I realized that I sometimes take for granted the amount that I’ve learned about the SAT, ACT, and test prep over the last few years. Thinking back to when I was in high school getting ready to take the SAT, it’s clear that I knew then 10% of what I know now. And my parents – the extent of their knowledge was the repressed memories of an obsolete test that cooped them up in a gym for 4 hours preventing them from doing whatever it is they did in the 70’s.
Misinformation and a lack of information surrounding the SAT and the ACT seem to be common among parents of high school students. But parents who are knowledgeable about the tests can drastically help their students’ chances of obtaining their maximum scores and increasing their options. Therefore, I’ve decided to write up responses to some common statements and questions that parents often have about college admissions tests starting with…
“My daughter scored about the same on practice tests of the SAT and ACT, so she’s going to prepare for and take both tests to see if she does better on one.”
Some parents and students think that this strategy is increasing the odds of maximizing test scores. However, typically, this doesn’t result in students miraculously scoring better on one test. There is really no reason to prepare for and take both tests. By focusing on one test instead of two, you are allowing yourself twice the amount of time and twice the opportunity to maximize your score.
If your scores are pretty similar on the SAT and ACT, go with your gut. Most students tend to prefer one test over the other.
“My daughter got a 27 on her ACT the first time she took it. That’s a good score—well above average. We are happy with that. I don’t think she’ll take the test again.”
A “good” test score is relative. Part of any good test prep program should include coming up with a goal score and range, most of which is predicated on the student’s target schools. While there is not a set prescription for the number of schools to apply to, many college admissions experts advise around 6. This group of schools should include reach, target, and safety schools. Regarding test scores, you should be scoring well above the 75th percentile for your safety schools, preferably above the 50th percentile for your target schools, and hopefully above the 25th percentile for your reach schools. You may notice that schools often report the test scores of their incoming freshmen class as a range, e.g., 29-33. These are the first and third quartiles which should give you a sense of how your scores stack up against the competition. You can find this info in the College Search section of collegeboard.org.
If a composite score of 27 is not above the 50th percentile of your target schools, you need to reassess and plan to take the test again.
As fodder for the retort from your student that clearly 25% of students got in with less than X score, explain to her that those students probably fit into one of the following categories:
- recruited athletes, musicians, or special talents
- children of highly charitable alumni
- highly sought-after minorities
- students who scored very well on the other sections and have astronomical GPAs
- incredibly lucky
Unless your student can bank on being included in one of these select groups, she needs to reconsider.
“My student is a good student—he’s just not a good test taker. Is it true that the ACT might be better for him?”
We hear this one all the time: “My student is not a good test taker.” While certain students do suffer from test anxiety, which is a serious issue, if your student is getting As and Bs in school, he can do well on either test if he prepares correctly. There are a few characteristics that may suggest a student would perform better on the ACT, but being a “bad tester” is not one of them.
To use the SAT as an example, many students view it as an abomination, as an impossible to conquer obstacle. However, the SAT is just a logical reasoning exam that asks very simple material in very tricky ways. Taking the SAT is exactly like any other skill on Earth—anyone can improve and do very well with smart practice. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “good tester” and a “bad tester” – there are simply the people who take the time to figure out and practice the SAT and do well, and people with defeatist attitudes who don’t bother to put in the required effort to prepare.
“I’ve heard that the new SAT “Score Choice” policy means that students should take the test early and often.”
The SAT’s relatively recent “Score Choice” policy (which matches the longstanding ACT score reporting policy) gives students the option to select which scores they report to schools. Keep in mind that scores are reported on a test date basis only. For instance, you cannot send only your Writing score from one sitting and only your Math score from another. Which scores you report should depend on the school. Some schools only look a combined scores from single sitting; others will consider your superscore—the sum of your best section scores. Also, some schools do not acknowledge “Score Choice” at all.
While the new policy removes some of the anxiety over retesting, it does not change the fact that most students will not peak on the SAT until spring of junior year or fall of senior year. Taking the SAT two or three times is still the appropriate plan for most students. Students considering taking the test as a “dry run” before January of junior year would be better served by taking a proctored practice test instead. The feedback provided by a practice test is more immediate and more detailed. Aside from the cost and time involved, unprepared SAT performances can decrease a student’s confidence unnecessarily. Additionally, a student who took the SAT (or ACT) multiple times could be forced to reveal all scores if he or she decides to apply to any of the colleges that require entire testing histories.
More to come on what parents need to know about the SAT and ACT.