The Benefits of Using Official SAT Tests and Material
Most large test prep companies produce their own practice SATs. They generally sell those practice SATs as part of prep books, in addition to using the same practice SATs in their classes and tutoring sessions. While numerous practice tests may make a prep book or an SAT class sound more impressive, there are several reasons to be wary of companies that create their own materials instead of using official SAT material created by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
The SAT is a meticulously crafted test. In an effort to create consistent tests, the ETS vets their SAT questions more rigorously than some vice-presidential candidates. Every question begins with multiple rounds of examination by professional educators within the ETS. Then, it is put in the experimental section of an actual SAT and answered directly by students. As evidence of how scrupulous the ETS is about their questions, the last time an SAT question caused major problems was so long ago that the question avoided detection partially because the ETS was still in the early stages of adopting an email system. National test prep companies are not nearly as thorough, sometimes publishing books riddled with errors or full of practice tests that are noticeably different from the official SAT.
One very simple reason to use official SAT materials is that they are easily available. The College Board, which owns the SAT, publishes a book with ten official SATs, full of questions actually used on previous exams. Additionally, on three of the most popular test dates each year (October, January, and May), the SAT will send test-takers a copy of the test for a small fee. This offer, known as the Question-and-Answer Service, is a great tool for students to use to improve on their weaknesses.
The College Board makes an abundance of official SAT material.
A better reason to use official SAT materials is the significant difference between official materials and third-party materials. On the surface, most third-party SAT practice tests will appear to be the same as the official tests. A closer look, however, will reveal significant disparities in difficulty level, test structure, and question elements.
A student taking practice SATs will begin to notice patterns: subject-verb agreement is tested frequently on the Writing section, each Reading section begins with sentence completions and ends with reading passages, etc. These are major trends, and practice tests will always replicate them. However, the SAT is full of less conspicuous patterns: question #11 on the first Writing section often tests parallelism, math questions with remainders can usually be answered fastest by picking the smallest possible multiple, etc.
Perceptive students studying with official material will pick up on some of these subtle patterns and may subconsciously internalize others. Using third-party materials can cause students to miss out on many of these SAT trends and perhaps even pick up on false trends applicable only to a particular test prep book. Students taking a class or receiving tutoring that eschews official SAT materials in favor of those created by the test prep company will lose not only the chance to see the patterns in the official material but also the chance to have those patterns thoroughly taught to them by a test prep expert.
In addition to missing out on test trends, students prepping with unofficial practice tests may find their practice test scores bear little resemblance to their scores on the real SAT. Practice tests not created by ETS often fail to replicate the difficulty level of the actual test. Many students find practice tests made by big-name test prep companies to be significantly easier or far more difficult than the actual SAT. Since students use these practice tests to develop their pace, preparing with inaccurate practice tests can be catastrophic on a test in which time management is so critical.
Ultimately, preparing for the SAT with any practice materials is substantially better than not preparing at all. But considering all the faults of unofficial materials and the ready availability of official materials, there is little reason to not go for the real thing.
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