Helping Students From Low-Income Backgrounds Succeed on the SAT

by The CollegeSpring Team

It’s no secret that students from low-income backgrounds often struggle to earn SAT scores that reflect their true potential. The most recent batch of SAT results, like previous results before them, show a direct relationship between a student’s SAT score and her family’s income. In fact, the gap between students from the least and most wealthy families was over 400 points.

But these students deserve the same opportunities to succeed as their wealthier peers. And with the right approach, teachers, counselors, and other educators can help make this possible.

Here are four educational strategies that can help students demonstrate their full potential on the SAT and become more competitive college applicants.

Provide Context About Why the SAT Matters

Compared to their higher-income peers, students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have a family member or mentor who’s been to college. For this reason, they might have less context about the SAT—and will see less reason to prepare for it adequately.

Instructors can address part of this challenge by helping students understand what goes into a college application package, and how colleges weigh the SAT against other areas of academic performance. It can also help to explain that while a student’s GPA might be relatively set in stone by the time she takes the SAT, a higher score on the test can still make her a much more competitive applicant.

More broadly, it is important to encourage students to see themselves as college-bound, and to build their desire to go to college. This can be challenging—sometimes because of ‘sticker shock’ at high college tuitions, or also due to factors like stereotype threat that cause some students to internalize other people’s doubts about their intelligence. But if a student can learn to see the SAT as a step towards a broader goal, she will be more motivated to persist through the rigors of test preparation.

Focus on Building Academic Skills, Not Test-Taking Tricks

Traditional test prep curricula tend to focus on helping students make sense of the SAT’s unique format and question types—often through test-taking tricks and rote practice of sample questions.

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t as helpful for students who come into the SAT struggling in one or more of test’s subject areas. They won’t be able to do much with tricks and practice questions if they don’t understand the underlying academic concepts.

For this reason, educators can help their students achieve much larger score gains by focusing on building on the core academic skills where students shine and helping them shore up the skills they are struggling with most. Practice tests early in the process can help identify these strengths and weaknesses, showing educators when to offer extension and remediation activities.

Bolster Tech Tools with Traditional Teaching

The past few years have seen the arrival of high-quality SAT resources that are available for free online.

Educators should absolutely incorporate these resources into their SAT lessons if they wish. Online tools can be particularly helpful with differentiated instruction, allowing individual students to focus on their trickiest subjects and practice at a pace they’re comfortable with. These tools can also help particularly motivated students practice in their free time.

But online lessons shouldn’t be expected to replace traditional teaching altogether. A student who isn’t already sold on the importance of the SAT will need encouragement to stay engaged with any test-prep resource, online or otherwise. And any learning tool will inevitably trigger student questions that are best answered in person, by someone with whom they have a strong relationship.

Help Students Show Up on Test Day

Taking the SAT is a logistical challenge as well as an academic one. And many of its required steps can be tricky for students from low-income backgrounds:

  • Choosing a test date that will give them their scores in time for college applications
  • Applying for a fee waiver, if they’re eligible
  • Getting to the testing center
  • Figuring out where to go at the testing center
  • Bringing required materials, such as an ID, pencils, and a calculator

This difficulty isn’t a reflection of students’ aptitude or attitude, of course. Completing all of the above tasks by oneself would be hard for any teenager. The difference is that wealthier students tend to have better access to resources and support that can help them navigate the registration and test-taking process—making them less likely to miss some small but crucial step, and allowing them to dedicate more attention to the test’s academic facets.

Educators can make up for some of this inequity by learning as much as possible about the SAT’s logistical minutiae and identifying potential obstacles. They can then help students understand what is expected on test day, envision how the day will go, and build confidence in their ability to access and tackle the test.

With these strategies, and strong student/teacher relationships, the SAT doesn’t have to be an obstacle for students from low-income backgrounds. Instead, it can be an opportunity for them to use a few months of hard work to significantly strengthen their college applications.


CollegeSpring is a nonprofit that has helped over a hundred schools and community organizations prepare their students for the SAT, ACT, and college admissions. If you’re interested in partnering with us, or would like to know how we can help, fill out the form below!



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