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.”

Try the right self-talk

When you’re nervous about an important event—like taking the SAT, going to your college interview, playing in the finals on the tennis team, etc., what does the voice in your head say? Second-guessing yourself with thoughts like, “I should have studied more” or “I’m probably not as good as the others” definitely won’t help your performance. But pumping yourself up with positivity like, “You can do this!” isn’t actually as effective as a third option.

In this short video, author Dan Pink explains interrogative self-talk, a simple, easy-to-use technique to improve your performance in pressure situations. Research shows that simply asking yourself, “Can you do this?” and then answering the question with all the reasons you’re likely to succeed actually improves the chances that you’ll do just that.

If your nerves sometimes get the best of you before that big test, big game, or any other situation where the pressure is on, why not give interrogative self-talk a try?

Don’t give testing too much time

What would happen if an admissions officer actually saw him or herself as part teacher, someone who didn’t just evaluate applications, but also tried to help applicants understand how the evaluation works, what to expect, and how to approach applications and essays? And most importantly, what if those opinions were honest and unvarnished, and the admissions officers were the type of people who were willing to come out and say, “This is what we like” or “This will annoy us”?

I think that teacher exists over at the University of Virginia’s blog, which is why I share it often here. This week’s entry pointed out something admissions officers at many schools have found—in Q & A sessions, many audiences will swallow up all of that time asking about the ACT and SAT.

“Testing doesn’t warrant getting half the time during a panel program and it doesn’t warrant getting the majority of your head space as you are juggling the academic load and responsibilities that come with being a junior or senior in high school.”

You can read the rest here.

Unnecessary at best, misleading at worst

There’s a reason that nearly 850* U.S. colleges and universities have stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores, with more joining that list every year. Scores on these exams have nothing interesting to tell us beyond what can be learned about an applicant in other ways, particularly when it’s possible to sit down with him or her. Even in purely statistical terms, and even if we’re interested only in predicting future grades and test scores (as opposed to more authentic outcomes), such tests are unnecessary at best, and misleading at worst.”

Whom We Admit, What We Deny: The Meaning of Selective Admissions

*Ed. Note: This number has increased to more than 850 schools since the article was written in 2012.

Do your testing homework

Counselors always recommend that students preparing to apply to college check each school’s website to verify what’s required for admission. What’s the deadline? Do you need letters of recommendation? Are interviews offered? There’s no better, more trustworthy place to find those answers than from the colleges themselves.

But this year, that’s likely to be even more important because of standardized tests.

In March of 2016, the College Board gave the first administration of a completely redesigned SAT. When the results arrived in May, the scores were about 20-80 points higher than they were on the old SAT. So whether a student got a 1000, or 1100, or 1500, it actually wasn’t as good as it would have been on the old version. Here’s the Washington Post’s piece on the score inflation and resulting confusion.

The College Board also released a new table showing how new SAT scores could be compared to ACT scores. But the folks at ACT didn’t agree with those comparisons, and that led to bickering between the Coke and Pepsi of the testing world.

What does all of this mean to you if you’re applying to college this year?

It means that colleges’ testing policies will be in transition this year. How will they compare scores for students who took both the old and new SAT? How will they compare ACT scores to new SAT scores? Will they still require the same exams? Will they still use them the same way? Some or all of those things could be changing with many colleges this fall.

So this year more than ever, it will be very important for students to check the websites of the colleges that interest them, and to pay particular attention to their testing information. If that information is not listed, or if it hasn’t been updated on their website, call the admissions offices of the colleges you intend to apply to (remember, calling the admissions office is a job for students, not parents).

A little bit of drudgery? Maybe. But it won’t take long. And just a little testing homework will leave you certain that you aren’t missing anything.

Advice for bad test-takers

The worst thing about standardized tests is that they make kids who don’t score well feel badly about themselves and about their chances of admission to college. Standardized tests measure how well you take standardized tests and just about nothing else. There are good test-takers and bad test-takers, and they sometimes have wildly overlapping levels of academic achievement.

If you’re one of those students who just didn’t get the elusive standardized testing gene, here are a few steps to take:

1. Remember that you don’t have to be a great test-taker to get into college.
Yes, it’s possible if not likely that your dream school doesn’t admit many bad test-takers, especially if that school is prestigious. But there are over 2,000 colleges to pick from, and the average college admits about 2/3 of its applicants. And according to FairTest, there are currently more than 800 four-year colleges and universities that “do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants.” That’s good news for students who don’t excel at standardized tests and want to show their strengths in other areas.

2. Do some test prep.
I’m not a fan of just how pervasive test preparation has become. For some students, preparing for the SAT or ACT becomes their most time-consuming activity, and it’s discouraging to think about how much learning, opportunity, and fun they could have experienced otherwise. But the good news is that you have plenty of test-prep options, from expensive tutors, to cheaper courses and books, to quality free prep. Talk with your counselor about college goals and your current testing record. Get her advice about when and how to prepare. And most importantly, keep testing in perspective. Don’t become a professional test-prepper and spend all your time preparing for a multiple choice exam. Test scores are never the most important part of a college application. And nobody ever became a success or a failure based on an SAT or ACT score alone.

3. Excel in your strengths.
So, you’re not good at testing. What are you good at? History? Athletics? Music, leadership or karate? Go excel there. Reallocate the time you might have spent trying to eke out a few more points after repeated prep cycles and spend it doing something you enjoy and are good at.

Unless you intend to make your living taking tests some day, chances are that a lack of standardized testing skills will affect you less and less the further you get from high school. If tests are not your natural strength, spend some time addressing that weakness. But spend even more time maximizing your strengths.

You can also find all of my blog posts about testing and test prep here.

The best testing strategy

I have no affection for the SAT or ACT. They don’t measure intelligence. They don’t predict college success. And they’ve inspired new levels of anxiety in the college admissions process. There are a thousand things a student could do that would be more personally valuable and fulfilling than preparing for standardized tests. But for now, the SAT and ACT don’t appear to be going anywhere. And low test scores can, unfortunately, keep students out of certain colleges that interest them.

The lone standardized testing bright spot? Scores are improvable, often in a comparatively short period of time.

You can’t improve your overall GPA significantly in just a few weeks like you can a standardized test score. And those gains can lead to better admissions chances, and even greater awards of financial aid and scholarships.

Standardized tests and your potential preparation deserve some attention in your college planning. But it’s important that you don’t assign more weight to them than the colleges do. Your course selection and GPA carry more weight than your test scores. And you shouldn’t spend more time preparing for them than you do participating in activities, having fun, or spending time with your friends and family.

Have a conversation with your counselor about which tests to take and when to take them. Consider taking a practice exam to get a sense of where your scores are today. And if you and your counselor agree that some preparation is in order, don’t spend more time or money than you can afford. There are plenty of prep options, from expensive tutors and courses, to cheap books, to quality free preparation.

Most importantly, remember that while low test scores can hurt your admissions chances at particular colleges, they cannot prevent you from flourishing at a school that liked both you and your scores, as is. That’s why you’ll never meet an adult whose life and career have suffered irreparable damage as a result of a test score they earned when they were seventeen.

Test scores can be improved. Accentuate that bright spot in a reasonable and sane way. Then move on with your life. That’s the best testing strategy.

Plan your standardized tests

Before we became business partners at Collegewise, Paul Kanarek spent 30 years with The Princeton Review teaching students, parents, and counselors about standardized tests. His overarching message is always the same—test scores do not define a student, but with smart planning and a little perspective, anyone can become a better standardized test-taker. As part of that mission, Paul wrote the first version of this piece over 20 years ago that teaches which standardized tests to take and when to take them.

It’s a good idea to share your testing plans with your counselor to get her advice, too. But the recommended schedule here has worked very well for our Collegewise students.

The current version does not address the upcoming significant changes to the SAT, but that new version isn’t debuting until spring 2016 (the PSAT will also be changing). If you won’t be taking the SAT until then, you can learn about the upcoming changes here.