the college application process: testing (part two)

Friday, October 12, 2018



This is likely the most unpleasant part of the process for many kids and families.  For us, it was pretty easy with one son but the other one wanted NOTHING to do with the testing at all.  So, what I write about today regarding testing is what worked for us and those around us.  I will preface this by saying we were very fortunate and our situation is not typical.  Our boys are extremely good test takers and they always have been so we had a good foundation. They ended up doing really well on the ACT and SAT and I think prep had a lot to do with it. However, I have advised clients with children who struggled with test taking and this approach also helped them tremendously.

Fortunately, the boys' high school offers the PSAT freshmen, sophomore and junior year in October so they get plenty of practice taking it and we could see what their strengths and weaknesses were.  Similarly, they offer the practice ACT. If your child's school does not offer these, you can find other places for them to take them.  I highly recommend this for a few reasons.  First, one of our sons did very well on the ACT but very average on the SAT.  Once we knew that, he focused all of his attention and effort on preparing for the ACT.  He never even took the SAT. The other son did well on both. So, he prepared for both (much to his dismay). Also,  taking practice tests helps you identify areas that your child needs to work on and it can help you set realistic goals for both college admittance and scholarship money.

I bought this book and this book  for the boys and encouraged them to practice a bit the summer before junior year but I did not nag them. Then, in late summer/ fall of junior year, I enrolled one child in the SAT prep course.  I timed it so that he would finish the course before the October PSAT junior year.  That is the only test that could possibly qualify your child as a National Merit Scholar.  If there is no chance your kids will qualify (which is most of us) then you don't need the prep before this one.  It can wait a few months. But if your child scored very well on the practice tests, you might want consider the prep before the PSAT.

We had a good idea by early Fall of junior year how the boys would do on the ACT and SAT.  Harry took the SAT in November and December but his first score was the highest. That is the one he sent to all of his schools.  Will took the ACT  2 or 3 times Junior year and I think we sent 2 sets of scores to his colleges and they superscored (combined the highest of each subset).  It was really nice to be done with testing by mid year Junior year. They both decided when they were happy with their scores and when to stop taking the test.  Honestly, Harry only wanted to take the SAT once but I encouraged him to take it twice.  Scores typically increase slightly.

I think what helped the most with testing was the prep.  We used Test Masters for both boys and both of their scores improved significantly.  We will use them with Kate when the time comes too.  They are reasonably priced, thorough and they get results. We made our boys enroll in the classroom option not the online prep.  I think they learn better being there. It is an intense month when they take the prep course but it is only a month.  Now, I am not saying they loved the prep classes (well--one boy was fine with them and one hated them) but we think it was well worth the time and money. We knew Will was taking the ACT in early February of junior year so he took the class for the month of January for maximum benefit.  Harry took the ACT prep and test the same time of his junior year.  He also took the SAT prep in September for the October PSAT and November SAT and did very well.  Harry also worked with a math teacher at his school for one or two private lessons.  Harry is really good at math and had a great score but there were a few mathematical concepts he had not learned yet in the beginning of junior year even though he was in AC math.  It was easy for him to learn those concepts in an hour or two of private tutoring just before the SAT.

We have several friends who hired private tutors for thousands of dollars and the kids' scores did not change at all or just slightly. Many people here use private tutors but I don't think that was the direction for us. I am sure there are great ones out there.  I just did not hear much success locally. From my experience and what I hear from my friends, the prep courses do a great job if your kids do what they suggest and attend the classes. I do think that for most kids, some sort of test prep pays off.  Most merit scholarships are given based on test scores and GPA.  So, Dave and I figured it was worth a small investment in a prep course because it could end up increasing their scholarships by thousands of dollars each year (And it did!).  There are lots of companies out there that do prep but I swear by Test Masters and I have no affiliation with them.  We just saw amazing results.

You should ask around in your area for test prep recommendations. Ask parents of kids a year or two older than yours.  I would only pay for a prep course or tutor if you get personal recommendations for great results. Perhaps in your area, private tutoring yields great results. Test Masters and other companies guarantee their course and if your scores don't improve, you can retake the course for free.  Both of our kids had the improvements that they predicted. Also, I don't think you need to spend a fortune on test prep.  I think our courses were under $500 (which is a lot) but they literally got our boys thousands of dollars by putting them in the highest merit scholarship brackets.  Also, the boys were very motivated to do well.  They both were applying to several private schools and out of state schools and they knew that academic scholarship money was important. If the cost of a tutor or a prep course is simply too much, at least purchase the prep books and have your child practice those. They really do help.

Harry took one SAT subject test but it is not necessary unless your child is applying to highly competitive or Ivy League schools.  In fact, my suggestion is to look at the schools your child plans to apply to and see what they want.  All the schools we were looking at accepted either the ACT or SAT...except UVA (back then they wanted the SAT).  And most do not require subject tests.  They can help in extremely competitive programs, major and schools though.  Our boys chose to send their best scores to the schools and did not send any scores right away.  We waited and sent scores once they applied and picked which scores to send where.

If your chid is in on level classes (not AP) especially for Math and Science, I would wait until the end of junior year or very early summer after junior year to take the SAT and ACT. That would be ideal timing. They can even take it again in September or October of senior year if warranted. Many of the concepts are taught in the Spring of junior year and they will likely do better if they wait.

So in sum, if your child is in AP classes, start SAT and/or ACT prep early to mid junior year and try to complete all test taking in the junior year.  Take each test 2 or 3 times.  Many schools will super-score your results and often test scores increase.  If your child is in on level classes, start prep in the winter to spring of junior year and take the tests as soon as possible toward or after the end of spring semester.  That way all of the material should have been covered in classes. Subject tests are predominantly for kids applying to Ivy league or extremely competitive programs and only in the areas you are very knowledgeable in.  They are quite difficult.

One last note, if your child simply is not a good test taker, do not despair.  Many college do holistic reviews and testing is just one component.  I have also read about more and more schools not requiring testing at all.  It is only one aspect of an applicant.  Yes, it is still important but I think it is becoming less important.

Let me know your thoughts/questions in the comments.  I am enjoying blogging again but I only want to do it if people are reading and enjoying it too.  Next up: How to get the most out of a college visit.



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11 comments:

  1. We are in the thick of the process with twins in their senior year. It is so interesting to see how you went about the whole "college search" with your boys. We were not as organized with our oldest who is in college now but have been more deliberate with the twins. Thanks for sharing! Best of luck to Harry in choosing the right school!

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    1. Wishing you the very best. I am sure it is even more stressful with twins!

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  2. First, thank you so much for blogging again! Your blog was always one of my very favorites and I've missed it. You have so much wisdom to share and you've inspired me as a wife and mother. Thank you! Please keep blogging! Second, I'm loving this series. My oldest is a high school junior and we are just starting this whole process. I appreciate your perspective not only as a mother who has been through it but as a godly woman and therapist. As you know, there are so many expectations for and pressures on these kids. It's tough not to get caught up in it. I have to keep reminding myself that our goal is to help our son become a godly, hardworking man of integrity. It really doesn't matter where he goes to school...

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    1. YES! I just want happy, well rounded, independent kids. It is important to keep it all in perspective. And thank you SO much for the really kind words.

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  3. Excellent post as always Kim! One minor thing I would like to add from experience is that if your child's scores on the PSAT are great in his/her Sophomore year of high school have him/her stick with the College Board SAT prep. Reason being is that if they qualify for National Merit in their Junior Year the National Merit Scholarship wants a qualifying score from the SAT and not the ACT(proving their score on the PSAT was not a lucky score).

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    1. Thank you. I do mention that in the paragraph above. It is a long, detailed article but it is in there.

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  4. Great post! You are such a good writer!

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  5. Thank you so much for all this good information. Things seem so complicated these days.However,your knowledge sure helps

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Thank you for your kindness.