Start Early on PSAT-ACT-SAT Test Preparation

If you do nothing else, make sure you are starting your test preparation early!

I can write a book on the horror stories of families who come to me with a senior who has not taken a single SAT or ACT. These students are usually bright, have good GPAs (at least good enough to qualify for a scholarship if they had a decent test score), but are too late to get test preparation, take the test, and get results back before application deadlines for most of the best scholarships.

The most common reason I get is “nobody told us.” Most families expect the school to inform them of test dates and somehow provide some sort of college advice. Well, just about all schools inform students of test dates… they hang the poster of test dates and registration deadlines outside the office. Sometimes they announce it on their website or newsletter. Perhaps one of the teachers may mention it in class. However, there is often no real effort to get students to take tests, much less a semblance of a strategy. Indeed, many schools schedule events on test dates, with little regard to the importance of test preparation.

But it is not their fault. It is not the mission of public schools to place students in college so there is no emphasis on college admissions. Yes, schools offer AP and IB courses that can translate to college credit, but the actual “nuts & bolts” logistics of preparing students for college is usually absent.

Private schools, as a whole, are not much better. Indeed, many are worse. Although there are individual private schools that have extensive college readiness programs and the proper professional staff to help engineer a college admission and scholarship path, the vast majority of smaller private schools – at best – have a staff member assigned as the college counselor as an additional duty. These folks have little or no training and rely upon their own college experience from 20-30 years ago. Many are still paying off their college loans. Not a good source of college advice.

Enough about that.

What do you need to do?

We start as early as the 4th grade because we have an extensive Duke TIP program. Unless you have a student in Duke TIP, you don’t need to start that early.

The optimal time to start is the 9th grade. We recommend you take one SAT and one ACT each semester for 9th and 10th grades. We will give you specific recommended test dates later in this document when we explain why we recommend those dates. During this first test, no real test preparation is needed. That will come after you get your “baseline score” to figure out what you need to focus on. At most, you can go to the ACT or SAT websites, do some practice tests but don’t focus too heavily on test prep at this time.

We want students to take these tests for “Test Maturity,” gaining experience taking the test, getting oriented to testing the environment, reducing test anxiety, and becoming a veteran test taker when it’s time to take the tests for record. This builds competence and confidence in the student.

Don’t worry about the scores. Colleges can only see the scores you send them – and you won’t likely be sending them these score unless they ask. They cannot simply look up your scores. Colleges will ALWAYS take your best scores. Colleges will ask for one of three types of scores:

1 – Best Sitting/Test Date. The college only wants your best single test score.

2 – Super-Score. The college wants several test scores so they can take the highest component score across multiple test dates, i.e., the highest Math score, the highest English, etc., from multiple tests. Harvard and the Service Academies do this.

3 – All Scores. Some colleges want all scores. They do this for two reasons. First, they will Super-Score the best component scores across multiple tests. Second, if the student starts testing early, they like to see the student progression over time. They will still take highest combined Super-Score. Stanford does this.

Information links on how colleges use test scores:

Score Use by Institution is the official College Board published policy on how colleges use score.
College Board Score Choice is how the College Board gives the student options of how and who to send scores.
Super Score is a list of which colleges Super Score.

How Many Times Can You Take the Tests?

You can take the SAT an unlimited number of times and the ACT 12 times (not counting time for Duke TIP). PSAT is also not limited unless the local test site school places a local limit. Often they will only allow sophomores and juniors take the PSAT.

Important note- Junior Year:

If you are aiming for competitive colleges or scholarships, you are going to apply to college with what you have at the end of the Junior year: your GPA, your class rank, and your test scores. With application deadlines in October and November, it is going to be impossible to try to pull off some sort of senior year miracle.

At best, the senior year, you will have a shot at the August SAT (new in 2017) and September ACT, and even maybe the October SAT to get scores in before the application and scholarship deadlines. And… this assumes you are going to score high enough to get the admissions and scholarships you want.

So, Junior year is when you will need to make the scores required for admissions and scholarships.

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