Many high school students find college admissions testing stressful, but the right preparation can ensure a positive test day experience and good scores. There are several different tools and resources out there to help students prepare for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. With this guide, you can help your child feel more confident about their college entrance exams.
What Is Standardized Testing in College Admissions?
Standardized college entrance exams have existed for over a century. By the early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of students were taking the SAT and/or ACT. Today, these tests have lost favor in some academic circles for a variety of reasons. In addition to cheating scandals, studies indicate privileged students who have access to private tutors and other resources perform better on the SAT and ACT. This means that tests may not accurately measure intelligence or college readiness.
With these recent controversies over the fairness of standardized tests and the practical challenges of administering them during the COVID-19 pandemic, the SATs and ACTs aren’t as essential for high school students as they used to be. If your child is planning to take them, there are several things they can do to prepare.
The Different Types of College Admissions Testing
The two most well-known entrance exams are the SAT and the ACT. There is also the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), which is important for students who want to practice for the SAT and potentially qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.
There are also several universities that are switching to a test-optional or test blind admissions process. It’s important to understand what these terms mean and the differences because it may affect your child’s decision on where to apply.
What Is the PSAT?
The College Board, the administrator of the SAT, offers the PSAT — also known as the National Merit State Qualifying Test (NMSQT) — as well. It’s broken into three sections: math, writing and language, and evidence-based reading.
Most students take the PSAT during their sophomore or junior year of high school, but freshmen can take it as well. Possible PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520, and students in the 99th percentile are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship.
Many educators recommend that students take the PSAT because it can help prepare them for the SAT. There are several PSAT prep resources, from online practice tests to private tutoring.
A PSAT tutor can help students improve their test-taking skills and brush up on their reading and math knowledge. Hiring a tutor may be helpful if you are trying to ensure your child qualifies for the National Merit Scholarship.
What Is the SAT?
Administered by the College Board, the SAT is a standardized test that scores students based on their performance in two areas: Math and Verbal. The Math portion is divided into two sections: a 25-minute section where calculators aren’t allowed, and a 55-minute section where students can use calculators. The Verbal score comes from two sections: Reading Comprehension and Writing (Grammar).
Students are not penalized for guessing an answer on the SAT, and scores range from 400 to 1600. In 2019, the average SAT score was 1059, so any score higher than that, by definition, is above average.
However, figuring out what makes a good SAT score is a little more complicated. For example, if your child plans to apply to an Ivy League school where most students have exceptionally good test scores (the Harvard average is 1515), they’ll need to get a much higher score than they’d need for a state university.
Most students benefit from a college test prep plan specifically designed for the SAT. There are practice tests available and many test prep books and online courses.
Students can also consider SAT tutoring where they get individualized attention and a personalized test prep plan. Tutors usually cover more than just standard math and reading topics. They help students learn skills that apply to the SAT, specifically:
- Time-efficient ways to answer multiple-choice questions
- Proven test-taking strategies
- The most common mistakes made on the SAT
- How to quickly eliminate wrong multiple choice answers
Even if your student has high math and English grades, you may want to consider hiring a tutor. A test prep tutor can help your child prepare to give their best possible performance on test day.
Whether your SAT test prep plan includes hiring a tutor or giving your child resources for self-directed study, make sure you schedule the right test day. Choose a test date that allows enough preparation time but also gives your child their scores in time for college application deadlines. The College Board website has a full list of SAT dates.
What Is the ACT?
The ACT is the other big college entrance exam. Some universities only look at SAT or ACT scores and some will consider both. ACT scores can range from 1 to 36, and the average score is 20.6. Anything above 24 could be considered a good ACT score because that indicates the top 25 percent. However, for a selective Ivy League school, students may need a score in the 30s to be competitive.
Understanding the difference between the ACT and SAT is essential when deciding which one is better to take. Like the SAT, the ACT tests both math and English skills, but there are some significant differences.
- Based on the number of questions and the time limits, the ACT gives students less time per question
- The ACT has a Math section and a Science section, instead of two Math portions like the SAT
- The ACT also has an English section that covers grammar and a Reading section that focuses on reading comprehension
There are several ACT preparation options, including online courses and tutoring. ACT tutors can help students prepare specifically for the test in several ways:
- Giving tips for answering questions faster without lowering accuracy
- Brushing up on topics for the Science section
- Countering common ACT test prep mistakes
- Explaining the process of elimination method for multiple-choice tests
For many students, a tutor can significantly improve the SAT/ACT test prep process. If your child is highly self-motivated, however, they may be able to prepare effectively with online resources and practice tests.
When making a test prep plan, allow plenty of time before the test date. You may want to consider an ACT test date at the end of junior year so your child can take it again before college application deadlines. Here’s a complete list of SAT and ACT test dates and registration deadlines.
How Important Are Test Scores in the Admissions Process?
When it comes to test scores, each school has their own policy. Scores are reviewed to get a sense of how well a student might do in college. They are just one part of your child’s admissions packet.
With current controversies and pandemic-related testing issues, some universities have opted to change to a test-optional admissions process. Test optional colleges don’t require students to take standardized tests or submit their scores as part of their application. These schools make their admissions decisions based on:
- A student’s grades
- Recommendation letters
- Extracurricular activities
- A personal essay rather than SAT or ACT test scores
You may want to look for test-optional colleges if your student struggles with standardized tests but can create a strong application with their grades, GPA, and extracurriculars. The College Insights tool makes it easy to find test-optional schools.
What Is a Test-Blind College?
A test-blind school takes the idea of test-optional even further. Test-blind universities don’t factor in test scores at all. Even if your child chooses to take the SAT or ACT, a test-blind school won’t look at the scores.
While a test-blind university may be a good choice for students who truly struggle with traditional testing, they might not be the right choice for students who have great scores to share. Use the College Insights tool to compare admissions and test policies for the schools you’re considering.
How to Plan College Admissions Testing
Admissions tests are only one facet of the college application process, but knowing how each school treats standardized tests may be an important factor in making plans. With College Insights, it’s easy to compare your child’s potential schools across numerous categories, including standardized tests. You can use the tool to find details about minimum score requirements or test-optional schools and use that information to help your child create the strongest possible application packet.
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