Immigrants to the United States come here to pursue a better life for themselves and more opportunities for their offspring, and they know that a key component to upward mobility in the United States is a quality education – a college education at the very best school they can afford.

This means getting good grades in high school and, importantly, scoring well on a standardized college admissions test like the ACT and SAT, which is to undergo revisions in the spring of 2016.

To perform better on these tests, many students engage in some form of test preparation. The test-prep industry is a multibillion-dollar business in the United States, and private test prep schools are a common sight in the Atlanta suburbs.

These schools offer lengthy test-prep programs for students, some of whom are recent immigrants with limited English knowledge. Often, these teenagers spend an entire summer studying for the SAT, taking practice tests, attending classes, improving their English skills and developing strategies.

And, although the College Board (publisher of the SAT) maintains that randomized trials have shown that test-preparation has no effect on SAT score, students continue to invest hundreds of hours in preparation. 

Preparing for the SAT involves plenty of memorization.

Students who can memorize some of the obscure vocabulary that features in the “verbal” section of the SAT stand to improve their scores significantly.

Memorizing a few obscure grammar rules can improve one’s score even more, and in this process of memorization, some of Atlanta’s immigrant students may have an edge.

Most education systems around the world cultivate and reward rote memorization skill – something that’s not emphasized strongly in the United States, outside of taking standardized tests, that is. 

Guessing strategically can win one points too; when blatantly incorrect answers are eliminated, a test-taker stands to gain by guessing among the plausibly correct choices.

Of course, these strategies aren’t the only determinant of one’s score. Students need to have some understanding of the content on the test.  But when the difference between admission and rejection is a few precious points, test-taking strategies become crucially important. 

Test preparation doesn’t just take an investment of time, though.  A summer-long SAT course could cost upwards of $1,000.

Parents will eagerly pay such high fees, knowing that test prep might provide the edge their child needs in the hypercompetitive world of college admissions.

Are these expenditures effective, though? If so, does the test-prep industry create systematic bias against students whose parents are unable to afford test preparation? 

Although the College Board continues to officially maintain that test preparation is ineffective, it has tacitly admitted that the test can be “gamed” or “cracked” by reformulating the test for 2016.

Currently, test preparation concentrates on memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, reading complex material and guessing strategically.

The College Board has attempted to mitigate the effect of preparation by removing “obscure” vocabulary, reforming the reading questions and grounding mathematics questions in core knowledge, rather than wordplay.

Additionally, incorrect answers will incur no penalty in points- previously, an incorrect answer led to a ¼ point deduction.

Essentially, the SAT will be reformulated to make it more like the ACT, an admissions test which has become increasingly popular in recent years, partly because it is somewhat less arcane than the SAT and tests students’ abilities to analyze data in its “science” section.

Allen Bernhardt is a longtime resident of the Atlanta area. He has tutored numerous students preparing for standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, as well as other subjects. Mr. Bernhardt currently supports Atlanta’s international community in roles at the World Chamber of Commerce and the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce. He holds a master’s degree in economics from Georgia State University and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Oglethorpe University. He may be reached at the following email address,