Standardized test planning

Paul Kanarek, General Manager of Collegewise, knows more about standardized tests and how to help kids manage them than anyone I've ever met.  So every year, I share this piece he wrote with The Princeton Review about which tests to take and when to take them.  Always review your test plans with your high school counselor, too.  But Paul's recommended timelines have worked very well for all of our Collegewise students.  


From Seth Godin’s recent post about the dangers of measuring what’s easy to measure, rather than measuring what’s actually important:

“Colleges decided that the SAT [scores] were a useful shortcut, a way to measure future performance in college. And nervous parents and competitive kids everywhere embraced the metric, and stick with it, even after seeing (again and again) that all the SAT measures is how well you do on the SAT.  It's easier to focus on one number than it is to focus on a life.”

There’s a reason you would have a difficult time finding an adult whose life has been negatively impacted by a test score he received back in high school.  Give test scores the attention that they deserve (some, but not a lot).  Then move on and focus on what’s really important.

A testing assignment for juniors

Juniors, May 7 is the last day to register for the June 1 SAT or SAT Subject Tests.  While I don’t recommend taking the SAT on that date unless you’ve yet to take it (juniors tend to be exhausted at the end of the year and adding another standardized test to your plate is worth avoiding if you can), June is actually the best time to take the Subject Tests if you need to take them.  So here’s a testing homework assignment:

1. Visit the websites of the colleges you’re considering and find out if they require (or even consider) SAT Subject Tests.

2. If they do, register for those specific subjects required by the college.  If the colleges give you options, choose those that match the courses you’re taking now.  Popular choices for juniors are US history and chemistry. 

You’re not going to know subjects like US history or chemistry better than you do as you’re preparing for finals.  So find out if you need to take them, and if so, time the testing when your knowledge is best. 

Three standardized testing reminders

Here are three spring testing reminders for sophomores and juniors:

1. Visit the websites of any colleges you are considering and review not only which tests (if any) are required, but also how each college treats your scores if you take an exam more than once.

2. If you are a strong student with the goal of attending a selective college, consider taking Subject Tests in June for the related courses you’re completing.  For example, if you’re taking biology and doing well in it, you’ll never know that material better than you will as you’re preparing for final exams.  That’s the perfect time to take the Biology Subject Test. 

3. Juniors should prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT (but not both) at least once this year.  If you haven’t done that yet, there’s still time to register to take an exam this spring.

SAT or ACT? How to decide

Patrick O'Connor, Associate Dean of College Counseling at Cranbrook-Kingswood School, adds healthy doses of both sanity and perspective to his college admissions articles on the Huffington Post like Testing, Testing: Some Ground Rules About the ACT and SAT.

I would, however, offer different advice than that of O'Connor when asked, “Which test should I take – ACT or SAT?”

O’Connor says:

want to take the test that will best show your academic ability, and
the only way to do that is to take each test once, review the scores,
and think about the amount of stress you felt when taking each test.”

McMullin says:

take both exams means you’ll have to log 8 hours of standardized
testing just to decide which test to prepare for and take again
Instead, call The Princeton Review at 888-955-4600 and ask if they are
administering any free PRA
(Princeton Review Assessment) exams in your area.  If they’re not, look
up the number for your local office, call, and ask really nicely if
they’d be willing to mail you one. 

The PRA is like a hybrid of the SAT and ACT and was designed to help you decide which test suits you best.  And it takes just 3 ½ hours to complete.

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  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.