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Admissions Testing

By Dr. Ellen Fithian - Updated September, 2016

The importance of standardized testing to college admissions offices is a mystery to many parents and students. Why, they wonder, do colleges care so much about a student’s performance on one or two Saturday mornings when they have three and a half year’s worth of high school achievement to evaluate?

One reason was examined in the article on Grades, GPA, and Class Rank – namely that it’s impossible to directly compare the GPAs and grades of students from different high schools. Formulas for calculating GPAs differ, and a B in Spanish from the teacher known to his students as El Exigente may represent a much greater accomplishment than an A from another high school’s Señora Smiley.  However, since everyone takes the SAT and ACT under standardized conditions, all applicants can be evaluated by the same metric.

How Can Parents Help?

The first thing you can do is to learn about the tests. Read on for a brief overview of the major admissions tests.

PSAT : Not Just a Practice Test. The PSAT is often the first college admissions test that students encounter. It’s similar to the SAT, but is shorter and has no essay. Students can take it in 10th (and even 9th ) grade for practice, but only the score from junior year counts as the qualifying score for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, which awards scholarships to top scorers.

Parent Tip

Unlike the SAT, students need to sign up and pay for the PSAT through the school counseling office at their high school, not the College Board website.  Some schools register and pay for all juniors, but many don’t, so have your daughter check the policy in her school. The test is given in mid-October, so registration is early. 

ACT : Try it, You Might Like It.  Each year, more and more high school students take the ACT - 64% of graduating students in 2016, according to the ACT test makers. The vast majority of colleges will accept the SAT or ACT, and if a student submits scores from both tests will use whichever score is higher. The ACT is comprised of four tests: English, Reading, Math, and Science, each of which is scored from 1 to 36. The composite score (which is the score colleges tend to focus on), is simply the average of the four section scores.  An optional Writing section is required by some colleges, so students who plan to take the ACT should check the testing requirements of the schools they are interested in to see whether they need it. I generally recommend that students take the writing section to avoid having to retake the ACT to satisfy the requirements of a college they add to their list late in the game.

A second recommendation that I make to all the students I work with is to review the science section and do several practice tests. While the English, Reading, and Math tests cover similar material to what's covered on the SAT, the science section is unique. Furthermore, many students find that it's a very time-pressured section. On average, test-takers have approximately five minutes to read each scientific passage, analyze accompanying charts and graphs, and answer five to seven questions. It's not the kind of test you'd want to see for the first time on test day.

Bottom line: some kids do a lot better on the ACT than the SAT, so why not give it a try?

Parent Tip

How do you compare your SAT score to your ACT score since they’re graded differently? To convert a composite ACT score to a comparable SAT Critical Reading plus Math score, consult this online ACT- SAT concordance table.

SAT Subject Tests: Who Needs Them? SAT Subject tests are one hour, multiple choice tests of specific academic content. Students can choose from 20 tests in the areas of English, math, the sciences, history, and foreign languages. Typically, it is only the most selective colleges that require scores from Subject Tests. In most cases, those colleges request that students take two or three tests of their choice, although engineering programs sometimes specify that applicants must submit scores from math and a quantitative science. When should your son take these? As a rule of thumb, it’s best to take Subject Tests at the end of a course on that topic. For example, a student taking U.S. History would do best to take the corresponding subject test that May or June.

Parent Tips

You can begin taking Subject tests anytime, so if your daughter has a strong 10th grade course, consider having her take a Subject Test in that area. This helps lighten the load of standardized testing that students often encounter in the spring of their junior year.

Another tip for Subject testing is to kill two birds with one stone. Students who are taking AP courses should consider taking a Subject Test in that subject, if one exists. Since the College Board writes both tests, the Subject Test is often quite similar to the multiple choice section of the AP test in the same topic.

Finally, before students take a particular Subject test, it's a good idea to take a practice test first. The College Board's book, The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests, contains a practice test for all 20 subjects, so if your daughter is considering taking the subject test in chemistry, have her try it at home under timed circumstances. If she doesn't do as well as she'd like, she can either review her chemistry or try a few tests in different subjects to see if there are others in which she scores higher.

Learn all about testing

There’s a lot more information about these tests on the websites of their creators. For the PSAT, SAT, SAT Subject tests (and Advanced Placement tests), visit  http://www.collegeboard.org. For the ACT, visit www.actstudent.org. Introduce yourself – and your son or daughter- to these sites early. They both contain a lot of useful information on testing and college planning.

In addition, there's a lot more in-depth information on Planning and Preparing for testing right here on The Sidelines, so keep reading.

Next article:   Planning for Testing


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