Standardized testing for college admissions
Standardized admissions testing is one of the most dreaded parts of the entire process of applying for college. Students are faced with the daunting task of preparing for one or both of the SAT and ACT tests that most colleges require for admittance.
In the midst of what many consider to be the most academically challenging year of high school (junior year), students are suddenly expected to find the time to prepare for taking at least one of these tests. Often times, students take one twice, or both once, adding to the already heavy workload. Neither test can be successfully taken without preparation.
While most colleges will concede that standardized tests are only a part of their admissions process, most will also say it is an important part that is valuable in assessing the overall academic preparation of an individual student.
For example, let’s say a student has been getting straight A’s in their math classes throughout high school. One would then expect that would translate to a fairly high score on the math portion of their standardized test. If the test score is dramatically lower than that which would be expected, an admissions officer might immediately think that the grading in the student’s school was too lenient, and that the student might not really be ready for college level math.
The flip side of this is the student who breezes through that math section with a high score, but did not really get great grades in math. This student can be viewed as someone who does not challenge him or herself, and therefore does not reach his or her full potential in learning. Test scores are a little bit like the checks and balances of high school academics.
But, how does a student decide which test is the best for his or her skills and knowledge? There are a couple of simple ways to make this assessment. First, it is extremely helpful to take a practice exam for each test way in advance of the first anticipated scheduled exam.
Many high schools will begin offering practice exams as early as freshman year to help students familiarize themselves with the tests. (If your school does not do this, there are many free tests online that you can take.)
This will give you a clear understanding of the format and content of each test, and you can see if one feels more comfortable than the other for you. For example, the ACT has a science component that the SAT does not have. If you are strong in science, this test might appeal to you; if you are not, then you may lean toward the SAT. The SAT has more reading passages than the ACT… is this your strength or weakness? Once you have taken the practice tests and looked at your scores, you can determine which test to study for in earnest.
So how do you study? Well, if you are a real self-starter who can manage a rigorous study course on your own, you can go to the bookstore and buy the study guides for both exams. They are about $20 each. The study guides are mostly practice tests.
There are online study programs that can be quite costly, but most will guarantee some sort of major improvement over initial practice exam scores and will also do a better job at preparing a student for the writing portion of the exams.
There is also a free online program through Khan Academy that is sort of a halfway point between the two options – a student needs to be a self-starter but will also be given feedback and solid advice for testing. Whichever you choose, you need to study consistently to succeed.
In the end, just remember to put your best foot forward by applying the same study ethic to your standardized testing as you have to all your high school academics, and you will do just fine.
UPDATE: The May 2 SAT has been cancelled due to COVID-19. For more information, see the College Board website.
Maryanne Hogan is an Independent College Admissions Consultant working with students on Maui. Visit her website, thecollegeauntie.com, for more information.