Q&A: Taking the PSAT or SAT when English is your second language

Sheldon the Word Nerd helps students with SAT and PSAT vocabulary prep.

What a great question!  There are so many students now in the same situation, so I’m thrilled you asked.  Your daughter has a real challenge ahead, but I’ve a got a few ideas for tackling the verbal portions of the SAT.

Pulpit rock

First, keep your expectations reasonable.  You don’t say how long your daughter has been learning English, but obviously, there’s a big difference between someone who’s been learning and practicing English for ten years versus someone who’s been learning only 10 months.  I’m going to assume your daughter hasn’t been speaking English for long.  The Critical Reading section of the SAT can be difficult for students who have spoken English for their entire lives, so your daughter shouldn’t expect to score an 800!  The whole point of the SAT is to give colleges an idea of your daughter’s capacity for college work, and they will absolutely take into account the fact that English is not her first language.  Just make that clear in her application.

Next, do some vocabulary prep.  Lifelong English speakers do this to prepare for the SAT, and your daughter should, too!  Invest in vocabulary materials, and a solid English dictionary.  Of course, I’m biased, but a site like Word-Nerd.com can be really helpful to new English speakers because it groups words by concept.  Developing associations, and at least getting the gist of what a word means, can be enormously helpful.  Whether you opt for Word-Nerd or some other prep materials, the key is to do the work.  Just remember that difficult words are tough for the average American student, too, so it’s almost a level playing field for your daughter! 

Further, your daughter must read as much as she can.  Reading will help with her English as a whole, as well as expose her to new words.  I recently got a Kindle, and I’m amazed at how helpful it can be in developing vocabulary because it has a built-in dictionary to look up words as you read!  Of course, keeping a dictionary at hand will do the same thing, but this is definitely an instance when technology is an advantage.