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College Admissions: Standardized Test Prep

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


close up of hand and scantron

Spend the summer taking practice standardized tests.

Standardized test preparation is a big business. Many families have figured out that merit aid is often dependent on a student’s ACT or SAT score, so test prep can offer a good Return On Investment (ROI).

I am not a fan of standardized tests. Research has shown that high school grades are a much better indicator of success in college. However, most colleges still require students to submit either ACT or SAT scores as part of the application process. They do this because of grade inflation and the fact that high schools across the United States and internationally are so different, that they want a standard that is perceived as a level playing field. I won’t go into a tirade here about how these tests are unfair to many groups, including those of lower socio-economic status and first-generation college students. Regardless, since you probably will need to submit some standardized test scores, I want to help you make those the best they can be.

You only need to prep for either the SAT or ACT (not both), so I suggest you do a diagnostic exam and prep for the one you are naturally better at. Many test prep services offer a free diagnostic. You can also compare your preferences and scores on the ACT Plan (if your school gave this test) vs. the PSAT you probably took in fall of junior year. Nowadays, all colleges accept either test without preference. Since you will spend time and energy to study for the test you are already likely to score higher on, there is no point in doubling your effort by studying for both.

If you did some test prep this past summer (between sophomore and junior year), I applaud you for being proactive. It is great to commit time to test prep when you are not as busy with homework and extra-curricular activities. Juniors, if you didn’t prep this past summer, this is an excellent time to start. Ideally, you would like to finish your standardized testing in June of junior year.

Why not prep over the upcoming summer and take your standardized tests in fall of senior year? This is your back-up plan if you don’t like your spring test scores. Ideally, you can have a fairly solid college list by summer so that you can work on your applications over the summer when you have more time to focus on them. You can’t know whether your list of schools is realistic without your standardized test scores. Plan to finish your testing this spring. If you decide to retake in the fall, set your list based on the scores you have, since you can always add some more selective colleges should you score higher in the fall.

There are lots of available test prep resources. I like to categorize them as free, low-cost, classes and individual tutoring. Your family budget and learning style should help you determine what is best for you.

Free online test prep resources:

•    The official ACT site  

•    The official SAT site 

•    Varsity Tutors free practice tests

•    SAT prep from I Need a Pencil 

•    SAT and ACT prep from Number2.com  

•    Build your SAT and ACT vocabulary and help distribute rice to alleviate world hunger with freerice.com 

•    Sparknotes.com delivers terrific ACT, SAT and SAT Subject Matter Test prep 

•    SAT math prep from Khan Academy 

•    Free SAT puzzles and tips from a quirky blogger 

•    Great SAT math and physics resources (free) from Erik the Red

•    Wonderful compilation of helpful SAT prep from Best College Reviews

•    Veritas Test Prep offers free test prep videos

Only students with sights set on highly selective schools need to take SAT 2 Subject tests. If you are one of those students, be sure to look now at the testing requirements of the schools you are considering. You will want to take two or three subject tests in May or June of junior year (whichever month you are not taking the ACT or SAT). If you are unhappy with your subject test scores, you can retake in September or October, but the material will be less fresh in your mind after a summer break unless you refresh it over the summer.

Jodi Walder-Biesanz is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC, which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at [email protected].


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