Test Prep

Your SAT Scheduling Plan

Perhaps one of the most overlooked components of a high schooler’s college search and admission plan is a “smart” strategy for taking standardized tests. These would include the SAT, Subject Tests, and the ACT (if applicable). The speed with which high schoolers advance through their academic years sometimes makes it difficult to plan ahead, and some students end up in their junior (even senior) year wishing that they had been more thoughtful about when and how to prepare for the requirements for these tests.

Developing an testing strategy can be a challenge. It doesn’t have to be, though, if you observe some basic considerations. First, define your goals. Obviously, you want your score to be as high as possible. But what is high? Over 830 four-year colleges view the SAT as optional. For students applying to these schools, low SAT scores are no problem; they don’t submit them. Schools that do require the SAT have a published range of scores, called the middle 50 percent, which tells you where yours should fall if you want to meet their SAT guidelines. Most high schoolers take the SAT well before they know these ranges.

Getting SAT experience early is a good tactic. Often, your first encounter with the SAT should be in ninth grade. Some sixth and seventh graders take the SAT as a qualifier for Johns Hopkins University’s Search for Talented Youth program. So don’t be upset by the prospect of a ninth-grade SAT. In terms of how many SATs to take, sometimes more is less. Most students will have achieved an optimum score by the third taking of the SAT, assuming you take the final one in the Fall of your senior year. A rule of thumb states that SAT scores tend to rise naturally at the rate of 100 points (total) for each school year that elapses after the student’s first SAT. Coaching, however, can make a difference.


Don’t forget about the SAT II when planning your SAT I. The SAT II exams are the former Achievement Tests (now called Subject Tests). The three most commonly required Subject Tests (required by most highly selective colleges) are Writing, Math, and the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, etc.). You can’t take both the SAT I and the Subject Tests on the same day. The best time to do the Subject Tests is in June of the year you had the subject your testing. If you want to do the SAT I and Subject Tests in the same year, do the SAT I in January or May and schedule the Subject Tests for June.

 

If reading this is making you feel a bit queasy (or even panicky), you’re not alone. Ever see the original movie Godzilla or its remake? Some scenes recall a familiar and unfortunate attitude of high school seniors that happens every October: SAT panic. Obviously the fear and anxiety isn’t quite that of those poor Tokyo residents or New Yorkers fleeing that big reptile. There is tension, though, and misunderstanding. Students want to flee the test. Let’s take a look at what one SAT expert says about approaching the SAT as a sophomore.

Mark Greenstein of Ivy Bound Test Prep occasionally sends me insights about dealing with the SAT. The other day, he sent me a message entitled “Test Progression for Sophomores – Avoiding Mistakes.” I’d like to share that with you here as a prime example of how planning your SAT schedule can both relieve a lot of stress and create a natural progression in your college admissions process. Here, in part, is what Mark wrote to me:

… March, April, and May are key months for building college success credentials. The single most prevalent mistake my Staff hears from parents is:

    “…we didn’t think sophomore year testing was important”.

They express this ruefully in the junior year, when some opportunities have passed. Please take my experience (steering students to college success since 1987) and that of many parents who now do it differently for a second child …

Test credentials earned in the sophomore year CAN count. The beauty is that they don’t need to (colleges can accept tests done in Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, or Senior year). The danger is that after sophomore year, some tests are inopportune.

The SAT Subject Tests are best taken when on a good day a student can get 700+ in a subject. For those targeting top 20 admissions, that number is more like 770+, but 700+ almost always impresses otherwise. That is often spring of SOPHOMORE year. A strong student coming to the end of a course that s/he will not be taking next year should be testing this spring.    

Biology is a classic example. Many students are doing well in a sophomore year biology course but know they will NOT take biology next year. This spring is thus the opportune time to post a good score. The studying and the end of a course is relatively easy, and there will be no need to “re-learn” next year.  

Math is often another example. Though most students will take math all four years of high school, a sophomore completing Algebra II who is moving on to Calculus next year is well-served taking the SAT this spring. That is because the SAT Math Subject Tests  demand Algebra and trigonometry, but not Calculus.

Students should consider the AP similarly. An AP score earned as a sophomore counts just as much as earned as a junior. And again, some AP subjects are opportune now, and will not be next year. Testing maturity builds somewhat in later years, but:

1)   students who fall down early learn from it and still have future months to get better, and

2)   students who enlist a tutor for a new type of test inject themselves with better test-taking and time-management strategies right away.

Finally, if a student can only fit in a tutor one time a week but has a math and a science to study for, we suggest that Math be studied for first. Same with History and Science: study the History first …

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So, don’t subscribe to SAT panic. Plan ahead. Don’t participate in the numbers game. Do the very best you can if you have to take the test. Get some good coaching or prep books, study vocabulary, and give it your best shot. Your success in college will depend on how well you’ve selected your school and how hard you work. SAT scores have little to do with college success.

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Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.