Episode 23: College Admissions Tests

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Whether test preparation courses are worth it
How to take a practice test at home and how not to
Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out our show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23 to find links to the schools and programs we mention in this episode

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

College Admissions Tests on NYCollegeChat

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether test preparation courses are worth it
  • How to take a practice test at home and how not to
  • Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses

This week, we continue our Getting Ready to Apply series by discussing senior-year courses.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…

Taking care of your GPA–but not just for college admissions reasons
Taking AP exams–but not taking the course first
Taking actual college courses during the senior year–but not through dual enrollment

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/19

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC

Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we continue our series on Getting Ready to Apply by focusing on senior-year courses.

NYCollegeChat Episode 19 Senior Year Courses
Subscribe to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!

Some students think that it is all over by the time they get to the senior year. Everyone knows that it is the junior year grades that count the most. But wait! Senior year is important, and this is why: Virtually every college application asks students to list the courses being taken in the senior year, both semesters. And, virtually every college application asks students to indicate whether each senior year course is an honors course, an Advanced Placement (AP) course, a dual enrollment course (meaning that is being taken at a college or at the high school, but with a college’s staffing and/or supervision), or an International Baccalaureate (IB) course (for students in IB schools). So, taking just regular courses in the senior year could look like a bit of a cop-out to a prospective college. Therefore, if your child has the option of taking some more advanced or accelerated courses, it is worth thinking hard about that.

If your child’s high school does not offer any of these special kinds of courses, then just make sure that he or she takes the most rigorous courses available.

By the way, some colleges have minimum high school course requirements that they expect students to meet. They are much like your state’s course requirements for high school graduation. So, just to be safe, taking English, math, science, and social studies every year in high school is a good idea, along with a year of fine arts—art, music, or dance. That fourth year of math is particularly important—whether that’s calculus, precalculus, or statistics (preferably AP Statistics, if it is offered).

Let’s look at a few options for senior-year courses because it would be nice to be able to say on college applications that at least one senior-level course was advanced or accelerated in some way. Of course, taking advanced or accelerated courses as a freshman, sophomore, or junior also looks great on your child’s high school transcript, so your child need not wait until senior year to take advantage of these options if they are available earlier at your child’s high school.

1. Honors Courses

Your child’s high school might or might not offer courses designated as “honors” courses. If it does, entry into those courses might not be up to the student, because students might have to be chosen for honors courses by teachers, based on past grades or test scores. But, if your child does have the choice to take an honors English course or a regular English course, for example, encourage your child to take the honors course, assuming that he or she can get a good grade in it by working hard.

As you probably know, some high schools “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that students get more credit toward their GPAs for a grade received in an honors course than for a grade received in a regular course. In other words, getting a B+ in an honors course might be as good for your child’s GPA as receiving an A– in a regular course. On the other hand, some high schools do not “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that getting a B+ in an honors course will be worse for your child’s GPA than getting an A– in a regular course. So, that is something you will have to consider: Is it better to go for the higher GPA or to have honors courses on your child’s transcript and college applications? That is a hard choice, and colleges might not agree on which choice is better. The ideal, of course, is go for the honors course and encourage your child to get as good a grade in it as he or she would have gotten in the regular course. That’s the win–win.

2. Advanced Placement Courses

The weighted grades discussion applies to Advanced Placement (AP) courses as well. As you probably know, AP courses are designed to be college-level courses, taught at the high school by specially trained high school teachers. AP courses are a product of The College Board, which puts together both the syllabus, or outline, for the course and the test that is used at the end of the course to judge how well students learned the material. In addition, The College Board trains and certifies the high school teachers who teach the course. More than 35 AP courses have been developed, with multiple courses available in a variety of subject fields—in English, history and social science, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, world languages and cultures, and the arts.

The end-of-course AP tests are graded on a 5-point scale. Some colleges give college credit for high scores—for example, scores of 4 or 5. Some colleges let students who get high scores skip introductory courses in that subject field, but do not give students any credit. Basically, individual colleges can do what they want to do with AP test scores—including nothing at all.

Some high schools teach AP courses as senior-level courses; others teach them to younger students as well; others do not teach them at all. Whatever you think of AP courses—how good they are, how hard they are, whether they are really like college courses—it probably makes sense for your child to take one or more if your child has the course prerequisites and the ability to do it, purely from a how-it-looks-to-prospective-colleges perspective.

3. Dual Enrollment Courses

Many high schools do not have dual enrollment courses. But, if your child’s high school does, they are a fabulous option. These are college courses, which give students both high school credit and college credit at the same time because the students are dually enrolled—that is, enrolled in both college and high school at the same time for the same course. These courses are usually available in Early College high schools, though there are only about 300 Early College high schools across the U.S. We are lucky in New York City to have just over 15 Early College high schools now, with another two dozen or so statewide. However, other high schools that are not Early College high schools also can offer dual enrollment courses, typically in cooperation with a nearby college.

If dual enrollment courses are available at your child’s high school and your child is eligible to take them (that is, your child has whatever course prerequisites are needed), then make sure that your child takes them. These courses carry credits awarded by the cooperating college, which makes it more likely—though not guaranteed—that whatever college your child eventually attends will accept them. For that reason, these credits are likely more valuable than AP exam scores. There is really no downside to taking college courses in high school if a student is prepared for them.

4. Summer College Courses

We said in a recent episode that taking college courses in the summer—ideally after eleventh grade, I think—is a great way to make productive use of the summertime. We mentioned that one college application I had seen recently asked the applicant to account for his activities during every summer of his high school years. What better to have to say than, “I was taking a course at a college.” Whether the college is local or far away, big or small, selective or not, public or private, two-year or four-year—earning college credits during the summer while still a high school student is a wonderful idea. We also said that the only better idea is to study abroad and earn those college credits at an interesting college outside of the U.S.

Now, this is an episode about senior-year courses. So, the question is whether your child can list a course taken in the summer after the junior year as a senior-year course. I think that is a reasonable position, and I think that a college would find it acceptable.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Taking care of your GPA—but not just for college admissions reasons
  • Taking AP exams—but not taking the course first
  • Taking actual college courses during the senior year—but not through dual enrollment

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…