Test Prep

Should Parents Force ACT Retest When Big Merit Bucks are on the Line?


Question: My son is one point away from the qualifying ACT score to get a full scholarship at his number one school, but says he's "spent" and doesn't want to retake the ACT. He isn't even willing to try the SAT (they have a scholarship equivalent score for the SAT as well but he has never taken it). We are trying to encourage him to take one of the tests one more time. This is worth thousands of dollars to us in scholarship money. He says there isn't even time -- but the application isn't due until December, so there's still time, right? What do you advise?

Ah ... the joys of parenthood! As a parent myself, I empathize with you, but I can understand your son's stance, too. Unlike in my own high school era when most of us took our standardized tests only once or twice, for today's teenagers, test-taking can sometimes feel like another (albeit unwanted) extracurricular activity.

So first the logistics: Yes, there IS still time for your son to take the ACT and have a score before the December deadline. If he registers for the Oct. 27 test, he should see his scores in mid-November. The registration deadline is Sept. 28, and late registration fees apply Sept. 29-Oct. 14. The sooner he signs up, the better his chances of getting his preferred test site.

He could also try the SAT on either Oct. 6 or on Nov. 3. Even the November date will provide scores in plenty of time for the college application cutoff. Thus, your son can't say no to retesting due to scheduling, since there is clearly still time to register.

What you haven't said, however, is how many times your son has tried the ACT already. When he claims he is “spent," is it because he's taken two tests or four? If the latter, “The Dean" truly feels his pain, but yet with just a single point separating him from thousands of dollars (YOUR dollars, in fact), I certainly feel your pain as well. So here are a couple of questions:

1. Do you suspect that your son's reluctance to retest is just garden-variety adolescent angst over parental insistence on unpleasant tasks (as in “Clean your room, change the cat litter and take out the garbage before you go to the party") or is there more going on here?

In other words, do you feel as if your son's mental health is fragile, due at least in part to the pressures of the college admission process? Depression and anxiety issues are far more prevalent among today's teens than they were just a couple decades ago, and you need to make sure that this testing dilemma won't be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Even with money on the line, it's not worth it.

2. When your son took the ACT in the past, what did his Science score look like?

For many students — including those who hate science — this is the section where it's easiest to make improvements. Some of the answers can be found right in the test itself if the student is familiar with the testing format, and above all, is able to move through the section quickly and complete it. Even students who did well on this section often complain that they felt more time constraints there than on other sections. So if your son's Science score wasn't already strong, you might be able to convince him to practice just this section at home for the next couple months, taking actual practice tests (only the Science part) under timed conditions then reviewing his incorrect answers to understand where he went wrong. Presumably, when he retests, his other section scores will remain roughly where they were the last time, and if he can bump up his Science by a few points, it could net him that all-important Composite score.

On the other hand, if he maintains that he's wrung all he can out of the ACT already, you might cajole him into trying the SAT. If he does, don't push a lot of studying on him. It's more important for him to earn the best possible grades that he can in his first semester and to focus on his applications and other undertakings. But he should at least familiarize himself with the test format before the test date.

While there are few folks on this planet who are more staunchly against overtesting than “The Dean" is, I do agree that students have to understand the costs of college and the burden that it can place on their parents. Middle-class families in particular are often caught in the middle ... too “rich" to qualify for significant need-based aid but too “poor" to pay full freight without ramen dinners and wee-hours wake-ups. Therefore, the student will need to step up to contribute, and earning a large merit scholarship can be a far more useful way to do this than by chipping in some earnings from a minimum-wage work-study job.

So ultimately I come out on your side in this debate, but only if you are convinced that your son's emotional health isn't in jeopardy if you force the retesting.

Good luck and let us know how this story ends. Your experiences could turn out to be very helpful to folks in your shoes in the future.


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