I took the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) back in the days when the No. 2 pencil was considered high technology. At the time, it was generally believed that you couldn't improve your SAT score by studying, but a slew of test-preparation companies proved that theory wrong.
Courses from the Princeton Review, Kaplan and other companies have helped many students raise their scores. And now there's another way: Several companies are publishing PC software designed to prepare students for the SAT, PSAT, American College Test (ACT), Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and other standardized exams.
These programs help you understand the strategy of taking tests, provide you with study materials and put you through your paces by giving you practice tests.
In some ways, test-preparation software is an ideal application of computer-assisted learning. Computers may not be very good at teaching broad concepts, but they're wonderful when it comes to rote learning, which--along with understanding test-taking strategies--is the key to doing well on the SAT.
I looked at "Inside the SAT and ACT" from Princeton Review ( 273-8439), "Score Builder for the SAT and PSAT" from the Learning Company ( 852-2255) and "Your Personal Trainer for the SAT" from Davidson ( 545-7677). All three came with sample tests on paper and on disks to help you approximate the dreadful experience of taking the exam itself.
"Inside the SAT and ACT" isn't exactly my idea of a multimedia entertainment program, but it does make preparing for the SAT, if not fun, at least somewhat amusing.
A group of likable college-age Princeton Review instructors combined with some wacky cartoon characters not only explain the SAT but help you understand the theory that goes into writing the questions so you'll be able to develop strategies that increase your odds of doing well.
Even before you get down to the nitty-gritty of boning up on your math and verbal skills, you cover such all-important topics as how to eliminate trap answers and when not to guess. The program is highly irreverent, which appeals to me and, I suspect, to many high school juniors and seniors for whom the SAT is a necessary hurdle.
In addition to helping you with the mechanics of taking the test, the program provides a fair amount of subject review, helping to prepare you with the type of information needed to handle both math and verbal questions.
The software also has a college selection tool that begins with an interview and results in a "hot list" of colleges that meet your selection criteria. There is extensive information on more than 1,200 institutions, with information about the campus itself, admission requirements, financial aid and student services. The program works with Netscape and Internet Explorer to take you directly to the colleges' home pages.
"Score Builder for the SAT and PSAT" is divided into three rooms. The test room is where you'll practice the tests themselves, and there's a verbal room and a math room where you can prepare. The verbal and math rooms each have a chalkboard that's divided between strategies and skills.
Like the Princeton Review product, "Score Builder" provides you with both a review of the essential academics and tricks and tips that will help you decide when to guess and how to eliminate wrong answers and avoid traps. Though not as entertaining or irreverent as the Princeton Review program, "Score Builder" has its own cast of helpful video characters who hold your interest. It offers plenty of examination practice and an excellent tutorial on exam strategies.
"Your Personal Trainer for the SAT," from Davidson, takes a more utilitarian and far less entertaining approach than the other programs. When you first start the program, it recommends you take a 2 1/2-hour test to determine your starting point.
Once you complete (or skip) that section, you go to a main menu where you can select whether to bone up on vocabulary, analogies, sentence completion, critical reading, math, algebra and other subjects. You can also go to an area that helps you with general strategy, or play a game that consists of true/false or multiple-choice questions about math, verbal, vocabulary or general strategy--not an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.
Of the three programs I looked at, this was the least compelling, though there's plenty of information for those who have the patience to work their way through it.
The Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit company that creates the SAT and other standardized tests, has its own World Wide Web page (http://www.ets.org) that provides information about the tests, sample practice questions and the ETS' own test-preparation programs. You can even download a demo version of its preparation software, "One on One With the SAT."
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com