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You Received Your PSAT Scores. Now What?

The PSAT occupies a strange in-between place in the world of standardized testing. In terms of admissions, the PSAT doesn’t “count.” Colleges will only ask for your ACT or SAT scores. For most students (where most equals 97%) the PSAT doesn’t do much anything at all. It’s just practice.

It can help you decide whether you want to take a real SAT, or whether the ACT might be a better fit for you. If you think you will do better on the SAT, consider taking a full-length practice SAT (along with your practice ACT) to be sure. There are some timing differences between the PSAT and the SAT that might affect your performance. If you’ve already decided to focus on the ACT, think carefully about whether you want to change gears now.

However, unlike the PLAN or ACT Aspire, the approximate equivalents of the PSAT in the ACT-universe, for some students, the PSAT can matter. And because of that some (where some equals about 50,000 nationwide), the PSAT is kind of like Schrodinger’s standardized test. It might count. It might not.

Before scores were released, you probably had some idea where your score might fall; now you know. The cat is out of the box. You can properly contextualize your PSAT experience, progress beyond this uncertain, liminal space, and move on with your life.

Or, maybe not.

Based on estimates of this year’s cutoffs (emphasis on estimates), the answer to “does this score matter much?” is either “no” or “possibly.”

If, based on the estimates, your score is significantly below the projected cutoff in your state, (this is true for the most students, even those who study and work hard and are bright and who will have excellent college options down the road) then the PSAT was practice. It gave you a bit of information about how you might do on an SAT.

If you think you might end up a Semifinalist, you should prepare for and take an SAT. You’re likely to do well on the SAT, especially with some additional practice, and having an SAT score that validates your PSAT is one of the requirements of advancing to Finalist status. However, be aware that you won’t know whether you’re a Semifinalist until September. Counting on it probably isn’t helpful, and driving yourself mad speculating likely won’t help either. National Merit is only one source of scholarships; if your test scores are in this range, it’s likely not your only option. Keep researching, and studying, and doing what you’ve been doing all along.

If your PSAT scores are better than you hoped, congratulations! If they are lower than expected, take heart: there’s time yet to prepare for the “real” test, whichever one you choose.

By Audrey Hazzard, Premier-Level Tutor

The Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

Preparing for the ACT or SAT can seem daunting. Often, people instinctively turn to friends or online articles for advice. While some guidance from these sources is helpful, it’s important to examine the limitations of students who could be referencing an outdated version of the test, whose only knowledge of the exam comes from taking it, and who may have needs that are dramatically different from your own.

Our students commonly pass along what they’ve heard from their peers, and while some of it is good, solid information, a lot of it rings completely or, at least, partially false. For instance, some students will swear that “C” is correct the majority of the time when in reality, the answers on the test are evenly distributed throughout the exam – so C is no more likely than any of the other options. Another common tip passed around among high schoolers is to take the test on a particular date – take June, for example – because it’s easier than the others. There are several issues with this. Maybe June felt easier for one particular student, but, as everyone’s strengths are different, that didn’t necessarily hold true for others. Additionally, if the June test in 2015 truly was easier for most students, that doesn’t mean that the 2016 test will follow suit. Most importantly, the curve on the ACT renders any differences in difficulty irrelevant. If the June test truly was less difficult, then the curve would just be harsher.

Additionally, we recently worked with a student who scored higher on the ACT, but was told by a friend at Harvard that she should take the SAT solely because she had already taken the ACT previously. This was amidst the new changes (which made the SAT unstable and a bad choice for the majority of students). Combine that with the fact that every college will accept either exam, and her friend’s direction amounts to some pretty rotten advice. In the end, the student remained focused on her stronger test and exceeded even her expectations.

Looking to current college students for help – particularly those who attend prestigious schools – seems intuitive on the surface. However, students who attend top schools are often scoring in the top 99th percentile of college bound students nationwide, and therefore do not reflect the reality for the majority of other students. Also, these students have a very limited experience. Scoring well on a test does not make you an expert – especially as the tests continue to evolve.

The newly revised SAT gives a perfect example of this. In this article, Business Insider presents the perspective of a “Harvard grad with a perfect score on the SAT.” In the article, Chris Ryan (the aforementioned Harvard alum) offers last minute tips to scoring well on the SAT. There’s a major problem with taking his advice: the test that Ryan took years ago hardly resembles the current SAT.

In another article, titled “College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies,” students from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University are consulted. Their advice includes some valuable tidbits, such as beginning to study well before the test, striving to learn new strategies, realizing that these tests are “not the be-all, end-all,” and the importance of skipping questions that are sucking up all of your time. Alternatively, some of the advice falls flat and illustrates a lack of expertise. When counseling students on time management, the WashU student claims that you should skip passages on the ACT Science section that include charts if you struggle with reading them. This information is not only inaccurate, it’s potentially quite harmful. Of the six ACT Science passages, five of them will reliably have charts, while only one may not. If a student were to try to follow this advice on test day, they’d end up frantic and confused – as they’d potentially be trying to skip over all of the passages.

Overall, it’s vital to use discretion when following advice about college entrance exams that comes from friends or articles. While some of it may be valid, keep the source in mind. Just because your uncle recently had his home remodeled, that doesn’t mean you’d want him creating blueprints for yours. Instead, you’d turn to the experts.

PSAT Results

PSAT scores are finally released, about a month after they were initially expected. While some students are still having difficulty accessing their scores, those who have been able to get in have been confronted with scores that look quite different from previous PSATs.

Total PSAT scores are between 320 and 1520. The total score is a combination of the Math and “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” each of which is scored between 160 and 760. While these score ranges are not the same as the SAT – the upper and lower limits are shifted down by 40 points – College Board maintains that they are basically predictive of a student’s performance on the SAT.

The Selection Index will appear lower this year due to the new scoring ranges. For the class of 2016 (the last class to take the “old” PSAT), the highest possible score was a 240, and state-by-state NMSQT/PSAT cutoffs for semifinalists varied from 202 to 225. This year’s maximum Selection Index is a 228. Estimates of this year’s cutoffs vary considerably, and it might be easy to obsess over all of the possibilities if you believe your score is in the range for National Merit consideration.

Percentiles have also become more complicated on this year’s reports. Online score reports will include both percentiles – a “Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” and the “User Percentile.” The Nationally Representative sample will generally be higher, and provides the score as a percentile of a “nationally representative” group of 11th grade students. This measurement demonstrates how a student’s score compares to all high school juniors in the United States, including students who “don’t typically take the test.” The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile is the one that will appear on a students’ hard-copy report. The User Percentile is the percentile rank we’re more familiar with, comparing the scores of students who actually took the test. The User Percentile is only available online.

With so much uncertainty remaining, what useful information can we gain from the PSAT? If you’re still debating which test to focus on – the ACT or SAT – your PSAT score can help you decide. If you do decide to move forward with the SAT, a more thorough review of your PSAT can help. When your hard copy score report is released, take the time to review your test booklet for additional insights and make a study plan for the SAT.

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part I

Top 10 Test Prep Traps – Part 1 of 3

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

1. Taking the Test Too Early

Both the SAT and the ACT are designed to be taken in your junior or senior year. Taking a test – even a practice test – too soon can add unnecessary anxiety to a process that is, for many students and parents, already a stress-fest. We suggest taking your first practice test no sooner than May or June of your sophomore year. Before that point, you probably won’t have completed the course work that the SAT or ACT test, so your scores won’t really tell you much that’s useful.

What to do instead: Take challenging classes, read a lot, and pursue activities that interest you. You’ll be more prepared when it is time to take the test, and you’ll have more to put on your applications than just test scores.

2. Taking the “Real” Test Before You’ve Taken a Practice Test

No, the PLAN and/or PSAT don’t count. You should have taken *at least* one full-length practice test before you sign up for the official test. Yes, there’s a chance that you’ll take it once, get a score that makes you happy, and move on with your life – but wouldn’t that chance be increased if you took a practice test and spent some time preparing before the official test? It’s more likely that you’ll get a score that you feel needs improving, and the only thing you gain from taking (and paying for) that first test is the realization that you need to study. Guess what else could have told you that – for free? A practice test.

What to do instead: Take a practice test. Preferably, one of each – an SAT and an ACT – to see which one suits you best.

3. Taking the “Real” Test When You Know You’re Not Ready

Let’s pretend I’m signed up for the ACT this Saturday. And I bought some prep books a few months ago and I meant to study but my sports/work/whatever schedule has been, you know, and I haven’t even opened them. And I’m getting over the flu, and I have a lock-in the night before, so I know I won’t sleep, and also I may have sprained my thumb so I can’t really hold a pencil. What do I do?

Spoiler alert: Skip it. Please please please skip it.

“I just want to have an official score!” Why? Is this your absolute last chance before your applications are due? If not, what’s the point of having a score if it’s not one that will help you?

“But I can always take it again!” That’s mostly true. But why take it now, when you know you’re not prepared? Also, just because you can take it again, that doesn’t mean you should. (See #5)

What to do instead: Take a nap. Seriously, it sounds like you could use it. Then make a study plan for the next test date, and stick to it.

4. Taking the “Real” Test Over, and Over, and Over Again

So you’ve got a study plan and/or a tutor and you’re working hard towards a test date a several weeks or months in the future. But there’s a test before then! Shouldn’t you just take it anyway, just to see?

Um, no.

Taking the ACT/SAT is not actually that fun. There is, actually, a maximum number of times you can take the test, but most students hit their own personal limit before they reach that maximum. Students have a lot of competing priorities to juggle, and spending a Saturday taking one more ACT just to see if something magical happens is probably not the best use of your time.

Also, while different colleges have different policies, some schools do ask that you supply all of your scores to them. Additionally, even if the school doesn’t require all of your scores, sometimes the scores are sent anyway. It’s a pretty common error. We at GSP suggest that you assume your colleges will see all of your scores.

What to do instead: You’ve got a plan! Stick with your plan! Or, if you don’t have a plan, you know, make a plan. Take the test again only if you’re ready and pretty confident it’s a good use of time.

If you really want to practice, take a practice test.

Watch for Part 2 of this post, where we discuss the importance of setting clear, realistic goals, and picking the right test for you!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

ACT vs. SAT – Is one more accepted?

For many years, I had to assure parents that the school their child was considering actually did accept the ACT.  The parents were working from experience bias. The ACT was almost unknown when they attended college and many colleges didn’t even require an entrance examination.  If one did, it was surely the SAT, which had over a decade’s head start into the blue ocean marketplace of college admissions exams.  I had to send parents to admissions websites where the clear black letters explained that “either ACT or SAT scores are acceptable” and even then, these same parents were cowed by the received wisdom of other parents, who heard from someone’s grandpa’s uncle’s sister who 5 years ago worked in admissions at Dartmouth, you know, that they preferred the SAT.  How much things have changed.

Now some students are hearing from the student grapevine that the ACT is not just a better test, but the preferred one.  Again, we have to step in to intervene.

We understand why there may have been this swing.  ACT has worked hard for years to overtake the SAT, and in 2012, they did.  How did they do it?  The way any smart company does.  Strategic appointments to their Board of Directors.  Legislation which caused the ACT to be required in certain states for the high school graduation process.  Aggressive expansion of their PLAN testing – an early-stages test which is a mini-ACT.  Awareness of the ACT test has crested, and now there isn’t just an acceptance of its equivalency for admissions, but the consumer – parent and student – perceives the ACT as more “fair” as it has 4 subjects tested (English, Math, Reading, and Science) instead of the SAT’s Reading, Math, and Writing.

However, dear parents and students, despite your perception there is still no change.  These tests have fundamental problems, yet, they are still accepted as part of the admissions process.  Our job is to help you beat them, and honestly, we’re very successful in that job.  A lot of our students get into schools they wanted to go to because of their prep here.  Many get into schools or get scholarships they would have never dreamed of before working with us.  Whichever test you end up working on (our advice is to take both free practice tests to see whether the ACT or SAT is better for you), be assured that colleges in America accept both the ACT and SAT as equivalent tests, without preference or prejudice.

On a final note, remember that just as the colleges don’t care which one you take, neither should you.  Don’t just say, “Well all my siblings have taken the SAT, so that means I should too.”  Maybe the SAT was the right test for them.  Maybe they didn’t need prep.  Maybe they didn’t work with experts who advised them to take both as practice tests so that they could get a subjective (how did I feel during the test?) and an objective (what was the score?) measure of this decision.

Unfortunately, although the colleges may have outsourced part of their decision-making process to these exams, it doesn’t mean you should outsource your decision on which one to take.  Your starting point should be taking a practice version of both.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Springtime for Sophomores

Seniors have heard back from their schools and are finalizing their college choice in preparation for the May 1 deadline. Juniors are taking the ACT or SAT, SAT subject tests, and AP exams. Those two grades have clearly defined paths to college, but what about Sophomores? While spring of sophomore year seems far away from applying to college, there are three things you can do to strengthen your future college applications.

1. Take an ACT and SAT practice test and determine which test is a better test for you.

We recommend that the students take both an ACT and an SAT practice test near the end or just after their sophomore year. That way, you go into fall of junior year with a plan. Are you in range to be a National Merit scholar? If so, you can sign up for one of our summer classes in preparation for the PSAT. Do you play a winter sport and a spring sport? Another great reason to prepare in the summer and take one of the fall tests! Every student is different. Taking a practice test at the beginning of the summer ensures your student has time to decide which test and test date is best!

2. Finish the year with your highest possible grades.

Yes, this seems like an obvious one, but it really is important! If you have a bad test day, you can retake your SAT or ACT or driver’s license test, but once sophomore year is over, you are locked into those grades. Grades are a key piece of college admissions puzzle, so it is crucial to do your best.

3. Take advantage of the summer.

While it is tempting to spend the summer relaxing before the stress of junior year, you post-sophomore year summer is a great time to get a jump start on college. You are interested in botany but your high school doesn’t offer it? Take a course at a local college or community college. Not only will it look great on your resume, but it will be really interesting! Want to start saving money for college? Get a job! Jobs look great on your resume and give you a great opportunity to make business connections. An anecdotal example: my grandfather worked as a delivery runner for a law firm one summer; after graduating law school, he was hired by that same law firm! Too busy to have the set schedule of a job or class? You can always volunteer, write a paper to submit to your favorite magazine, research colleges, or take test prep!

Most sophomores have no idea where they might want to attend college, and that is perfectly okay! Following these three steps will ensure that when they do choose where to apply, they will have the highest amount of possibilities.

Linden Schult is a Master Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

College Entrance Exams: How colleges know what you scored

If I were to ask 10 different families about the submission process of their student’s ACT or SAT results, I would almost certainly get an equal number of different answers.  How do you know what will be seen by admission professionals and what won’t!?  My philosophy, always assume the college(s) will receive your official scores!  Here are a few key points in which all other assumptions can be effectively null:

  1. Transcripts – For the 89% of students that attend Public schools, expect your high school to submit your scores to colleges on your official transcripts.  There are even a few Private schools that include this info on your transcripts.  In fact, some colleges even accept these as official test scores – as they’re coming from an official source, ie.  not the student, nor the family.
  2. Application – You’ll quickly find out that when submitting College Applications – whether the Common App or to a particular school – it will ask about the student’s academic background and test scores.  At the end of almost every application, the student signs it, declaring the information provided was complete and accurate.  I have known students to have their acceptances remitted because a school found out the information from the application painted a different picture than what truly exists.
  3. Collected – Often times, when students attempt to only send the highest scores, all of their scores are disclosed to a college – again because the college expects a complete and accurate portrayal of the student’s achievements and scores.
  4. Purchased Lists – It seems to be a little known fact, but one of the primary ways in which colleges get a student’s information is from the ACT, SAT, PSAT, and EXPLORE.  Colleges often times purchase student’s information based upon a score range – so even if they don’t know your actual score – they will most likely know a narrow score range in which you fall within.

 

So, how should a student go about sending their scores?  First off – I would recommend taking a FREE Practice Test for both the ACT and SAT – so you can determine a baseline and develop a strategy that is right for the student.  These scores are not recorded in the student record, but provide an accurate measure of the student’s ability with these particular tests. 

Secondly, I would never recommend that a student take an official test unless they felt prepared and confident in their ability.  While an abnormally low score won’t necessarily affect admission at most universities – why provide any university with a reason to doubt their admission decision?

Author:
CALEB PIERCE

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.