How the most selective colleges use test scores

SAT and ACT scores never get you into the most selective colleges.  They just keep you out.

If you want to go to a college that rejects almost all of their applicants, you’re never going to impress them with high test scores alone.  Colleges like Yale and Stanford and Duke and Columbia reject students with perfect test scores all the time.  Their applicant pools are just too full of students with outstanding high school careers that are complemented with high test scores.  So the great test taker who is sure that with just another round of tutoring, he can raise his 2250 SAT to a 2300, who sacrifices time that could have been spent winning a physics competition or writing a play or taking computer programming classes doesn’t get himself any closer to being admitted.

And what about the average test-taker?  He may look at the mean SAT scores of applicants admitted to Harvard and decide that the best way to spend his time is to try to raise his 1550 SAT to over 2,000.  But what are the chances that he’s actually going to get there?  And even if he does, he’s given up so much time and energy and opportunity in the name of good test scores that he hasn’t gotten himself any closer to getting in to Harvard.  And he’s probably hurt his chances of admission to the schools that would have welcomed him with his 1550.

Test prep has its place.  But scores are never the most important part of any college’s decision.  And at the most selective colleges, scores act more as disqualifiers than they do a reason to admit.  Whether or not you’re a good test-taker, the best strategy is to do some focused prep, try your best, then move on to other things you love and apply to colleges who will be just fine with whatever test score you show them.  

A cheap and effective way to boost your SAT scores

You don't have to pay for an expensive course or tutor to prepare for (and do well on) the SAT.  Check out Cal Newport's post, How to Ace the SAT: A No-Nonsense System for Students Looking to Score High.   I can't imagine a student who followed this system not raising your score substantially, and for a tiny fraction of the cost you'd pay for most courses and private tutors. 

And while you're reviewing your wrong answers as he recommends you do after practice tests, you should know that the The Khan Academy has worked through every question (EVERY QUESTION!) of the College Board's Official SAT Study Guide.  And you can view all of them for free.

When SAT scores are ancient history

There’s a reason why you almost never hear people talk about their SAT scores after high school–nobody cares.

If you scored well and force it into conversation, you’ll sound like someone trying to relive a high school glory. And the people who lament poor SAT scores once they’ve left high school are almost always laughing about it, not unlike the way some people laugh about the terrible fashion or hair styles they chose during their teen years. Good or bad, it’s ancient high school history. You move on after graduation.

As long as test scores are used for college admissions purposes, it’s normal for high school students and parents to worry about them (a little). But the SAT’s importance has an expiration date. Once you go to college, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever ask you–or even care–what your SAT (or ACT) scores were. Millions of students have gone to college with all levels of test scores, and just about all of them create college and post-college lives based on things that have nothing to do with how they scored on those tests.

Test scores won’t define your future. Don’t give them more attention, worry or prep money than they deserve.

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.