Part I: Standardized Testing
BY: Shereem Herndon-Brown, Director of Strategic Admissions Ad
If you went to college, you probably took the SAT. Remember that test? The one where you sat for three hours on a Saturday morning with the number two pencil? Do you recall having to fill in the bubbles on the answer sheet? Did you hope that you did really well so that you could get into the school of your choice? Do you remember LIKING it? Few of us did, but we realized that doing well on this test might help us to get into the college (or colleges!) of our dreams. Very little has changed in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years except that colleges admissions overall is more competitive and this test – and others – have taken over much of the college admissions process. While standardized tests will never be the most important factor in determining college admissions – having good grade in difficult classes is essential – they are a big piece of the puzzle and understanding which tests to take and when can be confusing.
The Sat Is Still The “BIG TEST.” Since 1926 when it began as a series of questions that were developed by the U.S. Army to select World War I military recruits, it has been the dominant admissions test for aspiring college students. It contains three sections (Critical Reading, Math and Writing) each scored out of 800 (for a total of 2400) and is offered seven times a year (October, November, December, January, March, May and June). It has an accompanying practice test, the PSAT, offered to high school students across the country in the fall of their junior year. Some schools even let sophomores take the PSAT as a pre-practice test with the expectation that students will take the SAT at least once as a junior and again as a senior. However, increasingly colleges and universities across the country now accept the ACT as a suitable alternative to the SAT. Slightly different in format, schools do not have a preference between the two. Students should prepare for the test they feel most comfortable with after taking a diagnostic test for both with a tutor or simply taking the PSAT or the PLAN, the practice ACT exam which is administered to sophomores at school’s or district’s discretion.
Should my child take a test prep course? If you can afford it, then yes. Preparation of any kind helps. That is not to say that you need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars, but rather assess your price point and find a reputable tutor or tutoring company who may be willing to work with you. If test prep is not in your budget, there are online preparation courses students can do or there are study books from a local book store or library so they can familiarize themselves with the tests as much as possible. Few students have the discipline to learn the strategies to excel on these tests. Those that do, are usually already at the top of their classes or have been unusually strong test-takers for a long time. If this is the case minimal preparation is fine, but never take these tests cold.
When should my child start taking standardized tests and preparing for college? Believe it or not, the college admissions process starts in the eighth grade. Courses in math, science and foreign language, often determine what courses or track students can take in high school. SATII SubjectTests (formerly known as Achievements) are one- hour exams offered at the conclusion of courses such as Biology, French, Spanish, and Chemistry and can demonstrate a students’ capabilities in a certain course and can begin as early as the ninth grade. Students should always consult their teachers or guidance counselor about the Subject Tests to see if the course material prepares them to take it.
BEWARE: Some schools expect students to submit all of their scores, no matter how good or not so good they are. Students should only take tests in which they are confident they will do well and feel ready for. Other than that, the SAT or ACT need to be taken no later than June of the junior year with the expectation of taking it again as a senior.
Prepare! As with anything in life, preparation is key. Students should read, read, and read some more. As parents, please try to gather as much information about these tests from your school, tutor or from an independent educational counselor. Having your child take diagnostic tests is also recommended. Standardized tests are not going anywhere. Even as some schools become standardized test optional and do not require students to take tests at all for admissions (Bowdoin College, Wake Forest University, American University), most use standardized testing as a critical piece for admissions and possibly for merit-based scholarships.
Immediate To Do’s:
If you have a senior in high school: register for the September, October or December ACT and/or the October, November or December SAT.
If you have a junior in high school: Check with your school’s guidance office about when he/she will take the PSAT. Once you have the results in December, try to find a tutor in your area that can help your child prepare for the January, March, May or June SAT or February, April or June ACT. Also ask your child’s teachers if their courses are preparing students for the SAT Subject Tests. US History is a popular SAT II Subject Tests for juniors.
If you have a sophomore in high school: Check with your school’s guidance office about when he/she will take the PLAN (practice ACT) and/or the PSAT. Once you have the results, try to find a tutor in your area early in the junior year to help your child prepare for the January, March, May or June SAT or February, April or June ACT of the following year. Also ask your child’s teachers if their courses are preparing students for the SAT Subject Tests. Chemistry and World History are popular SAT II Subject Tests for sophomores.
If you have a freshman in high school: Ask your child’s teachers if their courses are preparing students for the SAT Subject Tests. Biology is a popular SAT II Subject Tests for freshman.
Research local tutoring companies like Kumon, C2 and Sylvan. The one I highly recommend is Applerouth Tutoring (www.applerouth.com) which has its central office in Buckhead but will work with students throughout North Fulton and Gwinnett County.
Shereem Herndon-Brown, Founder and Director of Strategic Admissions Advice, LLC. Strategic Admissions Advice, LLC is an educational consulting company specializing in college and independent school admissions. After working as an admissions officer at Georgetown University and the Director of Middle and Upper School at an elite private school in New York City, Shereem transitioned into independent counseling to share his wealth of knowledge about the respective admissions process. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University, has a Masters Degree from Middlebury College and lives in Duluth with his wife and children.