Don’t do test prep just to do it

Five years ago, the mother of one of our Collegewise juniors said this to me when discussing test prep for her son.


If he finds a school he really likes and you tell us it would be a good idea to raise his test scores, we'll have him do test prep.  But I don't want to do it just to do it.

I've always remembered that as the perfect way to describe a sane approach to preparing for the SAT or ACT.  There are plenty of colleges that will happily admit a good kid with mediocre SAT scores.  There over 800 colleges that don't even require SAT or ACT scores.  If you and your counselor decide that you've found some appropriate colleges for which you would benefit from having higher test scores, do some test prep.  But don't do it just because everybody else is doing it. 

That Collegewise student?  Today, he's graduating from California Lutheran University after a successful four years as a scholar athlete on the cross country team and a stint as a representative on the NCAA Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.  Next up–he's going to get his teaching credential so he can teach high school and coach cross country.  He's happy, successful and excited about life after college.

And he never did test prep.

Three things not worth sacrificing for test prep

Test scores are important at lots of colleges.  But they're never important enough to sacrifice any of the following in the name of preparing for the SAT or ACT.

1) More money than you can afford.

You don't necessarily have to take an expensive course or hire a private tutor to improve your test scores.  There are plenty of short courses, books and even free online test prep options.  Effort expended is more important than dollars spent.

2) Time that could be spent getting better grades, or 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.  

3) Self-confidence.

Some kids are not good test-takers.  While they can certainly improve, efforts to transform poor 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.

How early is too early to prepare for standardized tests?

Lots of discussion on The Choice blog around this piece on a new practice test intended to prepare eighth graders for the kinds of questions they'll see on the PSAT and SAT.  

It might seem logical that the earlier you start to practice anything, the better you're going to be at it.  But there's enough stress surrounding college admissions and its accompanying tests without pushing the prep down to the eighth graders.

We've worked with lots of high school students with great test scores who were admitted to selective colleges.  But very few of those students got those results by starting their test prep in eighth grade or earlier.  In fact, a lot of students who've been vigorously prepping for years suffer because of it.  They've spent more time practicing the SAT than they have playing in the jazz band or writing poetry or singing in the school musical, all of which are better for kids and just as important if not more so than test scores.

Test preparation has its place, but I would never recommend that a student start earlier than the sophomore year.  In fact, most students who prepare during their junior year (or the summer before it) are able to get good results if they put in the effort.

It's never too early to begin preparing for college, but it can be too early to worry about standardized tests.  Tell your pre-high school kids to read, to work hard in school, and to develop their interests.  All of those things will lead to better overall results and happier kids than early test prep will.

The attitude of good SAT and ACT test-takers

Good test-taking on the SAT or ACT is part skill, part attitude. 

Here's an example.  Aggressively eliminating wrong answers is a skill.  When good test-takers don't know which answer is right (it happens all the time, even to them), they look for wrong answers, eliminate those, guess and move on.  You can learn that skill, practice it and get better at it.

But the mark of good test-takers is their attitude when moving on.  

When a good test taker eliminates even one wrong answer, guesses and moves on, she doesn't feel bad.  She doesn't lament that she didn't know which answer is right.  She doesn't start to worry that the test is getting the better of her.  There is no pity party.  No "Woe is me."  Her attitude is,

"OK.  Got rid of one and guessed.  Next question."

Good test-takers have the same attitude towards tests that successful college applicants have towards the entire process.  They try their best and they're happy with their effort, even if the result isn't perfect.  And they know that as long as they keep applying that effort to other areas of their life, everything is going to work out just fine.

You can learn that attitude, too.

Standardized testing plans for juniors

One of the most important college planning choices for juniors is deciding which standardized tests to take and when to take them.  Here are a few guidelines to help you.

First, for those of you who just got your PSAT scores returned, please read this post I wrote a year ago about what PSAT scores mean and why you should never stress over them.

All juniors should plan on taking either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.  Colleges accept either one of them, so a smart strategy is to figure out if you're better at one test or the other, then focus your test-prep efforts on your stronger test.  The Princeton Review offers a free practice test for both the SAT and the ACT.  Take both and see if you score higher on one test or the other.  But whatever you do, definitely don't prepare for both.  You want good test scores, but you don't want to spend one second more than necessary doing test preparation.  Pick one test and go with it.  

If you're planning to apply to more selective private colleges, you might need to take a few of the SAT Subject TestsCompass Education has put together a great resource for Subject Test requirements here.  But as they mention, there's really no replacement for visiting the websites of your chosen colleges and verifying their testing requirements.  If you find that some colleges you're considering require the Subject Tests, plan on taking those in May or June in the classes you'll just be completing (like US history or chemistry).

And finally, before you make a decision about how to prepare for the SAT or ACT (class, tutor, book, etc.), you might want to check out this post I wrote for parents about choosing test prep (as parents are usually integrally involved in that decision).

Summary for juniors:

1.  Visit the websites of any colleges you might be considering and review their testing requirements.  This is a good way to get an admissions context for the testing plans you're about to make.

2.  Don't panic over your PSAT scores.  Just use them to help you make good testing decisions.

3.  Determine if you're a stronger SAT or ACT test-taker, and make that your test of choice.

4.  Prepare for, and take, either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.

5.  Consider taking the SAT Subject tests if any colleges you're considering require them.

There's no such thing as one perfect testing schedule (we spend almost an entire meeting with our Collegewise students planning their testing calendar), but if you use these guidelines and verify your choices with your high school counselor, you'll be in good testing shape at the end of this year.

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 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.