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Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is a blight on our educational system. It exists simply because of the overwhelming number of applications to undergraduate and graduate programs. When grades, personal statements, portfolios, and letters of recommendation fail to winnow, admissions committees look to a timed multiple-choice exam. They need a tiebreaker and this is the “best” the system has come up with. It’s deplorable, but I’m here to offer you advice about how to do better, not to complain about things we can’t change.

Before you start worrying about this test, make sure the schools you are looking at actually require it. Equally important, look at the average and middle 50% of scores for the accepted students. It is important to have a goal score before starting test preparation. If you already have your goal score, congratulations! Also, make sure that you ask about the relationship of those scores for admission as well as scholarships. Even a small increase can make a big difference for scholarships!

Want to find out where you stand? Sign up to take a free practice test at our office!

Author Stephen Heiner is a Premier Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

A Timeline for High School

Roadmap To Success:

Freshman year: Pick challenging classes and look for internships and summer programs that will make you stand out.

Sophomore year: Take the PSAT for the first time.  Continue to do well in school, take as many AP classes as possible, join clubs and sports teams that interest you (don’t sign-up for everything!). Take ACT and SAT practice test sometime in Spring of sophomore year or the summer after.

Junior year: The tough one.  Take National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) in Fall, take practice ACT and SAT (if you haven’t already taken them!).  Prep for and then take an ACT or SAT. Take AP/SAT Subject Tests.  Start seriously talking about college with a college counselor.

Senior year: Fight senioritis, get the applications done in August, September, and October so that by November you can enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas and not spend it with boring and inane essay prompts.  Enjoy your second semester but don’t slack off so much that your admission is revoked (it’s happened).

ACT or SAT?

Which test should I take?

Well, it’s not in the interest of the two national tests to conduct a scientific poll on whether students “do better” on one test or the other, so an agreed silence has been the status quo.  Anecdotally, across the thousands of students we’ve seen, I can attest to the fact that 80% of students get nearly the exact same score on both tests, meaning a student who gets a 21 on the ACT gets a 1500 on the SAT (on the 2400 scale).  One in five will do significantly better on one of the tests, and in that circumstance, they should absolutely focus on that test.  Taking both tests will cost more money to prep for, more time away from studies and normal high school life, and ultimately not matter because schools only make their decision on one test, so pick one and go with it.  The best way to find out how you’ll do is to actually take both and measure the scores against each other.  Many test prep companies, including ours, offer free practice tests (we offer them every Saturday), so check around and take advantage – then you’ll be prepared.

The question is also always asked: “Isn’t the SAT preferred by the coastal schools?”  The answer, which comes as a huge shock to most is, “No.”  The SAT is the test preferred by high school students on the coast, who comprise the majority of applicants to coastal schools.  Hence coastal schools often have more SAT scores on file than ACT scores, but not one admissions counselor I have ever talked to from any Ivy League school has ever expressed an official (or unofficial) preference for the SAT.  Simply put, the ACT and the SAT are accepted at all colleges and universities in the United States.

PSAT?

This is the time of year that parents come back from vacation to the reality of standardized tests.  Many have just received their child’s PSAT scores.  Here’s one Rockhurst parent’s email to us: “My son, a junior, just got his PSAT scores and is pretty heartbroken about his 210.  Great score, but most likely a point or two below what the cut-off will be.”  Cut-off?  Heartbroken?  I know, it takes some explanation.

Some parents start dealing with these tests as early 7th grade.  Participation in the Duke TIP program (in which students are asked to take an SAT before ever having covered the subjects that it touches on, furthering the myth that it is some version of an IQ test) seems to be a high water mark among some competitive parents, but I’ve always maintained that the advantage in participation is not in getting into a great college (I had students go to Dartmouth and Princeton last year who never even knew about the program) but in the really innovative and interesting programs that you can participate in (and subsequently add to your resume) as a result of being in TIP.

Wait a minute, the SAT isn’t a test of how smart you are?

As heartbreaking as this may be for those who did well on their entrance exams years ago, and carved out a life of success for themselves based on these scores, these exams have nothing to do with academics.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with test taking.  It has everything to do with understanding how this particular test is constructed and attacking it accordingly.  Sure, there are plenty of “A” students who do well on this test, but there are also plenty of “A” students who test fine in school who don’t do so well on this test.  What does this mean?  Well, either it means that they’ve fooled teachers and parents for years, and are really not intelligent, or that this test is not about intelligence.  All the SAT (or the ACT) provides is another method colleges can use to eliminate candidates in an ever-competitive pool of high school students.

When do I get started?

For 98% of the country, the race really starts junior year.  No matter how high a student scores as a sophomore on a PSAT, he/she cannot qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition until junior Year.  During the Fall of junior year, students compete against every single other junior in the country to earn a “selection index”.  This selection index is simply the sum of all three of your 2 digit scores (example, a student scores a 62 Reading, 60 Math, and 71 Writing, that’s a 193 index).  This not only tilts towards a student’s verbal skills, is not an entirely accurate predictor of SAT performance.  The conventional wisdom is simply to “add a zero” to the 2 digit PSAT scores, but while this helps give a general idea of scores, it is far from accurate for two reasons:  1) The PSAT is 1 hour and 15 minutes shorter than the real exam, has easier questions than the real SAT, and brings none of the real life actual pressures that that test brings, 2) The scores are set as curved against every single other Junior in the country taking the test that day, making an enormous curve that never occurs on any one of the individual 6 SAT national dates.  This explains how a student can miss one question on a PSAT and lose as much as 5 points – the curve is very steep.

While being a National Merit Scholar brings some cachet to any college application, it also (more importantly) brings cash – be it as far away as USC (a half-tuition scholarship for any Finalist who designates USC as their first choice school) or as close as KU ($10,000/year for the same conditions).  Will prepping for the PSAT help?  If you are a serious contender for a top-tier school, yes.  The reason is that the test is not the only determinant of Semi-Finalist or Finalist status.  If the grades and resume aren’t there (and believe me, they are there for the tens of thousands of other students vying for the title) your time is better spent improving the resume you do have and doing well in the classes you are taking.