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.

The safest source

Vincent in our Princeton, New Jersey office returned from a NACAC affiliate conference recently with a meticulously researched guideline handed out at one of the sessions which detailed those colleges that still require SAT Subject Tests (there are fewer of them than there were last year).

But the handout also served as a good reminder of just how important it is for students to go directly to the source—the college’s own admissions website—to find out about testing requirements. In fact, the disclaimer on the handout recommended exactly the same thing.

Many schools had Subject Test requirements that were so complex it was like trying to complete a logic game. Here’s an example from UC Irvine, which has varying requirements depending on your intended major:

Henry Samueli School of Engineering: Math Level 2 and a science test (Biology E/M, Chemistry, or Physics) closely related to the applicant’s intended major.
Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences: Biology M, Chemistry, and/or Math Level 2
School of Physical Sciences: Chemistry and Math Level 2 for chemistry, earth system science, mathematics, and physics majors.
Program in Public Health: Biology E, Biology M, and/or Chemistry for public health science majors; Biology E, Biology M, and/or World History for public health policy majors

Bottom line: the only way to make sure that you don’t miss application requirements is to visit the websites of each of your colleges. Don’t rely on guidebooks, hearsay, or any other source. It’s too important not to take the time to get the information from the people who will actually be reading your application at each college.

She’s not a great test-taker, but she’s a great…”

One of the most common college admissions concerns we hear at Collegewise from parents about their students is, “He/she is not a good test-taker.” It’s understandable. Standard tests like the ACT and SAT don’t measure a student’s intelligence or their likelihood of succeeding in college. Yet the scores are required or recommended for admission at around 2,000 colleges.

The statement is also usually followed by questions about how to change a bad test-taker into a good test-taker, whether through courses, tutoring, or self-driven study and practice.

Yes, effective test prep is one of the most efficient and measurable ways to improve a student’s candidacy at a variety of colleges. But while you’re making informed decisions about if and how to prepare for these exams, don’t forget to direct time and energy into how you would finish this statement:

“She’s not a good test-taker, but she’s a great….”

…worker at her part-time job
…computer programmer
…camp counselor
…volleyball player
…second language speaker
…karate teacher
…kids’ softball coach

Students each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Smart college admissions planning means occasionally addressing a weakness that can be improved. And struggling test-takers who raise their scores often raise their confidence levels, too.

But don’t forget your student’s natural strengths. Encourage and celebrate them. Then share them just as proudly on your college application as the good test-takers do with their scores.

What do colleges see with “Score Choice?”

Score Choice is a free option the College Board offers that lets SAT and Subject Test takers retain control over which scores will be sent to colleges and which will not. For example, if you take the SAT three times, you can choose which scores (from a single sitting) to send to your colleges of choice when you apply.

However, someone posed the question to one of our counselors the other day: Is it true that if you use Score Choice to suppress SAT scores, the score report(s) sent to the colleges will still show all the dates you have taken the SAT, thereby allowing admissions officers to see the total number of times you took the test?

The answer, courtesy of Chris Tokuhama, former admissions officer at USC and current Collegewise counselor in Los Angeles, is no, the dates do not show up on the electronic tape that is sent to schools.

Thanks, Chris!

Do your colleges require Subject Tests?

Most students are keenly aware of the need to take the SAT or ACT (unless you apply to exclusively test-optional colleges). But many colleges also recommend or require that you submit Subject Test scores. The Subject Tests are 1-hour exams in a particular subject, like biology, US history, Spanish, etc. If you don’t realize until you’re completing your applications that you need to take one or more of these tests, you might not remember the subjects as well as you did in May or June of the year you took them in school. So sophomores and juniors need to be Subject Test savvy before they ever apply to college.

You can get all the information about the tests here. But the only way to know for sure if you need to take them is to visit the websites of each college you’re considering.

When you’re doing that research, find answers to the following questions:

1. Does the college require Subject Tests for all applicants?

2. If so, do they waive that requirement for students who submit ACT scores (many colleges do this)?

3. Are Subject Tests required to apply to particular majors? For example, if you want to apply as an engineering major, do your colleges require that you submit a Mathematics Level II Subject Test score?

And if you aren’t sure whether or not you should take these exams, schedule a brief meeting with your high school counselor. Better to be Subjet Test safe than sorry.

Good news for bad test-takers

From a three-year study by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling that showed grades—not SAT or ACT scores—are the best predictor of college success:

College and university cumulative GPAs closely track high school GPAs, despite wide variations in testing.  Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing.  In contrast, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college cumulative GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing.  A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot

Be careful who you talk—and listen—to

I got several emails after yesterday’s post from people who disagreed with me.  That's fine.  It's part of the blogging-every-day gig.  

But too many families listen to admissions assertions that begin the same way several of those emails began:

“Someone told me…”

"I've heard…"

That's not fine.  

When it comes to college admissions matters, these statements are almost always followed by factually incorrect assertions unless the source is a) a high school counselor; b) a qualified private counselor; c) a college admissions officer.  All too often, the source is a friend, neighbor or distant connection of some kind.  That doesn't often lead to good college planning decisions.   

In the case of whether some months have “easier” SAT curves, here's what the How is the SAT scored? section of the College Board's website has to say about “equating” each administration:

In our statistical analysis, equating adjusts for slight differences in difficulty between test editions and ensures that a student's score of, say, 450 on one edition of a test reflects the same ability as a score of 450 on another edition of the test. Equating also ensures that a student's score does not depend on how well others did on the same edition of the test.

I don't mind if you disagree with me.  But please be careful who you talk—and listen—to.

Is there an “easiest” month to take the SAT?

A common question about the SAT that we hear from students is some version of:

“I heard the SAT curve is harder in March and October because that's when all the smart kids take it.  Is it easier in the other months?" 

Here’s the answer—no.  Not true.  It’s a myth, an urban legend with absolutely no basis in fact.

The SAT is curved against a generation of test-takers, not against test-takers from one test date.  The fact that the scoring curve doesn’t change from test to test is one of the many reasons why the SAT is in fact a standardized test.

That being said, it’s best not to take the SAT (or ACT) in June, but it has nothing to do with the curve.  Students are academically exhausted in June.  That’s not a good mental place in which to be when taking a standardized test.

Thanks to Paul, our resident standardized testing guru, for the details about the curve myth.