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Updated 5/28/2024

In the article on Admissions Testing, I discussed test optional/test blind policies of many colleges today. These policies mean that students can apply to a host of colleges without ever taking a standardized test. For some students, enough said. They opt to forego testing. However, for students who are aiming for the most selective schools, I can't help thinking that submitting a great test score would help them stand out from the pack. Deciding whether or not to test is an idividual decision, but for those who want to at least attempt to get a high score, here are some tips on preparing.

Start Early

The test-taking requirements for today's beleaguered teens are daunting; students who don’t plan carefully run the risk of being buried in an avalanche of high-stakes tests in the spring of their junior year. Here's what happens all too often. A junior takes the PSAT without any preparation, regarding it as simply a "practice SAT." Then, if her scores are not where she'd like them to be, she has just a few months to prepare for the May or June SAT tests – which happen to fall at the same time as Advanced Placement tests and right before course finals. In the midst of all this testing, the odds that she will find time to thoroughly prepare for the SAT are slim. Consequently, many students find that their spring SAT scores are disappointing. If they want to submit scores to colleges, they will need to prepare again in the summer and retest in the fall. This isn't a disaster, but in a best case scenario, the summer after junior year should be spent working on the Common Application (and other applications) and writing drafts of required essays.

How Can This Situation Be Avoided?

Ideally, students who'd like to be able to submit a strong SAT score should take a practice PSAT in 10th grade to give them an early indicator of their strengths and weaknesses and shed light on how much SAT test preparation they should plan on. Then, the summer after sophomore year, they should engage in significant test preparation to get ready for the junior year PSAT, which is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Competition. A student's score on this test is the major determinant of whether she will be selected as a National Merit Commended Student, Finalist, or Scholar. A lot of scholarship money is awarded to students recognized by the National Merit competition, so it's worth taking seriously.

If your son takes my advice to spend some time during the summer after sophomore year preparing for the PSAT, it'd be smart for him to sign up for an SAT in October or November as well, since the PSAT covers much of the same material. If he's done a great job of preparing - and gets lucky - he could get a great SAT score in junior year and be done. If his SAT score is not where he'd like it to be, he has a lot of time before October of senior year to do more test prep, retake the exam, try the ACT, etc. Alternatively, he could decide to take advantage of test optional policies and just cross standardized testing off his college  to-do list. Either way, starting his testing in the fall of junior year will help decompress junior spring and summer. In conclusion, carefully mapping out a timeline for testing is the first step toward thorough preparation.

Next article:  Preparing for Testing.


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