How Do I Plan an SAT or ACT Testing Schedule?
Fielding low test scores and ushering students to much higher scores is my bread and butter, but I’ve talked with so many parents in different parts of the country over the past few weeks who find themselves in a scary situation: a student's GPA is much, much stronger than her practice SAT or ACT score would suggest. The school has a specific, recommended testing schedule, and families feel obligated to follow it.
Here's a typical conversation I'd experience around December and early January:
Parent: “Susan’s school recommends all juniors take the ACT or SAT in Jan/Feb of this year.”
Me: Okay, well you just told me Susan did terribly on her PSAT compared to her usual school performance, she has never seen an ACT, and she has not done any other prep since then.
Parent: “Yep! But we signed her up for the January test because that’s what her school says we should do. We’re all very stressed out about it. Maybe we’ll call you after we see how she does because she doesn’t want to do any prep over the holiday break. Plus, she’s in finals right now so I don’t want to bother her about this.”
Me: I would strongly recommend she not take the test in January.
Parent: “That’s nice, but the school says this is what to do. We’ll let you know how she does.”
My feeling about this is for Susie’s sake: Susie didn’t perform to expectation or commensurate with her usual grades on the PSAT, so now she has anxiety about how she "doesn’t do well on these tests,” and she’s dreading the process of preparing and brushing up to improve her scores. I feel like the worst thing we can do is throw her to the wolves with virtually no prep and have her take the test “because the school says we need to do it this month.” When she gets the likely low score back she’s going to be that much more demoralized and anxious, which often extends into longer-term poor performance and test anxiety.
I get a lot of pushback when I say I respect that the school has that timeline, and it’s a very agreeable timeline if you’re a prepared student because it takes pressure off the calendar during AP exams time or during the heat of application development, but it can blow up in your face if you’re not prepared.
I also respect parents who want to heed good advice and are actually paying attention to the schools, so I’m never clear on the best way to respond. I went to Eileen Cunningham Feikens about this very issue; Eileen is the director of college counseling at Dwight-Englewood and she and I have appeared together on The Process, hosted by U. Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda.
I asked Eileen how she handles situations like the one I'm describing and to talk about what the guidance officers are thinking when they make these general suggestions. Here's what she had to say:
As a rule, we in the Dwight-Englewood College Office guide students individually on their testing strategy as we well recognize that many student are in different places and mindsets regarding which tests they plan to take and when to do so. It's the exception rather than the norm for our juniors to sit for a January SAT without any prep. I just met with a family this week who's child is sitting for the Jan. SAT, but she fared particularly well on the PSAT and is thus pretty confident about her performance, knowing that it will possible provide her a base-line for future preparation. But again, this is the exception.
My experience is that most juniors will sit for their first SAT either in March or May. Some may re-sit for an SAT in June depending how they fared in March. We also have meetings with students and parents in Dec. to help them analyze their PSAT results and we work with a test prep company that offers our students free mock SAT and ACT exams with a diagnostic session after their exams are scored. The last thing we want is for a student to sit for an exam "cold" without any understanding of the test's design or preparation~hence the mock exams.
Naturally, I agree that the ideology behind Eileen's response is the best path (even though my test prep company is not the company Dwight-Englewood uses!). We also talked about the dangers of taking the test too soon, as not all schools super score. In fact, some colleges require student submit scores from every time they took the test. Here's Eileen:
With regards to schools requiring all test scores to be submitted, my past experience at Barnard and NYU was that while admissions committees will consider an applicant's highest scores and not penalize them for lower scores that are in the mix. As I am sure you know, there are some schools, like Univ. of Michigan, that don't super-score but look at each test combo by administration date. We advise students to make sure they are familiar with the testing policy for each of the schools on their list.
All to say, please take the power into your own hands and consider the ramifications of testing before you're prepared. Make sure you know what schools will require of you before you set a score in stone. It's your application, not the high school guidance office's.
* * *
Eileen Feikens appears regularly with Dean Eric Furda of the University of Pennsylvania on "The Process" on Sirius XM Wharton Business Radio Channel 111. You can hear them --and me-- on the show here.