Monday morning Q & A

Leslie asks:

“Given that high school sophomores often have no idea yet where they might want to attend college, how does one decide whether to take the SAT subject tests? I understand only the most elite and selective schools require them, but it is confusing when one does not yet know if those schools are within reach. Do you recommend erring on the side of caution and taking them just in case you might need them if you are taking, say, AP World History or Honors Chemistry in 10th grade, or waiting until junior year to take subject tests when one has a better idea of where they might be applying based on ACT/SAT scores?”

It’s a great question, Leslie. First, for the uninitiated, Subject Tests are each one hour long and test a specific subject (here’s the College Board’s complete list). A selection of Subject Test scores are required or recommended by about 40 of the most selective colleges and universities. There are also approximately 40 other colleges that will consider them if submitted. The most current, factually accurate list I’ve seen is maintained here by our friends at Compass Prep.

The best time to take Subject Tests is at the end of the school year, when the student is finishing the corresponding course, as that’s when students tend to know the material best. In particular, a student who performed well in an AP class is likely to score well on the corresponding Subject Test with the exception of AP European History, which does not translate to being prepared for the World History Subject Test.

But as Leslie astutely notes, this is one of those times when what’s best for test taking may not necessarily be best for the test taker. Say you have a 10th grader who’s taking World History and getting an A. But this student doesn’t know where they want to go to college. Do you have them take the World History Subject Test in June at the end of sophomore year?

What about the sophomore—or in some cases the particularly motivated freshman—who’s taking Biology? These students will never be more prepared for those tests than they are when they finish the respective course. But they don’t know where they’ll be applying, and Subject Tests just aren’t used by that many of the 2000 colleges out there. So there’s a chance they might be taking tests they’ll never need for admission.

And what about the student who struggles with standardized tests? Should they really invite another opportunity to be reminded that they weren’t gifted the test-taking gene?

Some student populations won’t entertain these concerns—they’ll just want to position themselves to be competitive no matter what the cost in time, effort, or money (it’s $26 to register, plus an additional $22-$26 per test).

There’s no easy answer, but here are a few questions to consider.

  • Will this student be applying to colleges that currently require or recommend Subject Tests? If the student isn’t sure, are they a high achiever who’s likely to apply to any of the 40-60 most selective colleges? If so, the decision is pretty clear.
  • Is the student thriving in a course (earning at least an A or a high B) that ties to a Subject Test, like Biology, Chemistry, or U.S. History? Let them potentially show off that strength by taking a Subject Test. There’s no sense asking a kid who’s getting a C in Chemistry to sit for a standardized test on that subject. But for the student with a subject and testing strength, here’s their chance to use it, as thorough preparation for an AP test is likely to leave a student prepared for the Subject Test (though remember that AP Euro doesn’t tie to the World History Subject Test).
  • Does the student do well on standardized tests? If so, this might be another chance to lean into that gift.

But if the student isn’t a likely candidate for the most selective schools, if they’re not necessarily thriving in the course, or if they just don’t perform well on standardized tests, you might reconsider putting them through more (potentially) unnecessary testing.

When in doubt, if a student meets the conditions described above, I’d have them take the appropriate Subject Tests at the appropriate times. Score Choice is available for Subject Tests, so students won’t have to show colleges their scores unless they apply to those schools that suggest or require that you send all scores. And having test scores on record that you ultimately don’t need is better than arriving at the senior year wishing you could go back in time to take the appropriate Subject Tests.

Thanks for your question, Leslie. I’ll answer another one next week. You can submit yours for consideration here.

We’re answering standardized testing questions

If you have standardized testing questions about which tests to take, when to take them, and what scores you’ll need for admission to the colleges you’re interested in, we’re bringing together two of the most knowledgeable experts to help in an upcoming free webinar:

Standardized Test Planning Made Easy
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees

This webinar will feature Collegewise counselor Jordan Kanarek and Matt Steiner, Senior Director at Compass Education Group. There’s just too much confusion, anxiety, and money spent invested in making smart decisions around these tests, and both Jordan and Matt will send you away feeling more confident that you’re making the right choices for you.

You can get all the information here, and I hope you’ll join us.

Secure your testing spot and worry less

In high school populations where college admissions stress rages out of control, I’m consistently in favor of doing less when it comes to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Obsess about test scores less. Spend less time preparing for them. Don’t embrace the harmful early-and-often approach in which kids behave like professional test takers as soon as—or even before—they enter high school. Less of all that, please.

But if you’re planning on taking your tests this summer, you might consider registering now to save your spot before they fill up, as The Princeton Review’s James Murphy shares as a helpful heads-up in this article.

Secure your testing spot so you can worry less.

Join us at our standardized testing webinar

It’s not just the perceived importance of scores, or even the associated preparation, that makes standardized tests such a source of stress in the college admissions process. It’s making decisions that should be simple, but aren’t. What tests should you take? When should you take them? Is there an advantage to taking the SAT over the ACT, or vice versa? If you’re looking for straight answers from people who aren’t trying to sell you a test prep program, I’d like to invite you to our free Collegewise webinar:

Testing 1, 2, 3: Standardized Test Planning Made Easy
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
5:00 PM – 6:00 PM PST

Our presenters are a father/son team, Paul and Jordan Kanarek. Over 30 years ago, Paul founded The Princeton Review of Southern California. 25 years later, Jordan followed his dad’s testing footprints and ran The Princeton Review’s private tutoring program in Washington, DC. Today, they both work at Collegewise, and they are the first people our trainers and counselors go to when they need to learn, teach, and share the best, most up-to-date advice around standardized testing. They are also gifted speakers and teachers who frequently receive testimonials from schools and organizations who invite them to speak to their families.

If you’re getting the sense I’m selling them hard here, it’s true. The stress, confusion, and resulting insanity surrounding standardized testing has reached epidemic proportions in high school. Give Paul and Jordan an hour of your time, and I promise you will come away feeling more informed, less stressed, and fully capable of making sound standardized testing decisions. All the details are here.

Standardized test planning

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT dominate college prep talk in many circles. Which test are you taking? What tutor are you using? What score did you get? The questions incite anxiety, especially for families who don’t yet have all the answers.

On February 27, our two Collegewisers who have the most accumulated knowledge around planning and preparing for standardized tests will present a free webinar to help you find all the answers to your testing questions. If you need help deciding which tests to take, when to take them, how to interpret your scores, or just how to make sense of the general testing madness, I think you’ll be very pleased with the information and advice we’re planning to share.

You can find all the information, and the link to register, here. Spaces are limited, though, so I recommended you register soon if you’re interested.

I hope we’ll see you there virtually.

Monday morning Q&A: Subject Tests “recommended”?

Jean asks,

“I hear all the time that when a college says that Subject Tests are “recommended,” it actually means “required.” But I’d like to see some actual evidence of that. Do you know of students who’ve been rejected without taking these tests and believed that it hurt them? If a student has a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams, it truly seems like overkill.”

Good question, Jean. I find that “recommending” Subject Tests is frustratingly vague. There’s enough existing confusion in the college admissions process without colleges leaving students unsure whether or not an important choice like this will somehow work against them.

Unfortunately, while I’ve occasionally met students who were not admitted and believed it might have been because they elected not to submit Subject Test scores, I’d be very cautious making a testing decision based on anecdotal evidence. It’s not uncommon for students to draw conclusions about how colleges arrived at an admissions decision, but those conclusions are usually dubious at best. The truth is that the only people who know the actual reasons behind any admissions decisions are the committee members who were in the room when the decision was made. This works both ways, too—students who submit Subject Test scores and are ultimately admitted have no way of knowing if or how much those scores helped.

But here’s a potentially good strategy to use.

1. First, read the testing requirements on the school’s website very carefully.

For example, based on the language I’ve pasted here from their websites, which of these schools seems to mean “required” when they say “recommended”?

Georgetown (the typos are as they appeared on the site):

It is strongly recommended that all candidates, whether they have taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, submit three SAT Subject Tests scores. The scores from writing portion on the SAT Reasoning Test and the optional writing portion of the ACT will not be used in place of a Subject Test.


SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage. Because SAT Subject Tests are optional, applicants may use Score Choice to selectively send their SAT Subject Test scores.


SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in the application process. We will consider your application on the basis of the other testing, and all the other information, that we receive with your application. You may wish to consider whether there are particular areas of academic strength you would like to demonstrate to the Admissions Committee. Subject Tests can be one way to convey that strength. 

While Stanford and Yale come out and say that a lack of Subject Test scores won’t be held against an applicant, Georgetown’s language reads to me like a student would have a hard time getting admitted without those scores.

2. How strong is the student relative to the others in the college’s applicant pool?

A student with a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams (as you described in your question) is likely already a very strong candidate at Lafayette, University of Delaware, and University of Georgia, all of which recommend but do not require Subject Tests. But that same student is not a strong candidate at Caltech, Duke, or Penn, where even valedictorians and students with perfect test scores are routinely turned away.

3. And finally, have your student ask, “If I don’t submit Subject Test scores and ultimately am not admitted, will I regret that choice?”

I am all for a student opting out of the testing craze. If your student were to decide that the testing is, in fact, overkill, that she’s simply not going to play that game, and that she would happily attend another college if one of those on the “recommended but not required” list said no, I would stand up and cheer.

But if she wants to know that she did everything she possibly could have done to gain admission to particular schools, and if she’s proven to have both smarts and the test-taking gene (which it sounds like she does), I’d probably have her submit those scores. Many of the schools that have this “recommended” Subject Test policy are among the most selective in the country (Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). Those are schools that ultimately need to find reasons to say no to droves of applicants. If a student really wants to attend one of those schools, be careful making any testing decision that could give them that reason.

Thanks for your question, Jean. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Good and bad testing news

The Atlantic’s “When Grades Don’t Show The Whole Picture” makes a compelling argument for all the ways that SAT scores are good for, among other things, offsetting grade inflation, allowing students of all backgrounds to showcase their strengths, and providing colleges with a useful evaluation tool. Except it’s not an article at all—it’s an advertisement from the College Board (with accompanying tiny print that indicates so). The quality of this news is bad. In fact, it’s not news at all. It’s advertising.

Why did they do an advertisement? Because the SAT is big business (the College Board’s 2015 revenues were over $915 million). After spending years in second place, the SAT’s main competition, the ACT, has surpassed the SAT’s popularity in recent years. And nearly 1,000 colleges are now test-optional for many or all applicants. Whether a huge company makes razors, cars, hotels, or tests, advertising is a popular strategy to protect—or to reclaim—market share.

I mention this because at colleges with applications that go beyond just grades and test scores—those that require descriptions of your activities, lists of your honors or awards, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc.—the evaluation process is a personal one. Most of the human beings reading the applications at these schools are genuinely committed to understanding the human beings behind those apps. They care about context. They care about your environment and your upbringing. They care about the circumstances that have impacted your education. They’re looking at your numbers, but also looking at the person. It’s not a meritocracy and it’s not infallible, but at the very least it’s driven by good people trying to do the right thing.

Standardized test scores don’t measure the whole you. They don’t care how you’ve grown up, what opportunities you’ve had or missed out on, or whether you’re a committed student who works hard. They don’t care if you didn’t have the money to spend on expensive preparation or whether you work 30 hours a week to help support your family. They don’t care whether you’re a good person who treats people right and makes every class or activity you’re in that much better for those around you.

Standardized tests only measure one thing well—how good you are at taking standardized tests.

So if you’re a good test-taker, congratulations. You have one less thing to worry about and you should show off that skill by nailing your standardized tests.

But if you’re not a good test-taker, I encourage you (and your parents) to not take your scores personally. Don’t let those scores make you feel bad about yourself. And please don’t obsess so much about transforming yourself into a good test-taker that you ignore school, your activities, your time with your friends and family, and anything else that makes you feel happy and engaged. Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process–the majority of colleges don’t require high test scores to be admitted, and again, nearly 1,000 schools don’t require test scores at all.

And that’s good testing news.

Monday Morning Q&A: Send test scores now, or later?

Bernice asks:

Should I wait until my SAT or ACT scores arrive before I apply to the top colleges of my choice? Or should I go ahead and apply?

This is a good question, Bernice, one that has both simple and more complex versions of the answer. The simple version is to go ahead and apply. Most colleges will allow you to not only list whatever scores you have, but also list the dates you intend to take future tests. They’ll wait to make a decision until they have all the required test scores, and delaying your application process usually isn’t a good strategy.

But the more complex and college counseling-nuanced version of the answer requires more information, including:

  • Where are you applying?
  • Are you applying to an early action or early decision program?
  • Did you take the tests already? If so, how many times and what are your scores?
  • When do you plan on (re)taking the exam(s)?

So here’s what I recommend you do:

1. Consult the websites of each of your chosen colleges and find out two things—what tests are required, and by what dates do they recommend taking tests and sending scores?

2. Register for the test(s) soon if you haven’t done so already. Fall test dates are popular and you don’t want your preferred location to fill up.

3. Meet with your high school counselor, share your findings, and get her thoughts about whether or not to apply before you have test scores on file.

4. In the meantime, work on your applications. Whether or not you wait to file them is a separate decision from whether or not you start (and complete!) them.

If all of this gets too complex, or if you can’t get the information you need, play it safe and go with the simple answer I shared above—apply now and send your test scores as soon as you have them. You can’t get into college if you don’t submit completed applications by the deadline, and I’d hate for testing confusion to stop you from getting your applications filed on time.

Thanks for the question, Bernice. I’ll answer a different one next Monday. Interested readers can submit their own question here.

When should you take the SAT/ACT?

Our friends at Compass Education Group have a great post that answers one of the most basic college planning questions: “When should I take the SAT/ACT?” Make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to download the PDF.

Also, College Board is offering its first August administration of the SAT this year. If you’re considering taking that exam, register as soon as possible. It’s expected to be a popular date, and we’ve heard reports of some sites already registered to capacity.

Are some SAT/ACT dates harder than others?

This week, a local news station featured a segment with a private counselor and self-proclaimed college admissions expert who got so many of her facts wrong that it generated widespread criticism on the private Facebook group with thousands of counselors and admissions officers. The most egregious error was the advice that students should avoid taking the SAT or ACT in the fall because the test writers intentionally make those exams more difficult to adjust for the number of seniors (many of whom have completed several AP courses) taking them.

It’s just not true.

“Certain SAT/ACT dates are always easier than others” is a pervasive college planning myth that a number of staunch believers swear they’ve heard from someone reputable. But if it were true, wouldn’t everyone, from students to test prep companies, be capitalizing on it by now?

If you still need convincing, here’s a piece from Bruce Reed of Compass Education Group, one of the most trusted and respected test prep organizations. And if you just want the answer, here it is:

“The concept is complex but the explanation and decision-making can be kept simple: never select a test date based on your assessment of the testing pool on that day. Students don’t influence one another; there is no comparative advantage or disadvantage.”