early bird gets the worm

Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report have unanimously declared Thomas Jefferson High School for Science Technology in Virginia to be America’s best high school. At Thomas Jefferson, the average student scores in the 98th percentile on the SAT – 600-700 points higher than the national average. This is not because all of Thomas Jefferson’s students are born geniuses, but because they have begun SAT preparation as early as elementary school in order to prepare for admission to the selective high school. These ambitious students have given themselves a significant edge in college admissions, simply by preparing as early as possible.

“Students who hope to compete for admission to the nation’s more select colleges will be competing against students who have been preparing for the admissions process since early middle school, or even elementary school,” says David Kim, co-founder of C2 Education. “The number of students applying to Ivy League schools and other top ranked universities has increased exponentially in recent years, but the schools aren’t accepting more students. Instead, they are sending out more rejection letters. The students receiving those fat admissions packets are those who have prepared long and hard in order to be as competitive as possible.”

The Importance of the SAT

Although the SAT has seen its fair share of controversy since its inception, it remains one of the most vital aspects of the college admissions process. Each school differs in its requirements and admissions standards, but the vast majority of colleges and universities still value the SAT as a quantitative guideline to measure a student’s potential for academic success. “Colleges value the SAT because it allows them to make an apples to apples comparison between students from different schools and with different backgrounds,” Mr. Kim says. “In fact, the SAT is generally regarded as one of the top two most important parts of a college application, with the other being grade point average. It really does have the potential to make or break an application.”

A high SAT score can also open the door to many scholarship opportunities. “Many schools offer full or partial scholarships as an incentive for students with particularly high SAT scores,” Mr. Kim notes. “Plus, the National Merit Scholarship, which is an incredibly prestigious award, is given to the top 1% of students taking the Preliminary SAT or PSAT. So studying for the SAT now can end up saving a lot of money in the future.”

In addition, many students are surprised to find that some employers, particularly those in the financial services sector, require certain SAT scores as a basis for hiring decisions. In other words, scores earned at the early age of sixteen can impact a job search several years later. “Students who fail to adequately prepare for the SAT can forget about applying at companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, or Microsoft,” Mr. Kim says.

When Should SAT Prep Begin?

“We have many parents who ask us when their child should begin preparing for the SAT,” Mr. Kim says. “In a single word, the answer is ‘early’. Preparing for the SAT is a marathon, not a sprint. This is inherent in the very nature of the test. Typical test prep books offer good suggestions, tips, and shortcuts – but knowing the little test-taking tricks simply isn’t enough. Students absolutely must have the necessary foundation of knowledge first, and building that takes time.”

“We have middle school students who are already preparing for the SAT,” says Mr. Kim. “Some of these students will take the SAT very early in order to apply for various gifted and talented programs such as Duke’s Talent Identification Program. Others hope to attend the nation’s most elite universities and they want to be as prepared as possible when the final admissions push begins.” Mr. Kim also notes that students applying to Ivy League universities or other highly selective schools will be competing against the nation’s top scholars for admission. “Students who attend prestigious private and prep schools and selective magnet schools are exposed to SAT preparation as early as the fourth or fifth grade,” he says. “These are the children competing for admission to top schools, and students who attend public school need to begin SAT prep as early as possible in order to keep up.”

Early SAT preparation can help students find academic success in middle and high school as well. “Very young students who begin SAT preparation generally focus on the reading and writing sections, because the math section often includes information that they are not yet ready for,” Mr. Kim says. “As a result, students who begin studying the reading and writing sections of the SAT at an early age gain higher critical reading skills, better writing capabilities, and broader vocabularies than their peers. These verbal skills will help them find success at all levels of their education, long before they ever attend college.”

“It’s so frustrating to see students who come for intensive SAT preparation mere weeks before their test date,” Mr. Kim says. “No matter how hard they work, no matter how hands-on our tutors are, their scores can only increase so much in a short amount of time. And it’s just so maddening to know that with more time, this student could have gone to Harvard.”