As most of us know, applying to college back in the day—and by “the day” I mean right through the turn of the twenty-first century—was MUCH less complicated than it is today. We were instructed simply to be “smart, well-rounded kids.” Do your best in school, play a couple of sports, and get involved in some extracurricular activities. Community service wasn’t a big college admissions deal yet. And standardized tests were in the dark ages: those of us on the East and West coasts took the SAT and those in the Midwest and South took the ACT– ONE OR THE OTHER, NOT BOTH, and we took them ONCE OR TWICE AT THE MOST. Ahhhh, the good ol’ days.
Now, in the era of Score Choice, it’s commonplace for students to take each college entrance exam many times, as the New Yorker cartoon suggests. And when do we ask our kids to accomplish this cruel and unusual punishment? During their most challenging academic year of their lives, when final grades count more than any other year’s towards admissions. What is wrong with us?
I was not consulted on the rules of the college admissions game, but I do make a living strategizing and counseling families how to play it well. My advice for students during the FALL of junior year is to FOCUS ON GRADES and leadership positions in sports and activities and community service. So how do you roll in studying and practicing for these important standardized tests? (Let me be clear: they are meaningless in that they do not measure anything worth measuring, including college readiness, but they are the second most important criterion for admissions after grades.)
Good question, glad you asked. I advise most juniors to take only TWO tests all fall: the PSAT in October and the ACT in December. Why? Because when you return from winter vacation you will have in hand actual scores from the CollegeBoard (namely, the PSAT), which is a good predictor of how well you’ll do on the SAT, and from the ACT. That will position you to make a productive game plan for the spring and summer, when students can take four more (if need be) of one or the other or both, depending on results from the fall. This way, students 1) can focus on getting off to a good start to their junior years in the area most important to admissions officers— their grades—and 2) still have plenty of opportunity to retest as a junior.
And given that’s good advice (trust me, this is all I do all day, it’s damn good advice :-)), you should have your kids prep for the PSAT. Old school wisdom was to use the PSAT as a “practice” test to indicate strengths and weaknesses. That was great advice in the twentieth century. That was also many moons ago. There are NOWADAYS many reasons to prepare for the PSAT, and I won’t bother you with all of them here and now. I’ve written at length about them before, and while the dates and format have changed since 2014, the rationale behind studying hard for them remains: The PSAT: Why It Matters and Why You Should Prep For It.
Finally, a word about the CollegeBoard/Khan Academy’s campaign to convince you tutors and test prep companies are useless. I love and respect Sal Kahn and often promote his videos and other teaching and learning tools to students, but these claims are pure tripe. Ok, maybe not pure tripe, but the truth is Kahn Academy has featured SAT prep videos for YEARS (i.e., dating back to well before the big changes rolled out in the spring of 2016) and they only work for really bright, self-motivated students-—just the kind of students who typically don’t engage tutors or test prep classes in the first place! As a career educator, I can tell you they do not nor will not raise the vast majority of students’ scores much at all. I have recently watched several of the new SAT videos, and again, while I really appreciate Sal Kahn’s brilliance and his general teaching prowess, he lacks experience prepping students in standardized tests and equipping them with the kinds of info, skills, and strategies necessary for dramatic improvement. Here’s just one example: in the Reading Strategies video, he reads an entire passage out loud, translating and interpreting the meaning of virtually every sentence, taking more than 10 minutes to do so. As he goes through the questions, because he’s literally just explained the whole passage in painstaking detail—which of course NO ONE can do on game day because it’s, um, A TIMED TEST!—the questions seem easy, almost silly. The video offers no strategies for reading the passages more quickly or with greater concentration or with a mind toward answering specific questions or many other strategies we teach at CPE. Just sayin’.
CollegePrepExpress is offering at least one 4-Session PSAT Prep Class this fall, starting SUNDAY, 9/17, 5-7PM. See our Classes & Registration page for details. We also offer private tutoring and semi-private tutoring. Do yourself (or your kids) a favor. Register for one or the other and put up the highest number you can on your junior year PSAT.
We’re here to help 🙂