Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Filling in the Blanks on Standardized Tests

Fall and spring are busy seasons in the business of applying to college, fueled by more than just the Personal Essay. I get many questions about standardized testing, so I decided to address them at the start of the academic year . . .

The SAT or the ACT? Schools requiring standardized tests no longer prefer one over another. I find my students really prefer either the SAT or the ACT, however. The engineering types and intuitive mathematical thinkers tend to bring home the big scores on the ACT, while all-around strong students and those who prefer language arts tend to do better on the SAT. I recommend that students try both, but they should only repeat the test with which they felt most comfortable. Not sure about which to report? SAT and ACT comparisons are readily available. (Here's a chart from the ACT organization.)

The Writing Component. Keep in mind that both the SAT and the ACT have writing components; the SAT’s comes first and is mandatory, while the ACT’s is last and optional. The jury is still out as to how much colleges look at the essay score. Certainly, the essay serves as a writing sample, so students who are tempted to ask a parent or peer to write his or her Personal Essay should think twice. (None of my students are included in that group.) I firmly believe that students should do at least some practice for this essay, even the talented writers out there. Why? The essay is timed, and that creates discomfort, in some cases causing a student to go off topic. Note: Raters have not been overly generous with scores, although I have had a few students garner perfect scores. I caution students to load their essays with examples − and to come up with those examples before writing.

What to do about SAT Subject Tests? SAT Subject Tests really lend credence to an application, so much so that some colleges and universities (e.g., NYU) will consider them in lieu of the regular SAT. I’m often asked which Subject Tests a student should take. The good news is that a student can take up to three at a sitting and can select which of those scores to report. With the exception of engineering schools, the bulk of colleges do not dictate which subjects to take. Students should be sure to test in their favorite subject areas when the subject matter is freshest in their minds (if possible). They should not sign up in advance to have tests scores sent to colleges but instead wait until they see results. Also, students should not assume that a test should be easy because of its title, especially a test like Math Level 1. In fact, good math students are often so removed from the subject matter that they need to practice before the big event. (The College Board blue book is a worthwhile investment.) Regarding taking Math 1 or Math 2, a student should not submit a mediocre Math 2 test result just because he or she thinks it’s expected. Students should carefully read the testing policy and requirements for each target school.

When and How to Prep? This is an issue which varies depending on a student’s innate ability, budget and choice of vendors. Some students are totally capable of practicing for the SAT or SAT on their own, while others need the structure of a test prep professional. Some may need help in only one or two sections. (Note: Anyone taking the ACT must try a sample Science section before taking the real deal!) My recommendation is to make sure to work with official College Board or ACT materials or those which have been structured to closely resemble them. If enlisting help of a professional, check references and make sure that this person totally understands and communicates the structure of the test.

What about SAT-optional colleges? Some students struggle on both, so for them SAT optional schools might be appealing. Certainly many big-name colleges have gone the optional route, including Bowdoin, NYU and Trinity. (For a complete list, consult That is not to say that students applying to SAT-optional schools shouldn’t bother sending their scores. Good test-takers should publicize those scores to make themselves shine! Those that have had a bad test day or are otherwise disappointed in their scores should tout other strengths inside and outside the classroom to put their best foot forward. Remember, tests are only one aspect used by admissions offices in forming their impressions.

Once a student matriculates, he or she will be glad to have standardized tests over and done with. Knowing, however, that the future is filled with tests of many sizes and shapes, practice in test-taking may pay back down the road.