A plea for PSAT takers

About 1.5 million students are going to take the PSAT this month. If I could say one thing to them, it is this: please don’t worry about it.

The PSAT is just a practice test. That’s all. It was created to let students take a nonthreatening trial version of the SAT before they take the real thing. No student in the history of college admissions has ever been rejected by a college because she scored poorly on the PSAT.

Yes, a comparatively small number of students (about 8,000) are awarded National Merit scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first of many rounds of qualifiers. If you’re notified that your PSAT scores qualify you for future consideration, that’s good news (unless you don’t like free cash). The only thing colleges actually use PSAT scores for is marketing—they buy the names of those who sit for it, so they can mail them marketing materials. Wait until later next spring and you’ll see what I’m talking about when you visit your mailbox.

If you score well on the PSAT, it will be good news because you will likely also do well on the SAT when you take it.  But for everyone else, you'll just use the scores to help you make good test prep decisions.  PSAT scores can tell you whether or not you should prepare for the SAT, or if you should consider being an ACT kid.  Just do your best and use the scores constructively.  Don't let the test stress you out. 

How do your test scores stack up?

Most colleges share the average test scores of the students they admit. You can find that information on their websites or on collegeboard.com.  It’s good to know how your test scores compare to those of the students your chosen colleges admit.

Also, don’t forget that many colleges allow you to report your highest SAT Math, Critical Reading and Writing scores from different sittings (a practice called “superscoring”). So your highest test score may be better than you thought it was.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you take the SAT twice and get the following scores:

630 Math
520 Critical Reading
600 Writing
Total score: 1750

590 Math
660 Critical Reading
640 Writing
Total score: 1890

Your best SAT score from one sitting is 1890. But if the schools you’re applying to look at your highest score for each section from different sittings, your score is actually 1930 (630 Math from the first sitting, 660 Critical Reading and 640 Writing from the second sitting).

Some schools use a similar practice for ACT scores, but not nearly as many as for the SAT. Visit the admissions sections on the websites of the colleges that interest you and find out how they use the scores. Then you can make an informed decision about taking the test again.

Excerpted from If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

Don’t give test scores more importance than they deserve

I got an email last week from a father who, in summarizing his son’s accomplishments, mentioned:

“He got a 2210 on the SAT, but will retake it again this fall…”

This is an unfortunately common example of what the admissions craze has done to students and parents.  As I wrote the father, I can only imagine one (unlikely) scenario where that kid should retake the SAT—if he scored 800 in Critical Reading, 800 in Writing, 610 in Math, and dreams of studying engineering or attending Caltech or MIT.  Barring that, this student has more than sufficiently proven he’s good at standardized tests.  It’s now time for him to move on to something else.  (Here’s a past post explaining more about why going from great to perfect is unnecessary with test scores.)

Students (and parents) often feel like standardized tests are one part of the admissions process they can control.  While you don’t get to decide how an admissions officer perceives your activities or your essay, an extra 10 or 20 or 50 points on the SAT feels a little more concrete.  Still, it’s important to keep test scores in perspective.  If you’re a good tester, if your scores are at or above the published averages of your chosen colleges, or if you’re feeling beaten down by multiple testing tries in hopes of raising your score, consider moving on to something else. 

Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process.  You’re better off not treating them as if they were.

For students doing test prep this summer

I can’t think of something so potentially important yet simultaneously a waste of time as test preparation.  Raising your scores can absolutely improve your chances of admission to many colleges—it’s important.  But the SAT and ACT don’t test your intelligence, potential to succeed in college, knowledge of geography or Shakespeare or anything else remotely connected to how smart you are.  They test how well you take standardized tests, which, unless you plan on making a living as a test taker, is hardly a marketable skill.

So here’s my advice for summer ‘preppers: if you're going to prep this summer, make it count.

The only thing worse than preparing for a standardized test is having to review and prepare for it again a second or third time because you aren't satisfied with your scores.  Whether you’ve bought a book, signed up for a class, or hired a tutor, if you treat the time you spend preparing this summer like it’s the last chance you’ll ever have to take the test, your score will reflect it.  Think of the amount of time and energy you expend this summer as subtracting from any necessary future efforts. 

The pleasure and peril of Score Choice

Score Choice is a free option you may choose when you register for the SAT or Subject Tests.  It gives you the option to later choose which scores you send to colleges.  If you take the SAT multiple times, you can select which dates to share.  For Subject Tests, you may choose which individual scores to share from each test date, regardless of how many Subject Tests you took on any given test day). If you don’t use Score Choice when you register, when you later ask the College Board to send your test scores to your chosen colleges, you won’t have the option of choosing what to share and what to keep hidden. 

Where Score Choice gets complicated is how colleges use scores.  Some schools look at only your highest SAT score from one test date.  Others will let you combine your highest Math, Critical Reading, and Writing Scores from different test dates.  Some schools require you to submit all of your scores regardless of whether they’ll use your single highest date or a cross section of your best scores.  Some schools apply the same policy to ACT testers, while others do not.  And some schools haven’t even committed to a policy yet.  For the intrepid college researcher, here’s a September 2011 research paper from The College Board explaining Score Choice and listing the current scoring policies of participating colleges and universities.   

So you could register with Score Choice, take the SAT seven times, and later find out that one of your chosen colleges requires you to share all of your scores.  Now Score Choice doesn’t feel so protective of you. 

Here’s some simple advice to make sure you don’t make a Score Choice or testing mistake that will hurt your chances of getting into college, regardless of where you apply.

1. Don’t take the real SAT or ACT just to see how you do.
With or without Score Choice, don’t use the real exams to practice.  This is what the PSAT, PLAN, or a good old-fashioned practice test is for.  It costs money to take the real exam, and it’s hard to predict which colleges will demand to see that score when you apply.  Don’t sit for the real thing unless you’re ready.

2. Prep smarter.
The ideal way to prepare for the SAT or ACT is to spend the least amount of time possible preparing while achieving the best possible results.  Effort is more important than dollars spent on a pricey tutor.  The Princeton Review sells SAT/ACT prep books that teach almost everything you would learn in a more expensive program.  Whether you take a class, get a tutor, take a weekend seminar, or buy a book and teach yourself, the effort has to be there for the prep to work.

3. Don’t take any exam more than three times.
Taking the SAT five or six or nine times is (A) not effective, and (b) crazy.  Take the exam twice, three times at most.  After that, stop and get on with your life.  The law of diminishing returns applies to standardized test prep, and it’s rare for a student to improve after the third try.

Free practice SAT exam

I’m surprised how many students sign up for test prep courses or tutoring before they’ve ever taken a full-length practice test.  Don’t do it.  Even if you know you struggle with test-taking, take a full length exam before you make a decision about how to prepare.  Your result—and how it compares to the average scores of admitted students at the colleges that interest you—can help you make good decisions about just how intensive your test prep needs to be. 

The College Board offers a free full-length practice SAT exam that can be taken online or printed out. If you want to get the most out of it, treat it like a real test-day.  Don’t do a few sections, call it a day, and come back next week to finish it.  Set aside the 3 ½ hours and have someone time you, just like the real thing. 

It’s not a fun way to spend an afternoon, but the more representative your result, the better prep decisions you can make, and the closer you’ll get to making the SAT a part of your past. 

SAT Subject Test reminder

If you’re considering taking upcoming SAT Subject Tests, the May registration deadline is April 6th (June registration deadline is May 8).  You can register and find more information here.

If you’re not sure whether you need to take them, Compass Education Group has a great resource here (though as they point out, the only way to know a school’s most recent requirements is to visit the admissions section of the colleges you’re considering).

Should you take the AP test if you don’t think you’ll do well?

Students often ask if they have to take the AP test when they finish the associated class.  They’re usually worried that they’re not going to score well and that a low score will hurt their chances of admission to college.

If you’re getting a C+ or worse in an AP class, it’s clear that this just isn’t your subject—I can’t see any reason to sit for the exam just to get documented proof in the form of a standardized test score.  Be proud that you at least jumped in and tried the class. 

But I almost always encourage students earning a B or higher in an AP class to sit for the exam.  If you don’t take the test, it’s hard for a college admissions officer not to wonder what stopped you.  The solid (or exceptional) grade you’ve earned now comes with a question mark.

If you have real concerns that your AP test score won’t reflect the good grade you’ve earned in the class, consider buying one of the College Board’s AP test prep books.  They’ve got copies of previously administered exams with complete answers and explanations.  Take one of the practice tests and see if your test concerns are legit before you sit the test out. 

Even some Harvard grads hated the SAT

In 2001, Time Magazine did a story called “Should SATs Matter?”  In preparing the story, the magazine spent two weeks asking celebrities—including Alan Greenspan and Oprah Winfrey—to share their SAT scores.  Just about all of them declined.  As Conan O’Brien (a Harvard graduate) put it, 

“It has taken 20 years to forget the trauma of that damned test, and looking up my scores would be like going back to Vietnam.” 

Standardized tests cause a lot of anxiety in high school.  Remember that millions of people have gone on to college and made successes of themselves without ever breaking the bank on the SAT or ACT.  If you’re not a good test taker, do your best and look forward to the day when you can laugh, like Conan does, about the trauma the test inflicted upon you. 

(Totally off topic, but Conan's speech to the Harvard class of 2000 is one of the best.)

You’re going to college with or without good test scores

As the juniors prepare to take the SAT/ACT this spring, it’s good to remember that your test scores are never the most important part of college admissions. 

According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling “2011 State of College Admissions,” the top factors in the admission decision were (in order): grades in college-preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, standardized admission test scores.

Test scores aren’t unimportant.  But they’re never more important than your classes and grades.  Allot your time accordingly.  Give your test preparation the attention it deserves, but never so much that you sacrifice time spent on school (or at the expense of your sanity).

And don’t forget that there are 850 colleges that are SAT/ACT optional, including American, Bard, Bates, Providence, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Colby, Colorado College, Denison, Franklin and Marshall, George Mason, Gettysburg, Hamilton, Julliard, Lewis and Clark, Mt. Holyoke, NYU and Wake Forest. 

You’re going to college with or without good test scores.