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Planning

By Dr. Ellen Fithian - Updated January 7, 2016

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 she doesn't receive her scores until early January, which gives her just a few months to prepare for the May or June SAT tests – which happen to  fall at the same time as state curriculum tests, Advanced Placement tests, SAT Subject tests, and course finals. In the midst of all this testing, the odds that she will find time to thoroughly prepare for the SAT (or any of her other exams) are slim to none. Consequently, many students find that their spring SAT scores are disappointing and they need to retake the test in the fall.

What’s the big deal? They still have the summer after junior year to prepare. The problem is that having suboptimal junior SAT scores complicates the college search process. Families wonder whether their child should apply to colleges where she would be a strong candidate if her scores improve significantly in the fall– or the less competitive colleges that would be realistic choices on the basis of her junior scores. If they include both sets of colleges on the search list, it becomes difficult to adequately investigate and visit all the potential institutions.

How Can This Situation Be Avoided?

Ideally, students should take a practice PSAT in 10th grade to give them an early indicator of their scores and shed light on how much – and what kind – of 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 and a fall or winter SAT. For advice on test prep strategies, read the next article on Preparing for Tests.

Parent Tips

The junior year PSAT is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Competition, so students who take it without preparing decrease their chance of being selected as National Merit Commended Students, Finalists, or Scholars. A lot of scholarship money is awarded to students recognized by the National Merit competition, so students should take the junior PSAT seriously. Engaging in SAT prep the summer before junior year will make it far more likely that your son will earn winter SAT scores in his desired target range. Best case scenario; he gets such a high score on his winter SAT that he never has to take it again. Even if his scores are not quite where he’d like them to be, he can retake the test in the spring and prepare again over the following summer – this time focusing on individual areas of weakness- before taking it in the fall of senior year.

Also, many colleges have attractive early application programs wherein a student can apply by November 1st and learn her fate by mid-December or January. Although early decision programs are binding, requiring a family to be certain of the student’s choice before applying, early action programs typically are not. What’s not to like about finding out that you’ve been accepted to a college in December, and then not having to commit until May?

Registering for Tests

SAT and SAT Subject Tests: Students register for these on the College Board website: www.collegeboard.org. However, registration for the PSAT and AP tests is done through a student’s counseling office.

ACT : Registration for the ACT should be done on the ACT website: www.actstudent.org.

Reporting Scores to Colleges

When students register for the SAT, they have the option of sending score reports to four colleges for free. While free is always good, think twice before taking advantage of this offer. Alternatively, a student can wait to get all his scores and then decide which to send to colleges by using the College Board Score Choice option. Read about that on this page of the College Board website. Be aware, however, that some colleges essentially countermand the Score Choice option by asking to see scores from all tests a student has taken, so don’t encourage your daughter to take the SAT ten times on the theory that it can’t hurt.

The ACT has a similar system for sending scores; you can send scores to four colleges for free when you register for the test, or wait until after you’ve received all your scores to decide which ones to send to which schools.

Note: In both these programs, students cannot choose to send scores from isolated sections of a test administration. In other words, if a student chooses to send his SAT scores from his June test date, scores from all three sections will be sent.

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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