Once upon a time (……present-day) in an exotic land far, far away (let’s call it, America), there lived nasty little troll called Standardized Testing.
The villagers (AKA the people of America) tried to stay away from the bridge it guarded, until one day, bored from the lack of attention it received, the troll moved its bridge to somewhere that NO ONE could avoid: The Nation’s Education System.
It setup the bridge between the end of the land’s high school seniors, and university freshmen and refused to budge. In order to cross, the high schoolers had to pay a price. A steep price that required months of training to prepare for.
The people of the land rebelled.
They insulted it and fought it with all they had (or you know, just avoided studying for it) but alas, it was undefeatable.
Then, one day, a high school junior came up with a bright idea – that what if instead of fighting this particular creature, we befriended it?
His friends thought the idea was stupid and dangerous. What if the troll tossed the boy off the bridge? Then he would never make it to college!
The little boy (ok, 6-ft tall teenager) ignored his friends and slowly approached the troll.
The troll demanded the price. The boy said, “I don’t want to cross your bridge, I just wanted to see you.”
“Then LEAVE!” the troll ordered.
The boy moved about a foot away from the beginning of the bridge. “I’m not on your bridge.” He claimed, “there’s nothing you can do.”
The troll stared at the boy and the boy stared right back.
For days, the boy would come stand at the edge of the bridge and stare at the troll (it was summer & his parents had cancelled his Netflix).
After some time, the staring became less hostile, and over time, they begin exchanging a sentence or two along the way.
Finally, one day, the troll sighed and said, “Soon, it’ll be time for accept the challenge and cross the bridge.”
The boy nodded.
The troll continued, “I can’t let you just walk, but, I can show you how to make the challenge easier.”
And alas, test prep was born!
The troll explained………
“The SAT and ACT are the standardized tests that you need to conquer in order for you to go to most U.S. universities. While these challenges look intimidating, you need to understand that they can be an ADVANTAGE to a college application.
…. but before dwell into all that….
Know that: These challenges are NOT indicators of intelligence.
I’ll shall say it again: These tests DO NOT measure intelligence. At all.”
The troll paused to ensure that his message had sunk in.
“Think of the challenges as simply puzzles whose clues change but whose answers remain the same.”
The boy frowned, “I don’t get it. What does that mean?”
“It means that you must understand only a handful of concepts across 3 subjects – Reading, Writing (Grammar), and Math. The Science section on the ACT is similar to Reading , so you do not need to study for it.
No AP Calculus or AP English-style writing involved.”
The troll gazed off into the distance (because his bridge came with a great panorama) …check it out….
Turning back to the young boy, the troll said, “you might as well sit-down lad, we have quite a bit to cover.”
As the young boy sat down on the ground, the troll continued…….
- The purpose of the SAT & ACT
- The differences between the two
- Understanding how they’re scored
- Super-Scoring, Test Blind, Test Optional, and Test Flexible
- The next steps you can take to prepare
By the end of our talk, you’ll know 98% of all you need to know about the exams themselves – the other 2% will depend on the specific universities you decide to apply to. I’ll save the “best practices” and more shortcuts for another day…today, you must first understand the exams…”
“Should I be writing this down?” The young boy asked.
“Nah, I’ll post it on my blog.” The troll replied.
“Wait, you have a BLOG?” The young boy was taken back.
The troll had a blog?
What could he possibly be blogging about?
Did he have Instagram too?
Was he posting pictures of his food? Were the other trolls jealous?
“FOCUS!” the troll roared.
Startled, the young boy turned his attention back to the troll.
The troll continued…..
“SO, WHY MUST YOU CROSS THIS BRIDGE? WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE SATS AND ACTS?”
The simple answer: Because they serve as an application criterion for a majority (but not all!) of U.S-based universities.
Yes, GPA matters. Yes, community service matters. And yes, sports and other activities matter.
But here’s the thing: who’s to say that 500 hours of community service at a homeless shelter are better than the 450 hours dedicated to Varsity Diving?
Or that being the Student Body President is better than working a part-time job afterschool to support your family (leaving you with no time for any extracurriculars)?
Is getting an “A” in an honors class better than getting a “B” in an AP class? Or is a student in the International Baccalaureate-program much better off than a student taking 4-APs because his school didn’t even offer the program in the first place!
To create some sort of consistency between all students, universities recalculate GPAs based on the difficulty level of the course. This means that an “A” in a regular class IS NOT the same as an “A” in an Honors or AP class – the latter weigh more. We’re not going to dive into GPA calculations – there’s no point– that’s just for you to know that GPA recalculation happen.
So, if GPAs are recalculated……
….then what is the ONE measure that is uniform for ALL students?”
The troll waited for the boy to respond.
“The SATs & ACTs?” The young boy guessed.
“Exactly.” The troll contined.
“Almost all U.S. universities require an ACT or SAT score. It doesn’t matter if you’re applying in-state, out-of-state, or are an international student who wants to attend an American university.
We’ll get into the test content in the next section, but here’s the most important takeaway: Your ACT or SAT score is the most flexible part of your application!Now, let’s move on to…..
It takes almost4YEARS to build up a high school resume – GPA, community service, sports, part-time job, National Honor Society acceptances, and so on, but it only takes about 4HOURS to take an SAT or ACT.
With enough time and dedication put into preparing for each attempt, your results can change DRAMATICALLY!”
Now, let’s move on to…..
“THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SAT AND ACT”
“There are two major routes to crossing the bridge from high school to college: the ACT and SAT.
No matter which route you choose, make sure you always know what’s on it.”
Side note to parents: If your teen ever comes up to you and says, “Mom, I’ll just take one of each first to see how I do,” the correct response to that is “NO!”
**At no point should your CBT be winging the test or walking in blind****
There are free exams available online to practice on, and while the actual exam-cost of $46-$60/exam may not an issue, the more competitive colleges ask students to send their entire “Score History” as opposed to simply their highest scores – “Score Choice.” In an applicant pool where everyone was a top player in their high school, every bit is going to matter, including a low SAT score on an initial round.
More on how to find and take free SAT and ACT practice exams coming up in “The Next Steps” section.
But, at the end of the day, it is important to figure out what universities your CBT will be applying to – that’ll help determine the SAT/ACT scores required along with score submission requirements – does your CBT have to provide the entire score history or just select the highest?
In March of 2016, the SAT changed its format and question-style, so now the 2 exams are much more similar than different. The chart below provides an in-detail breakdown of both exams.
NOTE: Your teen has learned ALL of this in high school. The only exception to that are teens who haven’t taken Pre-Calculus – however, there are only 1-2 BASIC Pre-Calculus-based questions on the ACT. Those can be guessedon /skipped and your CBT can dedicate her time to the material she DOES know.
The troll waved his wand into open space and a table appeared out of thin air…. No, not the table you eat it…….but, instead, the table you create on Word.
“Take a look at the differences between the two…..”
As this point, the troll sighed. “This is too much talking. I need rest. I’ll let Priyanka (not the actress!) take over for a bit.”
Upon hearing her name, an exotic Indian-beauty with the voice of an angel appeared out of thin air.
She looked at the troll and asked, “What’s next? Understanding test scores?”
The troll nodded, “Yeap, understanding test scores.”
Priyanka turned to the young boy and continued……….
“UNDERSTANDING TEST SCORES”
Now that you know what will be on the exams, let’s take a moment to understand how these exams are scored.
The chart from Khan Academy below explains the SATs scoring system.
Before you take a look at it, here are a few things to know in advance…
1. Total score is out of 1600.
1600 is the perfect score, and 400 is the lowest you can go – it’s the equivalent of a zero. The Reading score (out of 800) and the Math score (out of 800) are added together to create this “Composite Score”. The average scores for each section range from 500-550, and the average composite score ranges from 1000-1100.
2. The SAT has a “Cross Test Score” for History and Science.
What does this mean?
It means that while there are 2 main categories – Reading (+Grammar) and Math, there will be history- or science-based questions within those sections.
It can be as simple as looking at a diagram/chart/graph and answering questions based on it, or in case of the Reading section, having historical & natural science-based passages to read.
Questions of this nature are categorized as “Analysis in Science” and “Analysis in History/Social Studies” and scored on a scale of 10-40.
If scores in these sections are low, then it’ll be helpful to practice understanding and answering graph-based/diagram-based questions in a limited time frame.
Not complicated, and definitely no background knowledge required on the topics.
3. The essay score is its own separate entity.
The score is NOT combined with the Reading and will appear in a column of its own in the score report.
To get the essay score, 2 readers rate the essay on a scale of 1-4, then add the 2 scores together (ex. 3 + 4) for a total out of 8. That final score (ex. 7) is what will appear on the score report – there will be no breakdown by reader.
So, with that said, take a look at the chart below. Start with the “Composite Score” at the top and work your way down.
*Note: Priyanka is making all of these charts appear out of thin air so that she has visuals while explaining the tests to the young boy.
The scoring system for the ACT is much more straightforward.
Before I explain the system, a few main points:
- Total score is out of 36
A 36 is a perfect score.
The test has 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, & Science. Each of these sections is scored out of 36, then all scores are averaged to create the composite score. The average composite score ranges from a 20-22.
2. As with the SAT, the essay score is a separate entity.
The essay score doesn’t get calculated into the composite score, instead has a separate column of its own on the score report.
It is evaluated by 2 readers who rank the essay on a scale of 1-6, then add the 2 scores together to give the final essay score.
Example: let’s say that Reader #1 scored an essay as a 4, and Reader #2 gave it a 5, the final essay score is 4+5 = 9.
That 9 is what you’ll see on the score report – there’s no breakdown by reader.
At first glance, the chart can look intimidating, but thankfully, it’s much simpler than it looks.
Let’s move from in to out on the chart.
If a student received:
- English (in orange): 62 out of 75 correct, the corresponding scaled score is a 27
- Math(green): 36 out of 60 correct, the corresponding scaled score is a 24.
- Reading (pink): 36 out of 40 correct, the corresponding scaled score is a 32
- Science(blue): 32 out of 40 correct, the corresponding scaled score is a 27.
So, 110 ÷ 4 = 27.5
Note: The scores are always WHOLE numbers.
Therefore, this student would receive a 28 on that ACT exam.”
Priyanka stopped talking and turned to the troll. “Would you like to cover the next section?”
The troll shook his head, “Nah, I’m good. Go on.”
Priyanka turned back to the young boy and continued……
“SUPER-SCORING, TEST BLIND, TEST OPTIONAL, TEST FLEXIBLE”
“Now that you understand what’s on the tests and how they’re scored, here’s a bit about how universities process these.
First, let’s start with super-scoring.
Super-scoring means that when multiple scores are submitted, the university will look at the breakdown by section, and mix-and-match those scores to create the highest overall score.
Let’s say your teen submitted 3 sets of SAT scores:
The university would then take those scores and pull out the highest from the Reading and Math sections to give you an entirely new Composite Score.
This is more common for the SATs than it is for the ACTs, so be sure to read the “Admissions” pages for the testing information on your teen’s potential university.
While a good chunk of the universities super-score, there are also those that either do NOT require these challenges to be completed to cross the bridge.
Test blind universities do not require an ACT or SAT score. They admit students based on the other portions of their applications: GPA, volunteer work, personal statements, etc. In fact, even if you submit your score reports to them, they will go ignored.
Then, there are universities who do not require the SAT or ACT scores but will consider them as a part of your application if you choose to submit them. These are called Test Optional universities.
Finally, there are the universities that do not require the SAT or ACT but instead ask for other scores in lieu. The scores can be from Advanced Placement (AP) exams, SAT Subject tests, or International Baccalaureate exams. These test flexible universities will usually have a list of the acceptable scores on their “Admissions/Testing” page.
Now that you have all the information, what do you and your CBT do now?
THE NEXT STEPS:
A. Take a free exam [one of each]
Some states require their students to take a free SAT, ACT, or both. The high school provides and proctors the exam.
However, if that is NOT the case, private test prep companies offer free exams in an effort to invite customers to check out their products.
Based on my experience, The Princeton Review has exams that are very similar to what students will see on the actual SAT/ACT. So, check out:
Usually the test is on one Saturday and the scores are released the following Saturday (at the latest).
Also, be sure to sign up for an ONSITE test. Online testing sounds cool and convenient, but you want an accurate depiction of how your CBT (college-bound-teen) is going to do, so unless location prevents your CBT from doing so, take the test onsite.
After your CBT has received initial scores for both, do you continue to take both exams in real life? ……
Take the exam that your CBT did better on. Allocate the energy into getting better on that particular exam, because whichever university accepts the SAT score also accepts the ACT score and vice versa.
B. Determine the test requirements of the potential universities
This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the previous topic.
How do you know what test score your teen needs unless you know what universities your CBT will be applying to?
Ideally, you want a score that falls a little bit higher than the university’s average. After that, let your teen stop testing (unless required to for scholarship purposes) and focus on their grades. Those are just as important. With that said, if your CBT has a low GPA, then based on the universities they are applying to, they will want a score that’s a decent amount higher than the university’s average test score.
But know this:
These tests are the most flexible part of the college application.
The GPA took 3-4 years to create, as did the community service, sports, and other extracurriculars. Compared to that, this test only takes 3-4 hours to complete. Not to mention, with a few months of practice, the score can improve dramatically!
Side note: As mentioned, there are also universities – great universities – that DO NOT require an SAT or ACT score.
C. Be Realistic
When aiming for an SAT/ACT score, be realistic about:
1. Your expectations
2. Your teen’s expectations
3. Your CBTs study habits, schedule, & dedication
It is absolutely crucial that #1 and #2 align. Unfortunately, students sometimes feel that parents are being too pushy. It’s completely done out of concern, but when your CBT has been hearing about these amazing scores that his friends or classmates are getting, or the numerous reminders from teachers and guidance counselors. The absolute LAST thing they want is to come home and hear (possibly argue) about it.
So, make the preemptive strike. Sit down for 10 minutes (set a time) and talk to your CBT about expectations – they can be academic/career, financial, etc.
D. Don’t discuss your teen’s test scores with everyone.
You can bet that your CBT is already wondering how a “dumb” student did so well on the test while he/she didn’t. It creates a sense of inadequacy and competition that can be avoided.
It’s tempting to share your pride in your children’s accomplishments and even your concerns, but I recommend running this by your teen first, then by someone who is actually in a position to help – it can be the high school’s college advisor or even a course from a test prep company.
If your teen doesn’t mind you sharing his/her scores, great, but you never know.
But with that said, be sure to congratulate and encourage their efforts, not their intelligence. The SATs & ACTs are not rocket science or brain surgery…..or even close to it. With enough and correct prep, anyone can do well.
E. Find the right sort of help.
There thousands of books and tutors out there, but it is important to know what type of study method actually works for your teen.
Does he prefer a one-on-one tutor?
If left to it, will she buy the books necessary prepare on her own?
Would taking a test prep course be a better route? What resources does his high school offer?
To find out the traits of a tutor that is a great fit for your teen, check out my article on Finding a
Tutor That Is Just Right.
With that Priyanka finished her explanation and turned to the troll.
“You didn’t say much.” She said to the troll. The troll shrugged carelessly causing Priyanka to roll her eyes. “Men!” she muttered before disappearing.
“There you have it, young lad.” The troll said. “You now know about 98% of what you need to – the other 2% depends on which school you decide to go to.”
The young boy smiled, “Thank you.” He turned to leave but then had a thought, “you told me about the challenges, but do you have any shortcuts that’ll make the challenges go faster?”
The troll glared, “You have to be kidding me! You find out all this and you still want to know more?!”
The young boy nodded, and the troll hmphed.
“Fine! Come back another day!” The troll turned around went under its bridge muttering something about a generation of “instant-gratification” kids with no appreciation for hard work.
The boy turned and wandered on home while processing all this information and wondering just how long he could procrastinate before starting the studying process.