SHSAT Test Prep: How hard is the SHSAT?
As the doorway into some of the city’s most prestigious high schools, the SHSAT has a reputation of being a challenging test to score well on, despite the Department of Education's insistence that the best preparation is simply doing your schoolwork. If you ask a group of NYC middle schoolers (or their parents) how much SHSAT prep is needed, you’re likely to get a range of answers. Some students start SHSAT test prep while in 6th grade. Other kids begin reviewing material a few weeks prior to the test.
As the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the quality of education this year, you may be rightfully concerned that your child hasn’t absorbed the necessary skills and critical thinking to place into NYC’s specialized high schools. In this article, we explain what exactly makes the SHAT hard and how to develop a strategy for SHSAT test prep that will cater to your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses.
Is the SHSAT hard?
The difficulty of the SHSAT, like that of any other standardized test, is relative to each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. However, what makes it unique is that it is the only criterion for admission. That point can make the test seem “hard,” or more accurately, seem a bit daunting. According to the NYC Board of Education, out of the approximately 28,000 students who take the SHSAT in a typical year, only about 5000 receive an offer from one of the specialized high schools.
The SHSAT tests students’ abilities in two main sections: ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, with a suggested time of 1 hour 30 minutes per section. The ELA section includes about 57 questions that assess students’ ability to read and understand prose passages in English and correctly answer multiple choice questions that focus on comprehension and analysis. It tests students’ knowledge of syntax and grammar, and their ability to correctly edit and revise passages. Students are also expected to know poetry vocabulary and different forms of figurative language.
The SHSAT math section includes about 57 questions that ask students to utilize problem-solving skills in Arithmetic (such as absolute value, consecutive integers, proportions, percentages and ratios, and probability), Algebra, and Geometry. Whether starting to prepare for the SHSAT at the end of 7th grade, the summer between 7th and 8th grades or at the beginning of 8th grade (right before the exam), many students may not have yet learned some of the math topics they are expected to know for the SHSAT. This can make the test seem much harder. Encountering math that is foreign to the student can feel devastating and make the student lose confidence in his/her abilities. This is one reason to take a diagnostic exam in 7th grade. It can be empowering to understand what the gaps are and how much studying is needed to fill those gaps.
Why is the SHSAT so hard?
The way the questions on the SHSAT are formulated can make the test particularly difficult for students. The SHAT does not just require close reading of the passages, but of the questions as well. Although some answer choices may make accurate statements about the passage, this does not mean they are the right answer, and can often be traps. Students need to be careful to choose the answer choice that directly responds to the question as it is phrased, even if it is less vivid and specific. The same applies to the math section. For example, you may solve an equation correctly, but not realize until it’s too late that the question was asking for the value of 3x, not x. There may be volume questions where two of the values are in inches, and one in feet. If you neglect to convert the units, you will arrive at the wrong number, which naturally, will be among the answer choices.
Unlike many other tests, the SHSAT also includes poetry on the reading comprehension section. This can pose a challenge to some students who lack experience analyzing and interpreting figurative language. Some of the prose passages can also be quite difficult, especially those extracted from 19th century texts, which often contain antiquated vocabulary and syntax that most students will not have encountered in their normal reading.
Another source of difficulty on the SHAT is the timing component. Students are given a 3-hour block of time, and though it is suggested to spend 1 hour 30 minutes per section, they are ultimately responsible for pacing themselves. This is very different from most other tests, which have a set time limit for each section. If a student hasn’t practiced their pacing, they run the risk of spending too much time on one section, resulting in them not being able to answer all the questions or having to guess.
How do I get good at SHSAT?
The key to mastering the SHSAT lies in ample and consistent practice. A student’s academic results in middle school are usually a good indicator of how they might fare on the SHSAT. The more students familiarize themselves with the kind of material covered on the test and work on testing skills like time management and concentration, the better their results will be.
A student should begin to prepare at least a few months in advance of the test. If a student has consistently struggled in their academic courses, has a history of poor test-taking, or has challenges with test-anxiety, time management or prolonged concentration, then additional time will be required to focus on lesson review or test-taking skills. Even if a student has a comprehensive knowledge of the topics being assessed, they might struggle with finishing the test on time or fall for some of the test’s “traps.” Likewise, if a student is especially adept at test-taking, they might still need to brush up on some of the many more difficult topics covered on the SHSAT.
Most students begin their preparation by getting their hands on a test prep book, and working through a few untimed practice tests. Unfortunately, reviewing content and working through problems won’t help your child get an accurate sense of their test-taking abilities and learning needs. We recommend having a parent or tutor supervise and time several of their practice tests in the months leading up to the test date, starting with a diagnostic test, ideally in the second half of 7th grade, to help develop an organized study plan.
• Start with a diagnostic practice test to provide a better sense of the student’s strengths and weaknesses, and a valuable roadmap for topics to review and testing skills they’ll need to master. We can help administer this test and provide a comprehensive report to help organize the test prep process.
• Take additional proctored practice tests after several months of study, and/or a month before the test date, to gauge the student’ progress, inform their long-term test prep plan, and build their confidence in test taking. Like the diagnostic test, these tests should be timed and proctored (by a parent or tutor), re-creating the actual test conditions so that the student can accurately assess their test taking skills.
• “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Practice is a good thing, but students who don’t first learn the content and strategies related to their test are just “practicing” or reinforcing their mistakes. Students should make sure they understand why they got the problem wrong (yes, all of them!) before moving on to more practice.
In general, all students benefit from some form of preparation, and should give themselves enough time to do so. If your child has a particularly demanding school workload or participates in lots of extracurricular activities, then it might be wise to begin preparation in 7th grade, or during a period when they have more free time, like the summer between 7th and 8th grades.
Ivy’s brilliant and caring tutors have helped thousands of students learn smart studying and test taking strategies, understand key concepts and build confidence, skills that are vital not just for SHSAT, but for the SAT, ACT and more. Regular SHSAT tutoring sessions create the necessary structure and reinforcement that students often need to practice consistently.
We also offer SHSAT Strategies, a small group online workshop where students take a diagnostic exam, review content and learn tricks and strategies for excelling on this challenging test.
The SHSAT can be an overwhelming challenge that easily provokes anxiety and dread in the first months of eighth grade. It doesn’t have to be. A consistent, customized program for SHSAT test prep, including material review, timed practice tests and test-taking strategies will address any gaps in knowledge and skills, and build your child’s confidence.