What Is a Good SAT Score?

http://www.diablomag.com/Bay%20Area%20SAT%20scantron.jpgEvery week we speak to a great deal of parents about test prep for their high school students. Without question, one of the most frequent questions we hear is “Is this a good SAT score?” (They are referring to their student’s recent PSAT or SAT scores that they’ve just shared with us.)

While it would be nice to be able to definitively say “Yes, this is a good SAT score,” the quality of a score is not so black and white. In general, there is a positive correlation between increasing SAT scores and increasing competitiveness; however, how good an SAT score is really depends on where they student is hoping to gain acceptance to college.

For example, a student with an SAT score of 1970 (650 critical reading, 670 math, 650 writing) is a pretty strong contender for James Madison University, which has a 75th percentile score of 610 to 620 per section. However, that same student with an SAT score of 1970 is not nearly as competitive at UVA, where the 75th percentile score is around 720 to 740 per section.

A Good SAT Score is Relative

There are a variety of factors that admission panels consider when reviewing applicants, but a student’s SAT score is a big one. In fact, at most schools the SAT score counts anywhere from 20% to 50% of the admission criteria. A student with a 1970 SAT score can certainly be a competitive applicant to UVA;  however, he is likely going to need an extremely strong application including a history of rigorous coursework, top grades, compelling essays and teacher recommendations, and a demonstrated interest in the school.

The higher the score, the better. But don’t judge the quality of a student’s SAT scores by how much higher they are than the national average or how far they are from a perfect 2400. Judge it by where the student’s scores fall in relation to the mid-50% range for the colleges to which he is applying.

What SAT Score Do You Need to Get into College?

On individual school’s websites or on sites that compile data on colleges such as Princeton Review, you can find the mid-50% range for SAT scores. What this tells you is the score range of the middle 50% of the most recent pool of admitted students. Typically, as college counselors will tell you, students should aim to be above the 75th percentile to be a competitive applicant. Again, not being above the 75th percentile doesn’t mean that a student doesn’t have a shot; however, applicants should have safety schools to which they are applying. Students SAT scores should be at or above the 75th percentile for these safety schools.

Mid-50% ranges are useful for determining an applicant’s competitiveness at individual schools and how strong his safety net is with regard to reach, target, and safety schools. Ultimately, students should be devoting as much time as possible to preparing for the SAT to maximize their score. In the grand scheme of things, SAT scores count far more than any individual grade a student will receive in high school or any extracurricular activity in which they are involved.

Read more in our free e-book: What Parents Must Know about the ACT, the SAT & Test Prep.

For more information on how Educational Connections can improve your student’s SAT scores, call us to speak to our test prep program manager at 703.934.8282.

Categories SAT

PSAT Prep: Is It Worth It?

PSAT prepWe often hear from parents who are interested in having their students prepped for the PSAT in their sophomore or junior year. In most cases, we recommend against preparing specifically for the PSAT. However, there is a pretty compelling reason that you may want to do so.

The Purpose of the PSAT

The PSAT is designed to give juniors and, increasingly, sophomores and freshmen practice on the types of skills that are tested on the SAT. The PSAT is 5 test sections completed in 2 hours and 10 minutes versus the SAT which is 10 test sections completed in 3 hours and 45 minutes. Aside from the length, the only major differences between the two tests are that the SAT includes a 25 minute essay and the PSAT does not, there is less of an emphasis on Algebra II level math on the PSAT, and the PSAT is reported on a selection index scale of 60-240 versus the SAT score range of 600-2400. Most importantly, the PSAT is not used for admissions purposes.

For the average student the PSAT is a great tool for highlighting areas on which a student needs to focus in preparation for the SAT come junior and senior year. For the top echelon of students, the National Merit Scholarship Program can provide a huge leg up in college admissions and financial aid.

The National Merit Scholarship Program

Each year approximately 1.5 million juniors take the PSAT and enter the National Merit Scholarship Program competition. The top 50,000 students as ranked by their overall selection indices are recognized as either Commended Students (34,000) or as Semifinalists (16,000). A selection index of 200-205 is typically required to achieve Commended Student status. The 16,000 Semifinalists continue in the competition and are determined proportionately by state. The score cutoffs for Semifinalist status vary year to year, but in 2012, the cutoffs were 219 in Maryland and 217 in Virginia. Nearly 95% of Semifinalists are then named National Merit Finalists (15,000), provided that they meet certain academic requirements, attain a qualifying SAT score, and complete an application in order to become a Finalist. From the pool of finalists, approximately 8,200 students are awarded scholarships from National Merit Scholarship Corporation or sponsoring colleges or corporations.

The $2,500 award that many National Merit scholars receive will certainly help with paying for college, but with the cost of tuition these days, that amount is a small relief when considering the big picture. $2,500 and the ability to say you’re a National Merit Scholar are probably enough to motivate many students to prepare for the PSAT; however, what many people do not consider are the later financial ramifications of achieving National Merit status.

Why You May Want to Prep for the PSAT

In order to attract the brightest minds to their schools, many colleges offer National Merit scholars huge incentives to attend their institutions. An increasing number are even offering FULL RIDES. That’s right. National Merit scholar status could equal a full ride to college. If that’s not a compelling reason to prepare for the PSAT, I don’t know what is.

As you likely noticed from the outline of how the National Merit competition works, the odds are stacked against you. Only 1% of juniors will achieve National Merit status. If, realistically, you know your student doesn’t stand a strong chance of being in the top 1%, then the PSAT is better used as a tool for figuring out a plan for preparing for the SAT, not as a test to spend hours and hours preparing for at the sacrifice of academics in hopes of getting great sums of financial aid.

To reiterate the financial picture – the combination of a National Merit Scholarship, corporate scholarships, college scholarships, and college grants can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. But the PSAT tests critical reasoning skills that are gained over a lifetime and the blunt truth is that, for the average student, the amount of time he would have to spend preparing for the SAT in hopes of being in the 99th percentile is staggering. Therefore, for the average student we do not typically recommend preparing specifically for the PSAT. We do, however, recommend beginning informal preparation for the SAT as soon as possible. There’s a lot riding on SAT scores and it’s never too early to be doing something to prepare.

ACT Aspire

In April 2014 the ACT will begin offering its new student readiness assessment system, ACT Aspire. The ACT website states that Aspire will be the “first computer-based, longitudinal assessment system,” providing feedback on a given student all the way from elementary school through college. The test will replace the ACT Explore and PLAN tests, which were designed for students in eighth through tenth grade. Neither Explore nor PLAN will be available after June 2014.

Aspire will allow schools to assess students much earlier than either of its predecessors, Explore and PLAN. Whereas  Explore was designed for students as young as eighth grade,  Aspire will debut with versions for students from third grade upward. Plus, the test may be a proving ground for the computer-based testing that will likely replace paper tests within the next few years.

ACT Aspire is the results of a partnership between ACT and Pearson in an effort to highlight progress toward ACT College Readiness Standards and Benchmarks as well as the Common Core State Standards. Unlike Plan and Explore, the Aspire tests will include more than multiple-choice question types,. There will be shorter and longer constructed-response questions, and the computer version will have technology-enhanced items that allow  interactivity.

The 60-minute reading test will include three constructed-response questions along with 18-19 multiple choice items and a few—or no—technology enhanced items. The writing test will consist of one 30-minute constructed response item, with no other item types. A 30- to 40-minute English test, designed to gauge students’ ability to revise and edit texts, will be composed of multiple-choice and technology-enhanced items.

The science and math tests, which will run 55 to 65 minutes, are heavier on constructed response items, and appear to have more questions overall than the other subjects.

One tricky transition issue for Aspire will be its use of a different scoring scale that the ACT college admissions test, which is scored on a two-digit score scale, from 1 to 36. Plan is scored from 1 to 32, and Explore from 1 to 25.

The Aspire tests, however, will be scored on a yet-to-be-determined three-digit score scale, to facilitate finer-grained reporting on results.

“The grade 3-11 tests need to be reported in a granular fashion to get down to where students might need help,” said Paul Weeks, ACT’s VP of customer engagement. “A two-digit score scale doesn’t lend itself to that kind of reporting; there aren’t enough score points.”

Categories ACT

What Is Score Choice? What Is Super Scoring?

As if college admissions doesn’t already give juniors, seniors, and their families enough to think about, one of the many considerations that must be taken into account is how to report SAT and ACT scores to colleges. Should you send all of your scores? Do you just pick your best overall score? Will colleges penalize you for taking the test multiple times?

What to Consider When Reporting SAT and ACT Scores

Think about test scores from an admissions officer’s perspective. The number of applications an admissions office receives is often enormous, and it is increasing every year. However, the number of admissions officers at many colleges remains much the same. To deal with this, schools essentially create two rounds in the admission process. The first is quantitative; the school takes your test scores and your GPA and converts them into a number that they can use to rank their applicants from high to low. Those applicants who meet the score requirements move on to the second round, during which admissions teams consider other components of the application such as the essay, recommendations, level of interest, etc.

In general, test scores are a hands-off part of the admissions process. Colleges have computer programs that either select the top scores for each section of the test (super scoring) or take the highest test score. Due to this procedure, admissions officers typically only see one test per applicant. Only a handful of selective schools places higher emphasis on the number of tests a student takes and what the trends were for those tests.

To Send All Scores or to Send One Score?

For the most part, sending all your scores to the schools to which you are applying can only help you. The majority of colleges are interested in looking at your best overall score among all of the dates that you took the test.  By sending all of your scores, you allow colleges to “super score” the SAT and ACT. Colleges take the best sections across multiple test dates and combine them together for a revised composite score. Keep in mind, though, that while most colleges “super score” the SAT, far fewer “super score” the ACT. Make sure to check the procedure at each school to which you are applying.

There are colleges that care about testing trends, and those institutions specifically ask their applicants to send all scores. Ivies such as Yale consider trends in testing, so students who take the test multiple times and whose scores vary widely may take a lower place in the applicant pool than students who take the test once and have a strong score.

The College Board offers a service called Score Choice on the SAT. This allows students to pick and choose which scores they send to schools. If all of the schools to which the student applies use “super scoring,” Score Choice will not be of much benefit. However, if it is to the student’s benefit to withhold certain scores from certain schools, Score Choice can be an advantage.

How do I know if my college “super scores” the SAT or ACT tests?

Most colleges will super score the SAT, but only a few super score the ACT. For more information on your schools’ policies, check with the schools directly or consult the College Board and ACT websites.

ACT vs. SAT: What’s the Difference in Score Reporting?

The ACT provides fewer options than the College Board when it comes to score reporting. The ACT sends one report per test date to each school at a cost of $12. You will need to select each test that you wish to send to colleges. Since most colleges do not super score the ACT, you should send your highest test score. The ACT requires you to send a separate score report for each test to each school.

Should I Cancel a Recent SAT or ACT I Just Took?

If you recently took an SAT or ACT and are worried about the results, you have the option of cancelling the scores. Since most schools will “super score” the SAT and you can choose individual ACT score reports to submit, it’s probably best to let things be and see how the scores come back. Many students feel that they scored poorly on a test only to find out that their score was higher than expected. Also, keep in mind that these score reports provide useful feedback for what to focus on in your test prep efforts. If you cancel the score report, you are forgoing a lot of useful information.

It may be advisable to cancel scores if you are applying to schools that require you to submit all scores, consider trends in scores, or do not “super score.” If that is the case and you’re pretty certain you had a bad test day, this may be a smart choice.

College Applications Start Sophomore Year

Planning early for college can save time and help boost your student’s chances of acceptance.

The symbolic end to your parenting journey – the college admission process – is one of the most significant periods in your child’s life. Searching for the “perfect fit” can require a lot of time. By starting to plan in sophomore year, it will make the process more manageable.

Here’s what you can do:

Start building your application early – College admissions panels want to see leadership and depth in a student’s activities outside of the classroom. This does not mean they should join every club available and put their name in the running for board positions. The best thing to do is explore some activities of interest freshman and early sophomore year and pick a couple to invest time into over the long term. One of the ways colleges form a well-rounded class is by making sure that a wide range of interests are represented among admitted students. If you seem to have involvement in too many activities, an admission panel may not know where your true interest lies.

Take a practice SAT and ACT and Test Prep – It’s probably a good idea to get the ball rolling on preparing for the dreaded college admissions tests. By the end of sophomore year, students should have completed a practice SAT and ACT. This is useful for determining which test the student should focus on in his prep efforts. Because all colleges accept either test, it’s a better idea to optimize your time on one test rather than divide your attention between two. There are, however, some extenuating circumstances such as recruited students, scholarships, etc, though they are rare. Give us a call to get a free practice SAT and ACT mailed to you today!

Identify Strengths – What is your student really rood at? Inventing? Entertaining? Writing? You don’t have to be a super hero to have super powers. Everyone has strengths. In fact, knowing your natural talents, skills, abilities and personal accomplishments will bring you one step closer to strengthening your application and finding your “perfect fit” school.

Seek advice from the experts – By working with a college admissions consultant and a test prep tutors, you can make sure that your student is on track to gain admission to a strong list of schools. College Consultant Reviews is a great place to start.

Another SAT Prep Myth

Despite what you may have heard, the high school math and English curriculum is not designed with SAT prep in mind. Many parents and students believe that school will teach students the skills they need on the SAT to do well. Further, most students will wait until the end of their junior year before taking the SAT because they will have nearly completed Algebra II coursework. It has become the norm for students to take the SAT in the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year, likely as the result of advice from school counselors misinterpreted to apply to the masses.

The truth is that high school classes alone will not equip students with the strategies and tactics they need to do well on the SAT. In fact, if a student learns the best ways to solve each type of math problem, he really doesn’t need to have any knowledge of Algebra II concepts. Sure, the logic gained by learning and practicing Algebra II will help the student, but logical reasoning is a skill that can be practiced outside of math class.

Students can begin their test prep efforts prior to completing Algebra II, and for some students, this is advisable as junior year of high school is often the most demanding.

Categories SAT

How the iPad is Transforming the Writing Process

Many of us learned to apply the writing process on paper. Organizing, drafting, editing, and revising. A teacher then provided written feedback, marking up the paper’s margins. When computers entered the equation, the process became digitized. Graphic organizer tools such as Inspiration allowed for planning and students began to draft digitally with word processing programs. It became possible for teachers to offer feedback by inserting comments directly in the file. The process became more efficient and public as works could be published to the web.

With iPads, now the writing process is poised for further improvement. The device allows for writing to transcend and redefine what’s possible.

Using a tablet, students and teachers can organize and draft through handwriting, drawing, text, and voice; collaborate and incorporate multimodal feedback; and create a finished product that can convey beyond what a traditional “paper” can.

With iPads, the digitized writing process has been mobilized. A student who benefits from the tactile nature of handwriting can brainstorm his ideas on paper, capture of photo of his ideas, import the picture into a word processing app, and continue typing his work. Another student may outline by hand with Penultimate, sync to Evernote, and then incorporate Siri to dictate her ideas.

In short, the iPad allows a multitude of options, from using apps such as Popplet and Idea Sketch to capture their ideas to employing ScreenChomp to provide audio/video feedback. Student and teachers can incorporate any or all of the volume of writing capabilities to create a custom writing process that best fits their learning styles.

Motivation and Test Prep

test prep

The fact is that parents cannot flip a switch to motivate their child. Rewards, especially in the form of money, often don’t work. Many students doing test prep for the SAT and ACT do not have a great deal of motivation to improve their scores. This is alarming seeing as admission test scores comprise 20-50% of the admission criteria at most colleges.

What parents can do is make the environment ripe for motivation. You can set up a schedule and a quiet, electronics-free place for your child to complete the assignments he receives as part of his test prep program. For every hour spent with a tutor, your child can expect an hour of homework. When students put in ample time and effort, scores will improve. And along with increased scores, you will often see greater confidence and motivation.

While internal motivation varies student to student and can come from many sources, consider these tips to motivate your student to improve his SAT or ACT scores.

1.  Open a dialogue about your child’s strengths and aspirations. 

At Educational Connections, we’ve worked with many families who seem to miss this crucial step, which is important not only for helping with motivation but also in figuring out where your child is going to be happiest and most successful after high school.

What does he or she want out of life? Sit down in a low pressure environment and listen. Figure out what it is your student hopes to achieve, whether it’s to become a video game designer, a professional golfer, an animal welfare advocate, or a Fortune 500 executive. Once you understand how your child feels, move to step #2.

2.  Ask your child what qualities of a college would help to further his or her goals. 

Don’t ask what college your child wants to go to because high school students rarely have any idea what college they actually want to attend. They likely haven’t been there, and they don’t know what it is really like. Focus on the qualities your child is looking for in a college and make a list of them. Avoid focusing on names or rankings. Some examples: in a city, strong nursing program, large and diverse student body, emphasis on environmental activism, study abroad programs, etc. When students feel that their wants are heard, they tend to view you as a teammate in the process and not the dictator.

3.  Make a list of 20 or so schools that share these qualities.

CollegeData.com has a wealth of information on colleges all over the world. The key is to focus on schools that will provide your student with ways to further his or her life goals. You can, of course, cross reference your findings with US News and World Report’s ranking system to find top-notch schools that appeal to your child, but going by name and/or rank alone is not a good idea. That is often how students end up at schools they come to dislike.

Start to implant the idea of “the dream school” in your student’s mind. Once your student is passionate about a school, many times his mindset toward test prep changes from one of checking off a completion box to actively working to improve.

In a nutshell:

  • Students are motivated when they have a vision of what they want to accomplish.
  • A clear path need not be defined, but having a general idea helps. You may have a daughter who loves animals. Could a career in veterinary medicine be an option? Your son loves video games and has a knack for graphic design. Perhaps a school with a great design or engineering program may be viable.
  • Take the focus off exact SAT scores and put it on having options of schools to attend that fit your child’s passions.

Student Motivation: Why Carrots and Sticks Won’t Cut It

A few months ago I had to opportunity to see Dan Pink speak in Bethesda. The talk he gave was geared toward organizations, mainly smaller sole proprietorships and partnerships, to discuss management, particularly as it applies to motivating employees. The insight he shared really made me think about motivation, not only from the perspective of how it is promoted within an organization, but how the same mechanics of organizational motivation apply to high school students.

Rewarding Students for Grades Usually Doesn’t Work

When parents call us looking for a tutor and tell us about the issues that they are dealing with, from family stress over homework to their student’s complete lack of an organizational system to failing grades, they often describe past failed attempts to bribe their kids with money, videogames, fewer chores, etc. Their thinking is that the archetype of motivating someone, using carrots and sticks, will elicit and continue the behaviors they want to see in their kids. (Paying for grades is a hot topic among parents. For more, see Ann’s post weighing the pros and cons of this motivational tool.) However, the science behind motivation is quite interesting.

What the Research Says about Motivation

It turns out we’re not as easily manipulated as you may think. It is fairly evident that carrots and sticks work for encouraging rudimentary mechanical tasks; however, when even the most basic cognitive skills become involved, the data are surprising. Economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chicago conducted a study at MIT to research the effect of rewards on behavior. They assigned spatial puzzles, physical tasks, and several other jobs to test subjects. The test subjects were split into three groups, each of which received an increasing amount of monetary reward for completing their assigned tasks. Interestingly, they found that as the reward amount increased, performance decreased. But, wait, that goes against everything we intuitively know about the effect money and reward have on people.

So the researchers replicated the study in India, where their funding allowed them to dole out rewards equal to the average worker’s salary for two months! In this iteration of the study, the first group was given two weeks’ salary, the second group was given one month’s salary, and the last group was given two months’ salary, all for performing the same set of tasks. The economists found that the first two groups performed about the same but that the most rewarded group actually had the worst performance of all! These same findings have been replicated by psychologists, sociologists, and economists across the world.

Most of us see the failure of the standard carrot and stick approach on a regular basis, yet, for whatever reason, we continue to sharpen our sticks and add more carrots. The frustrated parents who call us carrots and sticksat their wits’ end have often realized that buying more videogames or grounding kids for longer durations does not have much of an impact on kids’ performance in school.

The Key to Student Motivation

Most high school students receive no long term benefit from non-immediate rewards for completing tasks or achieving good grades. In fact, rewards can create problems for kids once they grow up and need to self-regulate. A student who maintains a 2.0 GPA and is not compelled to improve it likely will not move up to a 3.0 with generous incentives. Instead of offering carrots and threatening with sticks, one of the most helpful things parents, teachers, and tutors can do for kids is to help them work toward the three things that all these studies on motivation have found are required for success: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Ultimately, the results of the studies point to an interesting realization. When people aren’t paid or rewarded enough for their work, they won’t be motivated. But when you reward people enough for their work, increased external rewards become meaningless. As work becomes more challenging, people look to other places for their motivation. Office workers and students alike desire autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose. Helping students achieve these goals is easier said than done. But, as a start, see Ann’s article on 3 Easy Tips for Improving Student Effort.

What Parents Need to Know about the SAT and ACT: Part II

As promised, here’s part two of my advice for what parents need to know about the SAT and ACT. For more advice, see my previous post.

“My son is taking the SAT in March because that seemed to be the time that everyone else is taking it.”

Planning a test date arbitrarily is a very common and a very poor practice that seems to have become widespread. Many people take the SAT to “see what score they’re going to get.” However, you can see what score you’re going to get by taking a proctored practice test in simulated testing conditions and not have the result count against you.  Also, we’ve seen poor results from these “dry runs” deal damaging blows to many students’ confidence.

Students should take the SAT when they are ready, i.e., they are scoring within 100 points of their goal score on consecutive practice tests. Don’t register for the closest SAT simply because that’s what your friends are doing.

The basic sequence for determining when to take the SAT (or ACT) is as follows:

1) Figure out your goal score.

2) Figure out your current score with a diagnostic test.

3) Figure out  your test prep schedule and how long it will (probably) take to reach your target score.

4) Pick a test date after that point and register for it.

5) Take practice tests frequently during the preparation process to gauge and measure progress.

6) Figure out the last possible date you can take the test in case progress is slower than anticipated.

“I heard some parents ask their students to do practice problems right before the test as a “warm-up.” This seems like a bad idea to me.”

Peculiarly, students seem to almost always score better on later sections than they do on earlier ones. A lot of this has to do with getting in a test taking mindset. Have your student bring 5-10 questions from each section of the test he’s taking into the test waiting area and have him solve them before taking the test. Ideally, these are problems that he has solved before. The idea is to “boot up” his brain so that he can start the test warmed up.

The day before the test should be used to relax and rest up – cramming does not work. However, the moments before the test should be used for thinking and logical reasoning.

“My student has done every last problem of test prep homework and the practice tests that have been assigned to him, but his score is stagnant. What is going wrong?”

We can all but guarantee that the answer to this issue comes down to the quality of a student’s practice. ALL PRACTICE IS NOT CREATED EQUAL. Tutors will work with students to direct their practice and hold them accountable; however, much of the potential for progress lies directly with the student.

To make significant progress, students must adhere to the following general rules of test prep practice:

1. Feedback is essential for learning. We need feedback in order to improve and learn from mistakes. Students must review all of their work on homework and practice tests, looking back to see what they got right, wrong, and why. Practicing problems without evaluating performance is a pretty futile endeavor. This is often the step that is missing from students’ test prep programs and, in many cases, academic careers. Parents and tutors can only do so much to hold students accountable and help them realize the importance of reviewing their work. Ultimately, students have take it upon themselves to not only complete the work but review it as well.

2. Focus on weaknesses. Students preparing for the SAT or ACT should be focusing the bulk of their time on the areas in which they are weakest. While practicing things that you’re good at feels good, doing so does not provide the same opportunity for improvement as practicing things you’re not so good at. This is one of the reasons frequent practice tests are so important – to use as benchmarks for assessing improvements and weaknesses.

3. Have a goal in mind for each practice section. Specific, actionable goals are crucial for directing an effective test prep program. Our tutors work with students to make sure that they understand the reasons behind their test prep efforts and what the more immediate goals are, e.g., mastering percentages and proving it by answering eight percentage problems correctly in a row. Specific goals lead to faster, more focused progress.

“Should I sign my daughter up for a group class or one-on-one tutoring?”

Though private, individual tutoring is a premium service, it provides students with a level of personalized, tailored instruction that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or small group setting. One-on-one tutors provide expert instruction and undivided attention, leading to greater engagement and a higher degree of accountability.

In order to accommodate a range of students, group classes will briefly cover all concepts and strategies equally, whereas a private tutor customizes sessions to focus on a student’s biggest weaknesses resulting in higher score gains than simply doing a comprehensive, systematic overview of everything. Group classes can provide structure to a student preparing for the SAT or ACT, but a private tutor can really drive score increases.