"I'm a great standardized test taker," answered the retriever.
Unfortunately not all students have the natural ability to earn high scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. In addition, the issues related to preparing for these tests, reporting them to colleges and their role in the admissions process can be both confusing and stressful. Beyond this, the testing landscape is forever evolving, so that yesterday's good advice may not be useful today.
The SAT and the ACT are widely used at the majority of American colleges and universities as an element of the admissions process. The degree to which a given school relies upon, or considers, a student's performance on such tests varies significantly. Some institutions consider test results as a key factor for admission, while others either don't require submission, make submission optional, or consider them as secondary to other credentials such as academic record, personal character, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, etc.
When students I work with ask me how they should deal with SAT (or ACT), I always
-- Prepare for the tests to get the best results,
-- Stay calm, whatever your performance is on these tests,
-- Make sure you match your college choices with your testing performance.
Preparation can positively affect standardized test results, sometimes dramatically. College-bound students can prep online, through book purchases, and with private counseling companies such as Princeton Review at www.princetonreview.com. The College Board, which created and administers the SAT, has free prep materials online and for sale at www.sat.org. Much has been made in the press about the disparity in test scores between students whose families can, or can't, afford private test preparation. Of course such private tutoring is extremely useful, but for those without the means, simply grabbing a copy of a Princeton Review SAT (or ACT), or similar, prep book from the public, or school library, will be of enormous help. Familiarity and practice generally improves standardized testing results for most students.
I counsel staying calm in the face of standardized testing because worrying about testing and test results adds nothing to a student's performance and misdirects energy that would be better spent on learning, earning good grades and creating solid applications. As already mentioned, it's possible to apply to many wonderful colleges that don't require, or don't heavily weigh, standardized test results as part of their acceptance decisions. A comprehensive list of such colleges has been assembled by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (www.fairtest.org). Whatever the final outcome of taking standardized tests, a student must be realistic about which college to apply to. Low SAT scores will be a handicap at colleges that require submission of the SAT and which have a high average for accepted applicants. Incidentally, most colleges promulgate their average entrance requirements on the admissions pages of their Web sites. This information is also found on websites focusing on college admissions (e.g., www.princetonreview.com and www.petersons.com). Remember that high test scores are not a guarantee of admission and are merely one factor that colleges consider. Nonetheless, it's important to match one's testing performance with the expectations of the school.
In my counseling service we work to help students undertake preparation for standardized tests. We also make strategic decision about whether to use the results of the SAT or ACT when applying, using SAT's new "Score Choice" reporting methodology, how often to take the tests, which schools to apply to given a student's performance and especially, making sure that the rest of a student's candidacy is as clearly, strongly and compellingly presented as possible. While the nuanced strategies of choosing tests (SAT vs. ACT), report dates (Score Choice) and testing prep, may be fairly complicated, it only takes common sense and diligence to complete a good, thorough and engaging college application. More on this next time.
Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, specializing in secondary school and college placement. You can contact Wilner with questions on this or any other college or secondary school admission topic at www.wilnereducation.com.