Build a testing strategy that works for your student

By Scott Sager

My oldest daughter began junior year of high school by flying abroad for a semester and soon after discovering that taking the PSAT and SAT in France is possible but complicated (and certainly beyond the planning abilities of her father).

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High School Parent | College Parent

So, she took the SAT for the first time the following March, less than a month after her return home.

In contrast, my younger daughter took the SAT in November of her junior year, earlier than most classmates. The 10th grade PSAT (taken as practice) had gone well and she did some prep over the summer. She wanted to get the SAT off her plate early to ease pressure on her school year and gain more time to study for SAT Subject Tests and an AP exam in the spring.

Every student’s testing experience will be unique. The many options and variables can help you guide your student in creating a workable personal strategy.

1. Understand your student

“Where do you want to go?” This is the first question for your student to answer according to Dr. Joie Jager-Hyman, President of CollegePrep360 and the author of two books about the admissions process, Fat Envelope Frenzy and B+ Grades, A+ College Applications. Requirements for engineering programs differ from music conservatories, just as studio arts programs differ from liberal arts colleges. Your student should begin thinking about his college goals — what type of program he’s interested in, and other factors such as size, location and selectivity.

In the meantime, you can help by considering your student’s strengths. Is he a good test taker? How does he study best — alone, in a group or one-on-one with a teacher/tutor? These factors will help him choose which and how many tests to take and how best to prepare for them.

Dr. Jager-Hyman encourages all students to take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of 10th grade as practice for the official 11th grade test (which is used as a qualifier for National Merit Scholarships). The PSAT is administered by the school; some schools may also offer the PSAT 10 in late winter/early spring of 10th grade. PSAT scores are not reported to colleges. Your student’s performance can provide a preview of how he might do on the SAT and what level of preparation he may need.

Finally, consider your student’s schedule. If he has a fall sport or a winter theater production, for instance, take time demands into account when creating a testing strategy.

2. Understand the tests

story-icon-bar-convo-3A student’s transcript (classes taken, grades received) is the most important part of the college application, Dr. Jager-Hyman emphasizes. Test scores can highlight strengths and demonstrate overall readiness for college, but be sure your student pays attention to grades first.

The ACT is “a curriculum- and standards-based educational and career planning tool that assesses students’ academic readiness for college,” according to the company that administers it. The ACT consists of four main parts: English, Math, Reading and Science plus an optional Writing section. The student receives a score for each section ranging from 1 to 36 and an overall composite score in the same range. The optional writing section is scored between 1 and 12. Each section, except Science, also has subscores, breaking down the topic into more defined areas of knowledge.

The College Board administers the SAT and describes it as “a globally recognized college admission test that lets you show colleges what you know and how well you can apply that knowledge.” The SAT currently consists of ten sections divided among mathematics, critical reading and writing. An essay is a required component of the exam. Scores in each of the three areas will be between 200 – 800 and a total score is created by adding the three section scores together, making 600 the lowest possible total score and 2400 the highest.

Both tests can be taken multiple times. For students submitting Early Decision or Early Action applications, the latest date will be the October sitting of senior year. For most regular admissions, the December test date will be the last a student can sign up for and still have scores reported to schools on time.

The College Board also offers SAT Subject Tests — one hour multiple choice tests, each on a single subject. Twenty different subjects are offered and test dates are the same as for the SAT. Subject tests are also scored on a 200 – 800 scale and a student can sign up for one, two or three tests on single test date. Note: not all subject tests are offered on every test date, and students can not take the SAT and an SAT Subject Test on the same day. 

3. Understand the requirements 

Most colleges and universities require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores and, generally, will accept either test. While there used to be regional trends and biases about the tests, these are essentially gone. Even schools that are “test optional,” meaning they don’t require scores as part of a student’s application, will accept scores if submitted by the applicant. If your student plans on applying only to test optional schools, it can’t hurt to take the ACT or SAT — high scores can enhance an application and low scores don’t need to be included. Further, in case goals change, having taken one of the tests will offer flexibility.

Many colleges do not require SAT Subject Tests if the student takes the ACT with Writing. However, some engineering programs require math and science Subject Tests even if the student takes the ACT with Writing. Many schools will accept SAT Subject Test scores even if they are not required, giving students who do well on them a chance to use them to supplement their application in an area of strength.

Students may take any of these tests more than once and many take the SAT or ACT two or three times. Most schools consider only the highest score a student achieves on each section of a test, a practice called “super-scoring.”

In general, AP scores are not required but may be submitted as additional information. With all applications, be sure to read each school’s requirements and procedures carefully.

4. Understand the calendars

The college admissions calendar represents deadlines — the dates scores are due for a student’s application to be fully considered. Early Decision and Early Action applications are due on November 1st or 15th of a student’s senior year while applications for regular admissions are due on or soon after January 1st. Schools with “rolling admissions” will consider applications beginning on a specific date (check the college website) and continue to accept them until either a closing date or when the class is full.

The testing calendar identifies when a student can take each test. AP exams are only offered during certain weeks in the spring each year, so exams not taken by the end of junior year can not be included on an application.

The SAT is offered seven times each year and the ACT six times. Remember, SAT Subject Tests cannot be taken on the same date as the SAT and not all subject tests are offered on every SAT test date.

Your student’s high school calendar should also be considered. When are exams given and when do semesters end? These dates could impact a student’s readiness to take standardized tests on a specific date.

Putting it all together — Your student’s testing strategy

Start with the SAT or ACT, recommends Dr. Jager-Hyman, and try to start far enough in advance so that your student can take the tests up to three times if needed. Include preparation plans when mapping out test dates.

“Everybody should use some resource for test prep,” says Dr. Jager-Hyman. Your student can start with the SAT and ACT websites, where there are daily practice questions and full-length practice tests. Your school district may offer low-cost test prep classes. Investigate free, online programs such as I Need A Pencil and free classes for students with financial need, such as Let’s Get Ready in the mid-Atlantic and New England areas. There are books and group study programs galore; one-on-one tutoring (the most expensive option) is available in most locations as well.

“If you’re going to put your money anywhere, this is where,” Dr. Jager-Hyman says, for at least two reasons: test prep works and many colleges and universities use scores when allocating merit aid.

Is your student considering schools that require SAT Subject Tests? If possible, he should take the first one before 11th grade. My daughter’s school teaches American History in 10th grade so she took that SAT Subject Test sophomore year as the class finished, when the material was freshest. The remaining subject tests can be taken at the end of junior year, typically on the May or June test dates.

If your student will take an AP exam and an SAT Subject Test on the same topic, taking the two tests close together may be helpful. He should do some research, though, since some topics are very different on the AP than on the SAT Subject test, calling for different preparations.

The impact of the new SAT

A redesigned version of the SAT will debut in Winter 2016. High school students graduating in spring of 2017 will be the first class taking the new test and using scores based on it for college admissions. The College Board has released detailed descriptions of the test format, sample questions and related information on their website.

The new format creates a great deal of uncertainty for students, starting with having 10th grade PSAT scores that may no longer accurately reflect a baseline for SAT performance. What should a student do? Dr. Jager-Hyman’s advice: “The ACT we know. Students can take the new SAT but plan on the ACT.”

Test preparation will also be impacted. The College Board has announced a free online test prep program through a partnership with Khan Academy. Large publishers and prep companies will also be releasing all-new test prep materials. However, there will be no track record to ensure the quality of the new materials until the new test has been used.

My older daughter didn’t finish her testing until December of senior year, forcing her to submit applications without knowing her last set of scores. While things turned out fine — she is very happy at college — her last set of SAT scores were her best. Would she have made different application decisions if she’d known her scores? Maybe.

My younger daughter is still in the thick of it. Having gotten scores she can live with on the SAT, her focus is now on the SAT Subject Tests and refining the list of schools she plans on applying to.

As your student goes through the college search process, be prepared for goals to change. Campus tours may turn a student on to a program or school he hadn’t considered before, requiring adjustments to your strategy. Build extra time and open weekends into your test-taking calendar.

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