Thursday, August 18, 2011

College entrance exams

Following up on my previous post about high school classes to prepare for college, here is some information about pre-college testing.  There are two different standardized tests that colleges use as part of their admissions decisions.  Fifteen years ago, some colleges and universities preferred the SATs, others preferred the ACTs, and some took either and/or both.  Apparently that has changed now.  At my first high school, enough students went to either school that we were encouraged to take both.  Here's what I know about these tests.

Test Registration
College admissions testing costs money.  It looks like PLAN is administered by schools and/or district.  I don't remember registering separately for the P-ACT (what's now PLAN), it might have been included in my school fees.  I paid some of my testing fees from my savings account.  Other testing fees were reduced, waived, or paid by my school on account of financial need.  If your family is having a hard time, talk to your guidance counselor about options.

Test Preparation
Know the rules for the test you're taking.  The SAT takes points away from your score if you guess wrong, so if you can't eliminate some answers, then it's better to skip the problem.  Come back later if you have time.  The ACT does not count off for wrong guesses, which means that if you don't know, guess.

There are a lot of companies out there willing to sell you test preparation materials.  If you have the money for them, it's your money.  If you don't, don't sweat it.  Both testing boards provide some free online materials for practice, so that you can see what kinds of questions will be asked.  Work with those.  I never took a test preparation course for these exams.

The most important tips are the ones on the ACT and SAT websites.  Review the official test prep questions days or weeks ahead of time.  Get a good nights sleep.  Eat a good breakfast.  Be early, and come prepared with the materials allowed for the particular test you are taking.  Dress comfortably, layers are good since some testing centers will be cold & others warm.
Sophomore Year Pre-Tests

First of all, you do NOT have to be a Junior or Senior to take either exam.  My sister was part of a Duke University Talent Identification Program which had her take the SAT in 7th grade.

Secondly, both testing organizations offer pre-tests designed for Sophomores and Juniors, respectively.

At my first high school, I remember all sophomores taking the Pre-ACT one day at school, and going over the results in one of our classes. The Pre-ACT has been renamed PLAN, but it still offers much of the information I got from the Pre-ACT.  In addition to providing standardized testing results on math, English, reading, and science, it also offers insight into the types of careers that might interest you and suit your skills and abilities.  My results were mapped to the ACT World of Work

The career results of the PLAN test are suggestions, not requirements.  Like any piece of advice, it is up to you to accept it or not.  My results emphasized the world of ideas, wedges 10-11 on their World of Work, and not wedge 8 for Science & Engineering.  The drawback, perhaps, of having a great many interests in all sorts of things.  I followed my dream of going into Engineering anyway.

There is a pre-SAT test, called the PSAT.  You need to take it as a junior for the National Merit Scholarship competition.  Taking it as a Sophomore can help you be comfortable with the experience.

Junior Year

In the fall, take the PSAT for the National Merit Scholar qualification.  In the spring, it's a good idea to take at least one of the admission tests (ACT or SAT), maybe both.

Senior Year

The SATs and ACTs are not one-shot tests.  If you want to take one or both again, you can.  Be aware, though, that the scores are not likely to change very far.  Here's what the College Board says about the statistics for re-taking the SATs, and here's the ACT dataHere's an article by a guidance counselor about retaking exams, that rings true for me.

I took the SAT twice.  My verbal scores stayed exactly the same, my math scores went up a bit.  I think I took the ACT once, but it wasn't relevant to my school choices.