Why we don’t like career tests

We often have prospective Collegewise families ask us if we do any career testing as part of our program.  That's an easy one.  No.

I understand why they ask.  But if you're looking for college counseling advice based on what a test says your kid's career aptitude is, we're not the right college counselors for you.

Have you ever met a single successful adult who discovered their path because of a career test they took when they were seventeen?  I haven't. 

The truly great counselors we've known would never put much stock in a career test for teens.  We don't think most teenagers are supposed to know what they want to do with their lives yet. And we don't like to see kids making important decisions based on the results of a blunt, one-size fits all, instrument.

Picking a college is an important and potentially expensive decision.  So it's smart for kids to ask themselves if they have any idea what they might want to do with their lives before they decide where to apply.  And if a teen really does have a future career in mind, that should probably be one of many criteria they consider when picking colleges. 

But for most kids, their path to a future successful career probably won't be a straight line.  And we think that's OK.  No need to carve a premature path because of a what a standardized tests tells you to do.

A good source for study tips and test-taking advice

I've shared Cal Newport's blog here before but wanted to point something specific out about it.

Make sure you check the sidebar at the right under the heading, "Looking for Help on A Specific Problem?"  There, you'll find his blog posts categorized into subjects like, "Fighting procrastination," "Note-taking," "Organization," "Studying," "Test-taking," and "Time Management."

Some of his material is dense and takes awhile to get through.  But if you apply the tips he gives you, I think you'll find his advice is always helpful. 

For students who aren’t good test takers

The worst thing about standardized tests like the SAT isn't that they can keep you out of colleges you want to go to (though that's admittedly pretty bad).  It's that they make kids who don't score well feel badly about themselves.  Low scores chip away at the legitimate pride a student has about her good grades, or basketball achievements, or artistic talents.  Nobody in the history of civilization failed in life because of SAT scores (and nobody ever became happy and successful because of them either).

One of the most outspoken critics of the SAT is John Katzman, the founder of The Princeton Review.  This interview with PBS took place in 1998, but it still has legs today.  Here's my favorite part:


The SAT is a scam. It has been around for 50 years.  It has never measured anything.  And it continues to measure nothing. And the whole game is that everybody who does well on it is so delighted by their good fortune that they don't want to attack it.  And they are the people in charge. Because of course, the way you get to be in charge is by having high test scores. So it's this terrific kind of rolling scam that every so often, somebody sort of looks and says–well, you know, does it measure intelligence?  No.  Does it predict college grades?  No.  Does it tell you how much you learned in high school?  No.  Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure?  No.  It's measuring nothing.

You might also like what Jay Mathews has to say here in "Your SAT score has little to do with your life." 

And every frustrated tester should get familiar with Fairtest's list of schools that don't rely on test scores to make admissions decisions.

Should you take the SAT/ACT again?

When our Collegewise students get their SAT/ACT scores, they usually ask us, “Should I take it again?”  Even if they’re thrilled with their scores, that’s the question they ask.  Standardized tests have a way of doing that to people.  No matter what score you get, you always wonder if it could be higher.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns applies itself to studying for standardized tests.  Spending your entire summer preparing to take the SAT a third or fourth time just won’t feel worth it if you only go up 20 points.

So how do you decide whether to take the test again?  There’s only a little hard science to this decision, but here are a few guidelines.

1. Did you nail it?

If you met or beat what you hoped you could score, move on. End your standardized testing career on a high note. I know it’s tempting to think you might be able to eke out even more points, but there are lots of other things you can be doing to prepare for college admissions that are more important, and more rewarding, than doing more test prep.

Also, if you scored 2150 or higher on the SAT, or 32 or higher on the ACT, walk away. Those scores are good enough at even the most selective schools. Higher scores won’t improve your chances, and taking the test again just makes you look neurotic.

2. Check average test scores.

Most colleges share the average test scores of the students they admit. You can find that information on their websites or on collegeboard.com. Before you make a decision about retesting, it’s good to know how you compare to 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. 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.

3. If you took a class or worked with a tutor, ask the instructor’s opinion. 

A good instructor should be able to tell you whether or not you have a good chance of improving your scores.  And if you’ve already shown that you can do much better than your most recent score, an instructor can encourage you and tell you where to spend your time reviewing.

4.  Are you feeling optimistic, or beaten down?

Some students want to take the test again because they know they can do better. They feel they’ve got the testing upper hand and want to show what they can do. If you’re feeling buoyed and want one more try at slaying the testing beast, have at it. But if you’ve done your best and spent your time preparing and now just wish you never have to take them again, do something else that doesn’t make you feel so discouraged.

For most students who plan and prepare well, two times is enough for any standardized tests. When a student decides he’s just got to try a third time, I tell him to go for it, but then mandate that he throw in the testing towel once he finishes. Part of managing standardized tests means knowing when to say when.


Here's something my friend Paul from The Princeton Review taught a group of students and parents at "College Night" last week.

Kids who like math much more than English tend to prefer the SAT.  Kids who like English much more than math tend to prefer the ACT.

Why?  As Paul put it,

"Because the SAT is 1/3 math.  The ACT is 1/4 math.  And if you don't understand what I just said, you should take the ACT." 

Choosing test prep

It’s easy for students (and the parents paying the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure.

No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.

1. Beware of prep peer pressure.
Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.

About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A B student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep?

Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up.

If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.

2. You get out what you put in.
This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self-improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.

3. Spend wisely.
There are many low-cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be forced to spend 25 hours preparing for it. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t.

If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.

4. Don’t go overboard.
The amount of time a lot of students spend studying for the SAT and ACT exams is often totally disproportionate to the tests’ importance. If you’re spending more time doing test prep than you are doing homework, running with the cross country team or spending time with your family—stop; it’s time to do less.

Test scores are important at lots of colleges. But they’re never important enough to sacrifice time that could be spent getting better grades, playing better basketball or painting better pictures.

Test preparation needs to fit into the rest of your schoolwork and your life. Choose your time of year to prep wisely and apply some good time management when you do. If you feel pressured to ignore other important areas of your life, sacrifice the test prep first.
Efforts to turn average test takers into great test takers usually don’t work and make those kids feel badly about themselves. Put in some appropriate time and work hard to improve your scores. Even if you’re not happy with your results, be happy with your effort. Then move on to other things you enjoy.

If there were one method that turned every kid into a standardized test-taking world champion, everyone would already be choosing that option. So pick the one that fits your schedule, budget and comfort zone.

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

A good source for SAT Subject Test requirements

So if you need information about SAT Subject Test requirements, here is the best place I've found to start.  The folks over at Compass Education Group have researched which schools require the SAT Subject Tests (formerly called the SAT-IIs) and shared everything they've found here

Of course, you should always check with the individual colleges (as you should with any admissions policy).  But Compass makes that easy by giving you the link to each of the colleges' websites where you can find this information. 

How important are PSAT scores?

I think students and parents need to find reasons to stress less,
not more, about the college admissions process.  The PSAT is a good
example of this need. 

The stress students and parents feel
regarding PSAT scores (which are being returned to students about now),
is often totally out of proportion with the actual relevance of the

The PSAT is just a practice test.  That's all.  It
was created to let students take a non-threatening trial version of the
SAT before they take the real thing.  It can't hurt you.  It can't
damage your future.  No student in the history of college admissions
has ever been rejected by a college because she scored poorly on the

Even good PSAT scores don't actually get you into
college.  If you did well on the PSAT, it's good news because you will
likely do well on the SAT when you take it–and that exam absolutely can
help you get into college.  Doing well on the PSAT is like doing well
on a practice test a teacher gives you before the big final exam; it's
a good sign but you'll still need to score well when it counts. 

fact, the only way colleges use PSAT scores is to purchase names for
direct marketing mailings.  If you took the test, you and your mailbox
will see what I mean later this spring.

So if you didn't do
well on the PSAT, don't launch into a full scale panic attack.  As my
friend Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review always says at the dozens
of PSAT scores back sessions he does at high schools every year, "You
are not allowed to panic over your PSAT scores." 

For anyone
who's not happy with your PSAT scores, use your results as your early
warning signal that you might want to do some work before you take the
real SAT.  That's what test preparation is for (a service whose cost
ranges from thousands of dollars in private tutoring to $15 for a good book).

Now, I can hear some people saying, "But it's NOT just a practice test!  What about National Merit scholarships?" 

a small number of students (about 8,000 of the 1.5 million test takers)
are awarded scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first
of many rounds of qualification you must endure.  If you're notified
that your PSAT scores qualify you for future consideration, that's good
news (being in a line for future potential scholarship money is always
good news).

But for everyone else, again, don't panic.  You're
in good company with the other 1.5 million test takers who will still
have plenty of the over 2,000 4-year colleges from which to choose.

point here isn't that students should blow off the PSAT.  My point is
that students and parents would be well served to remind themselves
that if you lose sleep over your PSAT scores, you're placing far, far
more emphasis on the exam than any college will.  That would be like
playing one bad game of pick-up basketball with your friends and
worrying that you won't make varsity because of it.  It just doesn't
make sense.

Less stress, not more.