speaking from a strictly math standpoint, the ACT is significantly different from the SAT. The ACT allows a calculator on the entire test, contains more advanced math topics, is all multiple choice, and requires a strong focus on pacing as there are 60 questions to answer in 60 minutes.  The SAT, meanwhile, has both calculator and non-calculator portions, is more in depth with Algebra topics, has both multiple choice and student-generated response questions, and allows more time per question. Every student tests differently, so it is important that your student has the opportunity to practice both tests before they “count” so that they can determine which test is the best of them.  On top of that, different colleges and universities may require different tests, so do your best to find out what your student’s schools of choice are looking for.

Take a Break

Perhaps the greatest piece of advice we received before our Disney trip was to take a midday break.  It sounds like a waste of time, I know. You spend all this money for tickets, food, etc. so you want to make sure you get your money’s worth.  But how much fun can you have if everyone is tired and miserable by dinnertime? So on every park day, we followed the same plan – got to the park at rope drop, spent the morning doing our thing, then left around 1:00 and went back to the hotel.  We’d eat lunch, and then everyone (parents included!) would take a nap. After a small snack/dinner, we would then head back to the park around 5:00 and stay until close. We may have lost a few hours at the park each day, but we all had a blast during the time we were there.

When your student is preparing for the ACT or SAT, remember that they are nervous and stressed about the test.  Remember that they have other school work. And friends. And social media. And work, and extracurriculars, and, and, and…  In the week leading up to the test, find ways for your son or daughter to alleviate some of their stress and reduce the inevitable pressure.  If they are taking the test on a Saturday morning, help them clear their schedule for Friday night. If they want to hang out with friends, try to convince them to go out Saturday after the test.  You don’t have to remind them about how important these tests are – they know.  There have been instances where I have been working one-on-one with students on test prep after school, and within 15 minutes it is apparent that they are wiped out from the day.  Maybe they had multiple tests in school, their sports practice was exhausting, or they know they still have several hours of homework left for the night. On a couple of occasions, I’ve stopped our session right then and there.  They are not benefiting from the session and you, the parent, are not getting your money’s worth out of it. Sometimes a kid just needs a break, and in those days leading up to a standardized test, they are necessary.

The world of standardized testing can feel confusing, overwhelming, and sometimes unfair.  You may not like it, but for now it is a necessary part of the college process. Maybe the best way to put it into “grown up language” is to compare the college application process to that of buying a home; once it starts it never seems to stop, there’s always paperwork that needs completed, and even when you come to a conclusion (house or school), there is still plenty of work to be done and you may question your decision multiple times over the coming years.  Think of the standardized test in the same way you think about applying for a home loan – they both represent numbers determined by someone else that restricts what you can do. As a homebuyer, there are many more pieces to the puzzle than just how much the bank is willing to lend you. And as a student, your son or daughter is so much more than a number on a test. But in either case, that number may open some doors and close others. When you went through the home-buying process for the first time, chances are you leaned on your parents for support and advice.  If dad kept reminding you about your past money mistakes or if mom insisted on certain features of a house you didn’t want, chances are it frustrated you. But if they were willing to listen and offer advice when asked, you probably learned a lot from them. Keep this in mind when helping your kid with their test prep.

Written by Greg Faulhaber. Greg is Connections Academics’ Test Prep Coordinator, Math Department Chair at Cincinnati Country Day School, a doting husband and father, and avid golfer.