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Choosing a Smart Schedule for the Collegiate Assessments

Parents often come to us and ask when would be the ideal time for their children to sit for the major collegiate assessments such as the SAT and ACT. Parents are daunted by the sheer quantity of assessments and the variety of available administration dates. We subject our children to so many tests during their junior and senior years: PSATs, SAT 1s, ACTs, SAT 2s, APs and/or IBs. Poor planning can compound the stress that our students face, especially come spring. Good planning, however, can lower the stress levels for parents and students alike and really take the edge off of the testing and admissions processes.

It is generally a good idea to begin planning for the assessments from the onset of the junior year. Although it is not essential to take the assessments that early, it is important to know what times throughout the year will be available for the preparation and administration of the tests.

Here are the major factors to consider when selecting the right testing schedule:

 

  • High school academics: at what point will a student have covered all the relevant content for a given assessment?
  • Scholarship potential: is the National Merit Scholarship (awarded based on a student’s junior year PSAT score) a consideration?
  • Sports and other extra-curricular activities: when will a student have the time, energy, and free weekends to prep?
  • Religious holidays: are there any overlaps with the test dates?
  • One-time events such as prom, class trips, spring break: are there any testing conflicts?
  • Other academic conflicts: does the student have mid-terms or exams around the same time as an assessment?
  • Will a student take any APs / IBs / SAT 2s

You’ll need to answer these questions in order to select the best time for your son or daughter to prepare for the collegiate admissions tests. You’ll need to know your schedule, your school’s schedule, and the schedule of the assessments in order to select the best test dates for your student and the ample time necessary to prepare.

To begin with the scheduling, look at the important test dates at the following links:

PSAT Test Dates

SAT Test Dates

ACT Test Dates

AP Exam Dates

International Baccalaureate Exam Dates

Look at your personal and school calendars to check for possible conflicts between the assessments and spring break, regional or state finals for athletics, academic exams, etc… It is good to know about these conflicts in advance and choose alternate test dates. The collegiate assessments are more than 50% mental; taking a standardized test while under stress from external conditions or while fatigued or distracted will never yield optimal results.

Next, you must decide which assessments merit attention and the investment of time and resources:

Will I need to prep for the PSAT?

For most students, the PSAT is simply a dry run for the SAT and is significant only in that it provides information on how a student might perform on the SAT. The vast majority of students never need to worry about the PSAT. For students on the extreme ends of the spectrum -with very high and very low scores- the PSAT may be of greater importance and may merit some attention. Who should consider prepping for the PSAT?

  1. Students at the very low end of the PSAT spectrum.
    When students perform very poorly on their sophomore year PSATs, the odds are good that they will also perform poorly on their junior year PSATs and on their actual SATs. Some parents are concerned that too many low scores in a row may diminish their child’s sense of self-efficacy and convince him that he is simply a “bad test-taker”. This negative belief can become an issue in and of itself. Parents worried about this may want to help their children prep early so that they can achieve junior year PSAT scores more in line with those of their peers and stop telling themselves that they “just don’t test well.” High schools often use the PSAT scores as a factor for the student’s placement in advanced courses.
  2. Students at the high end of the PSAT spectrum
    Of the 1.4 million students who sit for the PSAT as juniors, roughly 50,000 (the top 3.6%) will be recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Program. Approximately 33,000 students will receive Letters of Commendation, and an additional 17,000 students will be selected as National Merit Semifinalists. About 90% of the Semi-finalists go on to become National Merit Finalists. This is a very select group. In recent years, the Finalist cutoff for the composite PSAT score has been in the ballpark of 217-222 (out of a possible 240). The majority of Finalists go on to receive scholarships from corporations, academic institutions, and/or the NMSC. This can mean major money for college, sometimes upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. Consequently, students on the cusp of National Merit would be wise to consider prepping for this mid-October test that is administered at their high school.

If I’m in one of these categories, when should I prep for the PSAT?

It would make the most sense to begin to prep for the PSAT as early as the summer before your junior year. The test is only offered once a year (in October), so prepping early in the year is a must.

Will I need to prep for the SAT/ACT?

Most colleges and universities require either the SAT or ACT, and most students will benefit from some form of SAT/ACT preparation. Students who learn quickly and are highly self-motivated may need only a prep-book and a set of our vocab cards. Other students will need the support and structure of a test-prep program.

A number of schools no longer require the SAT/ACT but will still factor your scores into the admissions decision if you choose to send them with your application. Most of these SAT-optional schools continue to publish the average SAT/ACT scores of their incoming classes, and many post impressive numbers. A list of SAT-optional schools can be found on http://www.fairtest.org/optinit.htm.

How many times should I take the SAT/ACT?

Take the assessments until you hit the numbers you need to be competitive at the schools that interest you and then stop. It doesn’t matter whether you take the SAT once or seven times. (I personally recommend 3.) But the truth is that you can take these assessments as often as you like without suffering any adverse consequences.

We have heard a rumor circulating that if you take the SAT/ACT more than 3 times, it would begin to reflect badly upon your application. We decided to check this out with college admission counselors and school guidance counselors. We spoke with school counselors and admissions reps from UGA, Tech, Emory, Villanova, Vanderbilt, College of Charleston, Penn State, Harvard, Auburn, Florida State, and Duke. We asked each admissions rep if taking the SAT multiple times counted against an applicant, and every single admissions rep firmly voiced that it does NOT hurt a student to take the test multiple times. College Counselors agreed. Colleges do not care how many times you sit for the SAT/ACT. Colleges post their SAT/ACT numbers for US News and World Report, and the higher their freshman stats, the better their ranking.

We also learned something interesting from our interviews: most college admissions counselors only see your top section scores, and never see the full scores from all of your tests. The majority of schools use a piece of software called Recruitment PLUS, which automatically pulls up your highest composite score from any section of any SAT test you have ever taken. These electronic “grabs” are continually updated and will be current when the admissions committee is ready to review your application. The consequence of this is that admissions reps see your best composite score, and that’s all they ever see. Only one school from our sample, Penn State, requires all the section scores to come from a single test date. All the other schools will cherry-pick the best Math, Critical Reading and Writing scores from any test administration. For the ACT, many schools will simply convert your ACT scores into SAT equivalents to allow for a simpler comparison between students.

Even though there is no penalty for taking the tests again and again, I find it is beneficial for a student to focus her efforts and limit the number of times she takes either the SAT or ACT. Not for the colleges, but for a student’s own sanity and peace of mind. I have seen too many students take an unfocused approach, and end up burning out on these tests. These tests can be stepping stones to college, or they can be a source of great anxiety and stress.

My general counsel to students is this: plan on taking the SAT 3 times. Why 3 times instead of one? Because taking the SAT multiple times will solve for many factors, including inherent variability in the SAT, variations in an individual student’s performance on a given day, and statistical variations that occur from guessing. Plus, there is a “test-retest” phenomenon; typically, with every iteration of a test, a student gains familiarity with the test and confidence in his or her ability to take the test. This alone can impact a student’s score.

We also advocate that our students never take an official assessment “cold” but instead go in prepared, having taken our baseline test and then several of our mock SATs or ACTs. To administer the mocks, we use the tests released by The College Board and ACT Inc., and we try our best to simulate the official testing environment with an admission ticket, proctor, timing. What makes the mocks especially valuable is that they allow us to quickly perform in-depth content analyses and subsequently use this rapid information to provide more effective tutoring. ACT Inc. never sends back the kind of robust data we can cull from the mocks, and The College Board’s SAT test-return service is only offered several weeks after the October, January and May assessments. Using the mocks will help students achieve greater gains on the official assessments..

When will I be ready to take the SAT/ACT?

The vast majority of juniors will be ready to take the SAT/ACT the fall of their junior year. Some college counselors advocate waiting until the March/May tests, but I usually agree with the general reasons. I have seen many students prep early in their junior year, hit the numbers they want and get the SAT out of the way by January; then, they can relax and focus on things besides standardized testing for the remainder of the year.

  • When will I be ready for the math?
    To be fully prepared for the ACT, you need to have completed Algebra 1, Geometry and Trigonometry. To be fully prepared for the SAT 1, you need to have completed Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2. I would only advocate waiting until the spring to take these tests if you are a junior enrolled in Algebra 2. And even then, it can be the second test in order to improve the math score. Otherwise, the fall/winter tests are perfect if the student’s other activities allow for sufficient preparation.
  • When will I be ready for the verbal?
    Unless a school is specifically teaching the SAT/ACT, taking another English class will not necessarily help a student achieve a higher SAT/ACT score. A student may pick up a few extra vocabulary words during her junior year, but this will be nothing like a focused SAT vocab review. A student may hone her reading skills in English class, but this will not have the impact of learning the specific strategies for taking the SAT/ACT tests. The only way to get ready for the SAT is prepare specifically for the SAT. That said, students are typically ready for the verbal section of the SAT/ACT tests in the fall of their junior year.

Which dates are better for the SAT/ACT administrations?

Although the SAT/ACT tests are “standardized”, I have seen tremendous score variations between different test dates. In terms of the SAT, in April 2006, our students, on the whole, achieved minimal gains. In June 2006, our students, in aggregate, did incredibly well and achieved the greatest score gains of the 2005-2006 testing season. In 2003, 2004, 2005, our students performed the best on the May SAT administration.

Students on a given assessment compete with other students taking the same assessment. The raw scores are then scaled/ standardized to populate the normal curve. (This is why a 48 raw score on the SAT Math section could give you a 680, 700 or 710 scaled score, depending upon the particular administration.) But what happens if the population of students varies from one assessment to another? The “Early Decision” seniors are out in force in October. The academically advanced students who will be taking the SAT 2s in May/June (depending upon their AP schedules) will be out in force on the March SAT. This could have an impact on the curve. Who is taking the SAT in November/December? Primarily seniors who are late in the admissions game or those who are still under the mark for acceptance and need to get their scores up. Each test has a distinct population and a unique curve.

When parents ask me which tests I like, I generally reply November, January, and June. I have always liked the results from these administrations. The nice thing about the November tests are that the results will be back just in time for your early decision applications. The December test may conflict with finals, but the January test is always early in the semester with few other conflicts or distractions. March attracts the brightest students, and it may interfere with spring break, but June is always after exams, and our numbers have historically been the strongest in June.

Is there an Ideal SAT schedule?

There is no ideal schedule to suit everyone. It depends on when a student has the time to devote to preparing for an assessment. I generally don’t like students doing their major prepping during the season of their major sport/activity. This puts too many demands on a student. However, in a world free of scheduling conflicts, if I had to personally take these tests again, I’d prep for November and then take the test again in either December or January. Then, I’d put my SAT books away for the year. If I needed a few additional points to get into a particular school, I’d break out the SAT books late summer before my senior year to do some final prep for the October test.

Will I need to prep for the SAT 2’s?

This depends on where you are applying. The vast majority of schools (especially most state schools) do not require the SAT Subject Tests. Generally, the more selective schools will request or require the Subject Tests, or SAT 2s, as they were formerly called, as part of the admissions process. The SAT 2s give colleges one more criterion to help them determine the strongest applicants from a highly talented pool. Check with the schools on your list before you decide whether or not to invest any energy into the SAT 2s.

If necessary, when should I take the SAT Subject Tests?

May or June are ideal because the content is still fresh in your head, especially if you just prepped for the AP exams. If you are in AP French, why not take the SAT 2 French exam in May and then the AP French test shortly thereafter? APs only count for placement, not for admissions. The SAT 2s can count for admissions. It is generally smart to double up when you can. If scheduling the SAT 2s in the spring is not a possibility, it is entirely appropriate to move them to the fall. Every year we help a number of students prep for the SAT 2s in October, November and December. This involves some additional studying since the summer hiatus has a way of chipping away at students’ memories, but many students are still very successful on the SAT2s in the fall. If you are sending these scores later in the fall, it is ideal to communicate with the schools to which you are applying and inform the admissions counselors that your scores will be forthcoming. Strong scores on the SAT 2s can only help your application.

Summary

If you have a student who is a junior or senior, the most important thing to do now is to sit down and create a game plan for when your student will take his or her college admissions assessments. Having a game plan will minimize your stress and give you more flexibility. If you opt to start early, you will also have more options. In the event that the SAT is not yielding gains, it will be possible to switch to the ACT with plenty of time to effectively prepare for that assessment. By being forward thinking and strategic, you can effectively manage the assessments.


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