Parents and high school students, let’s all take a deep breath. We know the road from high school to getting into college is a rough one. It’s full of long hours in classes, long hours of extracurriculars trying to stand out, long hours of researching potential colleges, long hours of filling out applications and long hours of test-taking.
And it’s full of intense heartache when a dream school sends you a rejection email and intense elation when another school sends you an admissions letter complete with confetti and banner (and, fingers crossed, scholarships and financial aid).
Buckle up. It’s a bumpy ride.
Often that ride starts with sophomores and juniors taking the PSAT, followed by the SAT, the ACT or both as juniors and seniors. These tests are confusing at best.
There are many resources available, from the websites of the actual tests themselves to the free learning website Khan Academy to the high school’s college counselor to companies that can help prepare you for test-taking.
Rebecca Putter is the executive director of Austin-based Collegewise Academic Services, which is one of those companies. Collegewise’s Austin office is offering a free seminar Jan. 15 to help parents and students understand the scores they received on the PSAT and learn how to plan for taking the SAT or ACT.
“Those scores can cause all kinds of anxiety,” Putter says. The PSATs also don’t directly affect college admission. They actually don’t matter unless you score in the top 1% your junior year, she says. Then you become eligible to be in the running for a National Merit Scholarship.
What the PSAT can help students with is giving them an indication of how they might do on the SAT. It also might help them decide to take a practice ACT to see if that is a better test for them. Their PSAT score could also tell them not to take either the SAT or the ACT and instead pick a school where the SAT or ACT is either not required or is optional. More and more schools are going that route. The students might be asked to do an additional essay or provide a portfolio of work in lieu of test scores.
“It’s an enlightenment tool,” Putter says. “By no means is it going to determine where they go to school.”
Increasingly, high schools are offering the PSAT for free and making it part of the school year in both the sophomore and junior years. Many have also started offering the SAT for free as part of the school year.
Putter explains that this is all based on the contract school districts or schools have with either the ACT or the College Board, which creates the SAT.
Even if your kid is not thinking of going to college, it doesn’t hurt to take the PSAT and the SAT if their school is offering it.
“It’s never a bad thing to have in my back pocket,” she says. The scores are good for a number of years, and often people who thought they didn’t want to go to college change their minds after high school.
One of the things Collegewise will be talking about is the differences between the SAT and the ACT. Putter will talk about the site fairtest.org, which has information about how students of different genders and different ethnicities do on these tests.
In general, Putter says, studies have shown that students who come from an affluent background do better on the SAT, as well as students who are older and are stronger in math. The ACT is more about reading comprehension and relies less on math. Even the science section is a lot of reading comprehension.
She also notices that students who have to work really hard in school to get their grades tend to do better on the ACT than on the SAT.
Even if students think they’ll do better on one test than the other, it doesn’t hurt to take the PSAT or a practice ACT before deciding which one to take. You can find free tests to take on the ACT and College Board websites. Khan Academy also will provide test prep questions based on what scores students get on practice tests. Collegewise also offers free practice tests and interpretations of the test. Then, if you want to do test prep or get help managing the college search, that’s done for a fee, which could be $135 to $160 an hour depending on what it is.
How much test prep is necessary will depend on what school the student is trying to get into and how close those practice test scores are to the test scores the student will need to have a good shot at getting into that school. Putter often recommends that people take these tests twice, but usually not more than that. It follows the law of diminishing returns.
Instead of just focusing on these scores, Putter wishes students would spend more time doing things they love to do and diving deeper into those things. That will make them more interesting applicants for schools.
She also recommends that students be engaged learners in their classrooms. This will not only help develop a relationship with teachers they will need recommendation letters from, but it will also help them do well in college.