"What is the most important thing I, as a parent, can do to help a student prep for the SATs or the ACTs?" Assuming that you're providing the test prep tools that are within your means, the answer may be somewhat surprising.
The approach to college admissions is invariably an exciting and stressful period, filled with the promise of enormous changes and loads of uncertainty. For that reason, stress is, of course, inevitable for both parents and students. Naturally, anxiety plays a large role in how a student ultimately performs on his or her standardized tests. The lower a student's anxiety level, the higher his or her score will ultimately be.
In five years of test prep, I've observed that a parent's (often very well-hidden) concerns can actually have an impact on the anxiety of the student. In this hyper-competitive and tumultuous world, parents naturally have their own fears about how their children will measure up. What schools will they get into, and how will that affect not just how successful they'll be, but whether or not they'll be able to be financially secure, support their own families, etc.? In my opinion, anything a parent can do to reduce and manage his or her very understandable concerns will benefit the student.
In particular, just as I encourage students to try to find schools they're excited about along the whole spectrum of competitiveness (from "reach" schools to "safety" schools, though I don't like the term "safety" and avoid it when possible), I would encourage parents to do the same. If you're planning a trip to visit schools, include the most competitive schools your son or daughter are likely to apply to, but also include some schools that they are "likely" or "highly likely" to be admitted to. Try to find schools at all levels of competitiveness (and prestige) that you could be excited about your son or daughter going to. If nothing else, this can help your son or daughter take some pressure off of him- or herself.
Furthermore, I encourage my students to be "happy warriors" as they're improving their test scores: yes, they need to work hard, but if they put the work in, they will get the results, and that's all we can ask of them. Though I usually have an idea of a score I'd like to see a student hit, I find focusing on improvements, rather than exact score, helps to alleviate some pressure. Then, as long as the preparation is helping him/her to improve and the student is in good spirits we can keep working for more and more improvements and, ultimately, higher and higher scores. I think it's extremely helpful for parents to take a similar attitude: even if you have an ultimate number in mind, I think it's helpful to send the message to your son or daughter that we're working towards improvements. As long as the student is applying him- or herself, that's all we can really ask for. In my opinion, focusing on a specific score only ratchets up the pressure, which is counterproductive in almost all cases. Share your thoughts about the score with me, and we will work towards it, but as much as possible, I would suggest trying to avoid telling your son or daughter that there's a certain score he or she needs to hit.
Never once have I met a parent who actually tells his or her child that anything less than XYZ score is unacceptable. Rather, our students are bombarded by all kinds of messages in the world at large, many of them outright wrong (which I've addressed in another post specifically for students, and the cues and signals we give them can go a long way towards either defusing or reinforcing those counter-productive messages. Even if you were that hypothetical parent, whom I've never met, who was saying "it's Ivy or bust," the chances of your son or daughter achieving that success is likely going to be improved by not giving them that message. The more we can strike the balance between encouraging improvement and relieving as much pressure as possible, the more successful our students will be on their standardized tests and in the college admissions process.
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