An Eligible College Student knows that Standardized Tests (PSAT, SAT I & II, ACT) are a very important element of their College application. Standardized Test prep is reported to be a 840 million dollar industry, because your test scores are a big deal! If you don’t like taking standardized tests, see Grades & Tests Scores: How do I Fix This? If you find yourself stressing about these tests and debating how much to spend on test prep, see this 2014 Reuters article, to help you gain perspective. In the meantime, read on to learn more about each test.
While the SAT test dates and ACT test dates are offered throughout the year, the PSAT (practice SAT) is offered on only one day of the year, on a Wednesday in October. The PSAT is proctored by High Schools, and is usually made available to Juniors, and sometimes to Sophomores. Until 2014, some High Schools chose to also offer the PLAN, considered a practice ACT, often made available to Sophomores on the same Wednesday as Juniors typically take the PSAT. Beginning in 2015, ACT no longer offers the PLAN, but instead offers Aspire, which is a student assessment tool for K-12 teachers. It appears to me what this means there are no options for taking a proctored practice ACT test, so in talking about taking proctored Practice Tests, I will focus on the PSAT. I believe more High Schools may choose to proctor the PSAT for both their Sophomores and Juniors, now that PLAN is not an option.
You do not submit your PSAT scores to Colleges, although some Colleges choose to purchase general information on student performance through College Board. That information is supposed to be used for marketing purposes, not to pre-screen College applicants. See Important Tip for When Registering for Standardized Tests for reasons why you should share your personal information with College Board. In addition to practicing for the SAT, your Junior year PSAT scores may qualify you to be a National Merit Commended Scholar, which is roughly the top 2% of test takers, or a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, which is roughly the top 1% of test takers. If a student is a National Merit Finalist, they must fulfill additional requirements, such as writing an essay and performing well on the SAT.
If they fulfill those requirements, a Finalist wins a National Merit Scholarship. In addition to a smaller Scholarship that may be awarded at that time, some Colleges automatically offer large or even full-ride Scholarships to National Merit Scholars who attend that College. This program is for Juniors taking the PSAT, so if you choose to take the PSAT Sophomore year, you will not be competing for National Merit recognition, with the exception if you will be enrolled in High School for less than 4 years.
If your school does not offer the PSAT to Sophomores, you can ask if you can take the PSAT as a Sophomore. Taking the PSAT as a Sophomore is an opportunity to practice taking the test, and can also be a way to alleviate any anxiety related to not knowing what to expect when taking the PSAT Junior year. Check with your High School Counselor to see if they report PSAT scores on your transcript, which is sent to Colleges. This may impact your decision to take the PSAT as a Sophomore, for practice. Many students choose to do minimal prep for the PSAT, especially if they are taking the PSAT in their Sophomore year. If you take the PSAT your Sophomore year, you can use the test booklet and the detailed test report that shows how you answered and whether you answered correctly, to target weak areas that need more preparation for your Junior year PSAT.
While the PSAT is good preparation for the SAT, it is definitely a different test than the SAT, therefore the prep is slightly different. While it is certainly a positive sign if you did well in the PSAT, it does not necessarily mean you will do well on the SAT.
College Board, the organization that offers the PSAT, is making extensive changes to the PSAT, which will take effect in October of 2015. College Board’s website discusses these changes, and there are many articles that also address the change, including this March, 2014 New York Times’ article. College Board produces an annual PSAT guide for students, which answers a lot of general questions.
At the bare minimum, it’s a good idea to practice for the PSAT by taking the SAT Question of the Day. If you have a smart phone, it makes sense to download the app, as it is easier to make a point of daily use. The College Board has further advice on how to prepare for the PSAT. There are several PSAT Study Guide books that include PSAT Practice tests. Furthermore, students who test well on the PSAT attract the attention of potential Colleges who purchase general performance information from the College Board for marketing purposes.
While you may get sick of all those college brochures, they can expose you to College options you may not have otherwise considered. I also found the brochures to contain valuable information that might not be available on a College’s website, which is very helpful when you are writing the essay, “Why do I want to attend this College”. And it’s good to be on Colleges’ radar – see Important TIp When Registering for Standardized Tests. The time you put into preparing you for the PSAT will certainly help you on the SAT, so it’s a good idea to do at least some prep for the PSAT.
While both the SAT (sometimes called SAT I) and ACT are offered approximately 6 times per year, they are offered anywhere from a week to a month from each other. Check ACT test dates and SAT test dates, to help you plan ahead. Registration is due long before the test, and the fee is higher if you wait until closer to the test to register. Remember, the Subject Tests are offered on some of the SAT test dates, so you need to be strategic in planning when you will take which test. An important factor to consider is that a few Colleges require you to submit test scores for all tests you take, so you don’t want to start taking the SAT before you are ready.
A new complicating variable in considering the SAT is that College Board, the organization that offers the SAT, is making extensive changes to the SAT, which will take effect in the Spring of 2016.
See SAT vs. ACT for information comparing these tests.
PREPARING FOR THE SAT and/or ACT
Some students are self-motivated independent learners. Hand them some prep books or direct them to on-line resources, and off they go. Some students learn better in a classroom setting. This means paying for either a group or individualized test prep, either in a physical location or through an on-line virtual class or with a virtual tutor. This is another item that might land in the category “money well spent”, where the cost of the test prep could likely net a lot more money to a student, via Merit Scholarships, as well as acceptance into selective colleges. The downside of this approach is that test prep is a money-making machine, so you need to do your homework to find good value. Refer to SAT Prep and/or ACT Prep for more advice on test prep.
Refer to General Test-Taking Tips for more advice.
SAT SUBJECT TESTS, AKA SAT II
SAT Subject Tests are available throughout the year, overlapping with the SAT Test dates, although you can’t take a SAT Subject Test and the SAT on the same test date.
Some colleges require Subject Tests, some colleges recommend Subject Tests and some colleges consider Subject Tests. I found a list (I don’t know if it was exhaustive) of colleges that require Subject tests, but more than half of those colleges require either the SAT and 2 SAT Subject Tests OR the ACT with writing, while the remaining colleges require the SAT and Subject Tests or the ACT and Subject Tests, so it’s important to look at the fine print. College Board’s list of Colleges using Subject Tests includes Colleges that merely consider Subject Tests, so don’t assume you are required to take Subject Tests if a College you are considering is included on the College Board’s list. The best way to know whether you will be required to take Subject Tests is to go to a prospective College’s Admissions page and review Admission Requirements, looking closely at the fine print. Some Colleges change from considering to requiring Subject Tests, depending on the major you choose.
Either way, it might be a good idea to take SAT Subject tests, so you have the option to apply to a College that requires them. If you do well on the Subject Tests, you can include them in your reports to prospective Colleges that merely consider Subject Tests as another way of standing out from the crowd. I believe you can choose to not report SAT Subject Tests scores if you are unhappy with your scores, although that may not be the case if you are applying to a College that requires you to submit all scores. Again, check the fine print, because some Colleges may require you to submit all SAT and ACT scores, but not SAT Subject Test scores.
Subject Tests will complicate your test-taking schedule. The Spring 2015 SAT test dates are March, May and June. Not all Subject Tests are offered on each test date, so you need to do some careful planning by checking the College Board’s website for available test dates, remembering to register before the deadline. Some High School Juniors will choose to take the SAT once in the Spring, some will choose to take the test twice in the Spring. If you choose to take the SAT twice in the Spring of your Junior year, that leaves the 3rd test date as your only option to take SAT Subject Tests in the Spring. This assumes you don’t have a conflict with any of the Spring test-taking dates. It is generally recommended to take Subject Tests shortly after you have completed the related High School courses, although some students choose to take Subject Tests in the fall of their Senior Year. The College Board has advice on which Subject Tests you should take.