As anyone who has ever taken a standardized test knows, the last step in preparing for the test is to sharpen your No. 2 pencil. That may not be enough, however, for those thinking about taking college entrance exams. Planning and preparation for the ACT/SAT should begin now for students who are currently in their junior year. Here are some topics to consider as you establish your test-taking strategies.
Do I need to take the test? If you plan to attend a four-year institution, then yes, you should take either the ACT or SAT. Both tests are equally accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the United States. The tests are used in admission decisions, course placement, invitations to join honors colleges and in awarding merit scholarships.
Which test? The SAT is considered a test of aptitude. The test is broken into three sections: Critical Reading, Mathematics and Writing. Generally, students who are good readers, have a wide-ranging vocabulary, and enjoy deductive reasoning do well on this test. The ACT, in contrast to the SAT, is a test of achievement. The ACT is comprised of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Scientific Reasoning plus an optional Writing section. Students who enjoy math and science and a straight-forward question format, seem to have the most success with this test.
When and how often? I recommend taking both tests in the spring of your junior year. Then test again in the fall of your senior year, re-taking the test for which you have the most success. The SAT is administered seven times each year: October, November, December, January, March or April, May and June. The ACT is administered six times a year: September, October, December, February, April and June. Most students test twice. I usually do not see significant gains in scores after the second attempt; in fact, some students see a decrease in scores.
What about preparation? Test preparation can help you become more familiar with test content, strategies and pacing. Preparation also increases confidence, and helps you know what to except on test day. Test preparation can be accomplished using anything from free online programs, to self-paced review books, to one-on-one intense tutoring sessions. Choose a method that best suits your learning style, level of commitment, schedule and budget.
How do I register? Register for both tests at least one month (several months is optimal) in advance. Register for the SAT at www.collegeboard.org. When you register you will choose a test site, typically a high school near your home, you will pay a fee of $51, and you will be required to upload a photo of yourself. On the day of the test, plan to be at the test center for four and half hours, which includes time for test administration, breaks and the actual taking of the test. Register for the ACT at www.actstudent.org. As with the SAT, you will choose a test site close to home, pay a fee of $36.50 for the standard test or $52.50 for the standard test, plus the optional writing section. Plan to be at the test site for about five hours to allow time for test administration, breaks and the actual test.
What is a Test Optional school? Many colleges, in fact nearly 850, do not require either the ACT or SAT for admission. These schools use alternative criteria to build diverse, capable, excelling freshmen classes. If you do not test well, you may want to check out the list of schools at www.fairtest.org.
Standardized test scores are just one aspect of your application for admission. Extra-curricular activities, volunteer service, application essays and most importantly, your cumulative GPA, all contribute to the holistic picture you present to a college admissions committee.
• Barbara Phelps is an independent college consultant and Ahwatukee Foothills resident. She assists students in grades 9-12 with the college planning, search and application process. Reach her at (602) 697-4543, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.pathfindercollegeconsulting.com.