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
scores.  

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
PSAT. 

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. 

In
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?" 

Yes,
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.

My
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.

Putting standardized tests into perspective

A lot of people have completely lost their minds.

Nowhere in the word of college admissions has so much of the
population gone so far over the deep end as they have with standardized
tests.  Sixth graders are taking SAT prep
classes.  People are paying obscene
amounts of money (sometimes upwards of 10 or 20 thousand dollars!) for the
“best” prep tutors.  Families are taking tutors with them on vacation so as not to break the summer prep streak.  

In some cases, people are right to be concerned.  If you want to go to Yale and you have a
1520 on the SAT, your chances are probably going to be slim.

That’s the bad news.

But most of the over 2000 colleges out there don’t expect
sky-high test scores.  There are plenty of good colleges out there that will gladly take a good kid with average or even below average test scores.   

In fact, Fairtest,
an
organization that works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized
testing, maintains a list of over 700 schools where SAT/ACT scores are
not even required for
admission.  Id love to see that list grow to include all four-year
colleges–dare to dream.

So, that’s the good news.  You can pretty much walk into the SAT, take it cold, and
as long as you don’t draw dirty pictures on the answer sheet, you’ll still get
into college.  I'm not suggesting you should actually do it that way, but test scores are not a life or death experience.  Don't treat them like one.  Maintain your perspective.

A few testing thoughts PSAT and SAT test-takers…

October is a busy month for standardized test-taking; juniors will be taking the PSAT, and a lot of seniors will be taking what for many of them will be the last SAT they will take in their lifetime (that milestone alone is worth celebrating).

For PSAT test-takers (and their parents), remember that the PSAT is just a practice test.  Its purpose is to show you how you would likely do on the SAT (which is NOT a practice test).  That means that even if you somehow managed to achieve the lowest PSAT test score in the history of college admissions, it can't hurt your chances of getting in to college.  Yes, for particularly great test-takers, the PSAT score is a predominate factor in determining your eligibly for National Merit Scholarships, but for most testers, the PSAT is nothing to stress about.  Do you best and use the PSAT for what it is–a non-threatening chance to test the test-taking waters and help you later make decisions about how to prepare for the SAT.

For SAT test-takers, I'd just like to remind you that your SAT score is not a measure of your intelligence or of your worth as a human being.  Lots of smart people struggle with the SAT, and lots of those people go on to be very successful during and after college.  So do your best, accept whatever score you get, and move on.  I don't mean to be flippant about this, and I acknowledge that the SAT is an important factor of admissions at many colleges.  But far too many students have had their confidence ruined by test scores that just wouldn't go as high as they'd like them to go, and you shouldn't allow yourself to be one of those people.  If you'd like some encouragement, check out some of the over 800 colleges who've decided that low SAT or ACT scores don't necessarily have to hurt your chances of admission to their freshman classes.