Teens who plan to prep for college-admissions tests this summer can find a plethora of ways to make it fun and flexible.
Want to study in the shower? Lose yourself in a comic book? Take a quiz on your iPod? Or how about rocking out to some songs that stretch the lyrics just a tad in order to be educational?
Test-prep giant Kaplan has paired up with publisher TOKYOPOP to offer a series of manga novels (Japanese-style comics). Released earlier this month, each of three popular stories was rewritten to include more than 300 words commonly tested on the SAT and ACT. (Cost: $9.99.)
"Van Von Hunter" stars a raven-haired hero who vanquishes evil in the land of Dikay. In just the first few pages, you'll find words like "inviolable," "nefarious," and "subvert." Underlined words are defined in a box on the same page.
"By having the combination of the visual story and the words popping out on the page, students can ... really retain the words, versus just memorizing a list," says Kristen Campbell, Kaplan's national director of SAT and ACT programs in New York. With librarians and even classroom teachers tapping into this popular genre, she says, it made sense to add it to the test-prep options.
With iPods becoming ubiquitous, last month Kaplan started offering downloads to prep for the reading, math, and writing portions of the tests (at $4.99 each). The audio/video segments include strategy sessions and customizable quizzes.
If you'd rather stick to more entertaining options for your ears, plenty of music CDs can make those tough-to-remember definitions sink in.
Vocabulary Accelerator, by Defined Mind Inc. in New York, serves up rock, hip-hop, and R&B songs on a CD with a workbook of related exercises (www.defmind.com, $25 for the set). One ninth-grade teacher reported that after just a few weeks of incorporating the program into her lessons, her class's average score on vocabulary quizzes went up from 40 to 84 percent.
Joel Heckethorn taught with Vocabulary Accelerator last year in his 10th-grade English class at Eagle Academy for Young Men, a small public school in New York City. His students started asking him to play the CD in the background while they worked on vocabulary and writing assignments, and soon they could spot the words in such literature as Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart."
"I put [many assignments] in the same format that's on the SAT, so they would be familiar with it," Mr. Heckethorn says. "It's something I didn't have in high school ... but I certainly wish I had."
Teenagers, of course, can see through adults' attempts to make learning cool, but the efforts seem to pay off anyway. "My first impression was that the songs were a little corny, but when you listen ... you can understand how they actually use the words in actual conversation," says Ryan Moore, a student of Heckethorn's. "I was always sure that I was going to take the SAT, but I never knew how I could study for the writing part, and the [Vocabulary] Accelerator helped me out a lot."
After years of tutoring students for college admissions, Renée Mazer decided it was time to record some of the wacky poems, songs, and stories she used as vocabulary memory triggers. She created a seven-CD series called Not Too Scary Vocabulary that covers more than 500 words ($49.95). She finds that mnemonics – like understanding that "enmity" is what you might feel for an enemy – are more effective than listening to a song that simply uses the words in context.
"I put in some real dating stories from high school ... my funniest dating stories," she says. "People know I'm trying to be cheesy and goofy ... so they [think], 'I can't believe she has the guts to sing that!' "
For people who do their best singing and remembering in the shower, there are even test-prep shower curtains focused on vocabulary, grammar, or math. (The Intuitive Learning Co. sells them online.)
Before you plunk down money, though, consider an alternate perspective:
"It's part of the SAT arms race," says Robert Schaeffer, public education director at The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge, Mass. "Kids and their parents believe that everybody else has access to the latest 'weapons,' and they need to buy themselves a leg up."
Mr. Schaeffer estimates that Americans spend between $300 million and $400 million a year on SAT prep courses, tutoring, and products. "There's virtually no evidence that any of these products are ... any better than simply taking the practice test from previously administered SATs that you can get in your high school guidance office or library," he says.
A number of websites offer free practice tests, study guides, or test-prep games. Princeton Review (www.princetonreview.com) posts "Vocab Minute" podcasts – short mnemonic songs. Kaplan (www.kaptest.com), which now has its own MySpace page, offers practice questions and other free tools. You can also check out websites such as www.takeSAT.com and www.freevocabulary.com.
"It's certainly valuable to learn a lot of vocabulary for the SAT," says Matt Bardin, coauthor of "Zen in the Art of the SAT." But the "bottom line," he says, "is how you read and how you think."
If college test prepping isn't fun no matter how you slice it, there's still hope. A growing number of colleges – 740, according to FAIR – no longer even require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.