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Think of ACT / SAT Scores Like Another Class Rank

April ACT scores were released yesterday. I got a lot of emails and texts from students. Some were thrilled to share the good news; others wanted to make plans to improve when they retake the exam in June.

I also got a lot of messages from parents wanting to know “is this score good enough?” One analogy I’ve used recently seems to help—think about ACT or SAT scores the way you think about class rank.

Standardized test scores can be confusing. Is a 26 a good score? How does a 1080 on the new SAT compare to the old SAT? What score is good enough? Unless you have spent considerable time reading and researching current admissions trends for standardized tests, the numbers can seem overwhelming.

Avoid Score Generalizations

Most parents and students (and even high school educators) fall back on gross generalizations rather than trying to fully understand the role of ACT and SAT scores. These generalizations can be found in statements like

  • “That’s a good score.” Or the opposite “My score is terrible.”
  • “A 28 is a good score; I don’t need to take the test again.”
  • “As long as I get a 1300 I’m ok.”

Oversimplification leads people to think of scores as either good or bad. Typically students aren’t defining “good” based on their academic strengths and weaknesses, test taking experience, and the averages at the colleges they are considering. Instead, there is some mythical “good score” which seems to be a one size fits none number.

How to Measure Success

I always tell students there are two things you must consider to determine if your scores are “good.”:

  • The average scores at the colleges on your list
  • The improvement from where you started

A 680 on SAT math (out of a maximum of 800 points) is an above average score. In fact, a 680 would put me in the top 10% of test takers nation-wide. But I can’t declare victory (or defeat) just yet. I need to personalize my analysis.

Get the Facts

The first measure, how my scores compare to the colleges I’m considering, is a fact-based question. A little research can help you find answers.

How does my 680 in SAT math compare at the colleges on my list?

I used the college search feature on the College Board website to get some quick numbers. Colleges report the range for the “middle 50%” which means 25% of admitted students scored higher and 25% scored lower. This just gives me an idea if I’m close to the range for each school.

I found the middle half of admitted students had the following scores:

  • Rice University (TX) 750-780
  • Harvard College (MA) 750-800
  • NYU (NY) 650-780
  • UCLA (CA) 600-760
  • Auburn (AL) 560-660
  • Queens University (NC) 510-590
  • West Texas A&M (TX) 470-560

Here’s what I learned:

  1. My 680 (a top 10% score) is still going to place me in the bottom quarter of admitted scores at Rice and Harvard. This doesn’t mean I should cross these schools off my list, but I need to either retake the test or understand the odds are not in my favor.
  2. My 680 puts me in the middle 50% at NYU and UCLA. I may want to re-test to see if I can get a few more points, but I know my scores are in the “realistic possibility” range here.
  3. My 680 starts feeling like a good score when I look at Auburn, Queens, and West Texas A&M. A 680 is in the top quarter, but that doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed admission because colleges still need to see my transcript, activities, essays, etc. I know my scores are good for these schools.

As you do this type of quick analysis, keep in mind that ACT and SAT scores are only one part of the admissions puzzle.

Acknowledge Your Testing Potential

The second component in measuring scores is how a particular number compares to your potential and past experience.

Personally, I’m a closet math geek. I was the captain of the high school math team and earned a 5 on the AP Calculus exam my senior year. I’m also a great test taker. So a 680 on the SAT math section wouldn’t meet my personal expectations for “good.” It would be lower than I had scored on the PSAT.

But I’ve been working with a young lady this spring who would simply LOVE a 680 on the SAT math. Her March score was a 560. A 680 would be a huge improvement and a personal best for her.

This is why one score can be disappointing for one student and incredibly high for another. But too often we aren’t making realistic comparisons.

Better Means of Comparison

To help my clients better understand the concept of realistic comparison, I’ve started talking about ACT and SAT scores in terms of class rank.

Without going on a class rank rant, I will tell you that most of my students attend competitive high schools. The private schools in my area don’t rank, but the large public schools do. Getting into the top 10% at most of these schools is brutal. Students need A’s (maybe a B or two) and a schedule full of advanced (AP) courses.

I work with a lot of smart students who are not in the top 10% or even the top 25% of their graduating classes. These students tend to have A’s and B’s. They excel in some classes, but not all. Some struggle with standardized tests and have suffered grade setbacks as a result. These students will be successful in college (and life) but they understand how competitive it is to have a ultra-high class rank. And the result is a realistic comparison on the issue of high school grades.

So if we can take that same understanding and apply it to the ACT or SAT, students and parents would have a more realistic understanding of test scores.

Rank               SAT                        ACT

Top 10%         680R/680M               28

Top 25%         620R/610M                24

Top 50%         540R/530M                20

Top 75%         470R/470M                16

Bottom 10%   400R/400M                13

 

Realistic Goals

When all the facts are taken together, you should have a more realistic way to set score goals.

Remember the SAT and ACT are hard tests. They are designed to make sure a majority of students score in the middle. (How would Harvard know who to let in if all students had top scores!) These are not simple tests of content. They are timed exams with challenging material requiring critical thinking and college-based analysis.

A student who has done all he can and ranks in the second quarter of his class, should be satisfied. No, he’s not going to be valedictorian, but he has solid grades and has done his best. If he takes the ACT and scores a 24 after weeks of studying, should he be disappointed? If he has put honest effort into preparation and the 24 is a personal best, I’d remind him that his score puts him in the top quarter of test takers—not a bad place to be.

Test scores need to be evaluated in a broader content. Consider all the factors: academic strengths & weaknesses, test taking skills, focus, preparation, learning differences, test day circumstances, and prior experiences.

I want to see all students reach their potential when taking the ACT or SAT. I hate to see the frustration that results from unrealistic goals.

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Honest (Sometimes Unpopular) Course Selection Advice

I’ve started a dozen versions of this article. In each, I try to balance the variations when students’ wants conflict with what they should take to be best prepared for college (and most competitive in the admissions process.)

Why so many drafts?

There isn’t one simple answer to course selection questions. When I meet a family for an academic consultation to work on academic planning issues, I ask a lot of questions and get feedback on that student’s specific needs, talents, weaknesses, and goals.

But this article is general– one size fits all. This isn’t a problem from the college admissions planning side; what they want is predictable. The challenge comes as I consider all of the questions I get from students (and parents) seeking exceptions. “I know you say to take four years, but what if…”

What you find here is my general advice. I know it isn’t always popular, but I know it works.

How to select high school courses

1. Make a Four-Year Plan

You don’t need anything fancy, but I like to make the options visual, so I use a blank sheet of paper divided into four columns (one for each year of high school) and a number of rows to equal the number of courses a student can take per year. So my daughter’s plan has seven rows because there are seven class periods per day at her school.

I like to keep my chart organized, so I assign the first four rows to the core academic classes: English, math, history, and science. The next row is for foreign language. This leaves the remains rows, two in my daughter’s case, for all other classes.

Here’s what the plan looks like today:

If your student is already in high school, fill in the courses completed already. I keep the chart handy and fill in courses as I discuss the remaining suggestions.

2. Four Years of English, Math, History, and Science Are a Must

Some schools, districts, or states will have different graduation requirements. For the college-bound student, four years of these core courses are essential. That means a student will take English, math, history, and science every year in high school, even if he or she started taking high-school level courses in junior high (Algebra I for example.)

This is non-negotiable for me. (And why my advice is sometime unpopular.)

Of course, the specific courses are up for discussion. A student who struggles in math may decide senior year calculus is too hard and take another math class instead. Some students will elect to take advanced, honors, or AP level classes in certain subjects. The specifics will vary, but all students should plan for four years in these subjects.

Do you HAVE to?

Do you want to be academically well prepared for college? Do you want to risk the potential red flag to admissions officers when they see you have taken the easy way out and skipped that senior year course? I’m not saying four years is a requirement at all colleges, but you should know that it is expected by most and anything less can work against a student at some colleges.

3. Four Years of Foreign Language Are Strongly Encouraged

This is a topic where I adjust my answer depending on the client. A strong student who is potentially considering top schools should take four years of the same language.

In my family four years of the same language was non-negotiable. (My daughter chose to take AP Spanish V next year because she has enjoyed all of her Spanish classes and thinks Spanish literature will be interesting.)

My general rule is that three years of the same language is essential, four recommended. However, there are some cases where I have given different advice to clients. I take into consideration the following:

  • Learning differences that impact language learning
  • Current grades in foreign language
  • Overall academic profile
  • College aspirations
  • What a student would like to take instead

A student who has struggled through the required years of language and would want to replace year four with another academic course can. But the student who has made A’s and B’s and just “doesn’t want to” because he or she heard the class “is hard” should take the extra year.

Yes, colleges know third and fourth year courses are harder which is why it is good thing to do. It is also good because you will gain additional language skills, which are in high demand in many employment opportunities.

4. Plan for Additional Requirements

Every school has different requirements. If you attend a private religious school, you may need to plan for four years of Theology or Bible classes. My daughter’s school requires students to take a year of P.E. and a year of an arts course.

Figure out what additional requirements you need to meet and add them to your four-year plan.

For most students these are not the fun courses they want to take. I don’t think it is necessary to “get them out of the way” early, but you do need to plan for them.

My daughter’s schedule has been full with academic courses, Spanish, tennis, and debate, so she has not taken her required arts credit in 9th or 10th grade. We have penciled art in for 12th grade when she has an opening in her schedule because she will have completed Spanish 5, the highest level language class offered at her school.

5. Fill In Gaps With Electives (“Wants”)

Electives are the courses designed to allow students to test out interests, develop skills, and discover strengths beyond the core academic classes. Electives aren’t meant to replace academic classes; they are intended to supplement them.

  • Consider courses that pair with a student’s extracurricular interests: band, journalism, theater, debate, sports, etc.
  • Explore courses that relate to potential career interests: computer science, psychology, extra science classes for the student considering pre-med, etc.
  • Look for opportunities to develop leadership, communication, or interpersonal skills: JROTC, FFA, independent research, PALS, newspaper, etc.

For me, electives fill in the remaining openings in a student’s schedule. If you have done the first four steps correctly, you will find almost no time left for all the interesting electives your student wants to take.

This is the reality many families don’t like to face: there will always be more interesting electives than available time in the schedule.

6. Consider Course Content & Appropriate Level of Rigor

Content and rigor can help you decide between different options. Examples illustrate this better than any description.

Senario A

A student has completed biology, chemistry, and physics and needs to select a science course for his senior year. Should he take anatomy, AP Biology, or AP Environmental Science? All three meet the standard in #2 above (four years of core courses), so how can he decide?

Let’s add in that this young man is strong in the sciences, has been taking challenging academic courses on an advanced level in the past, and is considering medical school for the future. His interest in medicine would lead me to focus on either anatomy or AP Biology– both courses that will contribute to his future goals. While anatomy sounds perfectly suited to a potential pre-med student, I still need to consider appropriate rigor. A strong academic student may get more out of the AP class, making it my first choice for his senior year science.

Senario B

A student thinks she will study engineering in college and is trying to balance her interest in playing soccer and working on the student newspaper with the “Principles of Engineering” course sequence she sees in her high school’s course catalog. Does she need to give up either soccer or newspaper to make room for these engineering electives? What would serve her best in college? What do colleges want to see for admission?

The first step is to recognize that colleges (and their engineering programs) want core academic courses before electives. So four years of challenging math and science courses are the first step. Choose calculus over statistics; take AP / IB or honors when appropriate. Consider an extra year of science or computer science as an elective.

Next, if this student in interested in participating in soccer and newspaper (and presumably will take those courses during the school day), I would encourage her to continue. There is value in these activities: teamwork, planning, practice, leadership; meeting deadlines, working with others, accepting constructive criticism, time management, and so much more.

This is why colleges like to see students commit time to activities outside of the classroom. Yes, sometime students have more interests than time, but if possible, I’d encourage this student to remain with newspaper and soccer as long as they continue to be meaningful activities for her.

Finally, don’t feel compelled to take every course with “engineering” in the title. This student will not be limiting her future opportunities if she never takes these elective courses. And not all courses with “engineering” in the name will lead her towards her goal of a four-year degree in the field.

For example, at my daughter’s school many of the vocational classes include “engineering” in the title. These are interesting classes, but for admission to a university engineering program, higher-level math and science courses will outweigh vocational electives. (I’m not saying these are bad courses, but they aren’t worth this student dropping out of soccer or newspaper to take them.)

Conclusion

Following these basic principals will give you a competitive high school plan.

If you are still struggling or want more personalized advice, I offer individual 90-minute consultations for $225. I will answer your questions; n o need to commit to ongoing services. For more information visit my consultation page.

 

How To Handle College Rejection Letters

Every spring thousands of students receive rejection letters from colleges and universities. While it is disappointing, particularly when a top choice school sends a rejection letter, there are steps students can take to manage upsetting news and move forward in the admissions process.

Acknowledge Disappointment

It is upsetting. No one wants to get a rejection letter. When a student has put time and effort into vising a school, submitting an application, and picturing him or herself on campus, rejection is hurtful. It is okay to spend a day or two grieving the loss of an opportunity. Students who acknowledge their feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, or loss are better able to move onto new possibilities than those who try to ignore their feelings and end up lashing out at family and friends unexpectedly.

Reevaluate criteria and priorities.

Once the initial shock and disappointment wear off, get back to the big picture of finding a college that is a good fit. This means letting go of the option that is no longer available and getting into the mindset of finding the next choice. I’ve worked with students who ended up with no options by the time they graduated because they refused to get past the disappointment of a rejection and move on to “Plan B.”

This step goes hand in hand with attainable admissions standards. Sometimes rejection letters force students to face unpleasant facts. This is often where good (and great) students are told they are not exceptional enough to gain admission to the ultra-selective colleges on their lists. It is a time to look for great schools with friendlier admissions policies. Reevaluating the initial criteria for selecting colleges can help refocus on the overall goal.

Evaluate Other Acceptance Offers

Hopefully students will have developed lists of potential schools so that they will have other offers of admission. Focusing on the positive acceptances and the possibilities of each can help students handle rejection. This is why I have moved away from the term “backup school” because I want students to see all options as good choices and not feel they have to settle if they aren’t accepted at their top choice school.

Even if all top choice schools sent rejection letters, a student can still find a positive alternative. It is as if a student finds she won’t get a new luxury car, but will receive an economy car. Seeing the benefits of the new car, even if it is an economy model rather than a luxury one, can help. Other acceptance offers are better than no acceptance offers.

Apply to Other Schools if Necessary

If a student has been rejected from all schools to which he or she applied, it may be necessary to submit applications to additional colleges. Students who have reason to believe they will not receive any letters of acceptance should look for schools with easier admissions standards than the ones they applied to before.

I know application deadlines have passed at many schools, but there are still options. Schools with late spring application deadlines or rolling decision options may accept applications as late as May or June for fall registration. These new schools may have friendlier admission criteria, but don’t assume students will get in without trying. (In other words, don’t underestimate these colleges. Later deadlines doesn’t mean they accept everyone; put effort into those applications.)

In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have available in the incoming class. Students in need of a backup school in May, June, or July should contact their counselors to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for the fall semester.

Move On

The final step and handling college rejection is moving on. After a week or two of lamenting the lost opportunity, students need to move on. Accepting rejection, whether from a college, employer, or potential date, is part of growing up. Learning to handle rejection in a mature calm manner will help students avoid potentially embarrassing situations in the future and open their minds to new opportunities.

 

When highly-selective universities have admissions rates below 10 percent, even valedictorians are denied admission. What students do in the days and weeks following will determine if they are successfully able to handle rejection and move on.

 

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How Do Colleges View Multiple Attempts at the ACT/SAT?

Standardized tests can be a key factor in college admission and scholarship awards.  As a result, students often take the SAT or ACT more than once, attempting to earn the highest scores possible. Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you decide if you should take one again

Multiple Attempts Are Common

If you are considering taking the ACT or SAT for a second or third time, you are not alone.  Nationwide, most students will take their choice of test two or three times.  However, simply retaking these exams will not improve your scores.  Before retaking either the SAT or ACT, many students find it beneficial to review content, calm their nerves, or learn how to employ different test-taking strategies.

Colleges Use Your Best Scores

Colleges and universities understand that students will take entrance exams multiple times, and will use your best score. Don’t worry that admissions officers will see multiple attempts at the test; this is the norm. But don’t think colleges will be impressed with your effort. They want to see results and don’t care that you’ve been diligent in retaking the SAT or ACT.

There is no limit on the number of times a student can take the SAT or ACT. I like to use common sense as a guide—more than three attempts is unlikely to result in better scores unless a student has devoted considerable time and effort to improvement. Colleges do not penalize students for multiple attempts. Unlike with some graduate school exams, colleges do not average ACT/SAT scores.  They will determine students’ best scores using one of two methods:  “superscoring” or single highest results.

Some Schools Superscore

Superscoring refers to the practice of compiling a student’s highest scores, even if they come from different test dates. The practice of superscoring started with the SAT. Let’s consider this example:

                    Reading/Writing          Math               Total

Oct SAT         560                             700                 1260

Jan SAT         610                             660                 1270

Superscore    610 (Jan)                   700 (Oct)           1310

This student clearly benefits from the practice of superscoring where he/she has a total of 1310—a real plus if a program requires a minimum SAT score of 1300.

Some colleges have started to superscore the ACT, but that practice is less common. It is also common for a school to superscore the SAT, but not the ACT, so be sure to ask if you are focusing on the ACT.

Superscoring allows students to focus on improving one graded section at a time without having to worry about their results on the other portion. It can also save you from an additional attempt at the test if a college is willing to superscore. But make sure to check with every school on your list to learn their policies.

Some Schools Use Single-Highest Results

Other colleges and universities prefer to use a student’s best scores from a single test date.  For a student who has taken the SAT multiple times, the college would look at the total of both sections and use the results from the test date on which the student earned the highest total score. From the example above, the total from the January test (1270) is the student’s highest total, so would be the score used. For the ACT, colleges would look for the best composite score.

If you plan to retake the ACT / SAT and send your scores to colleges using this calculation method, you have to pay attention to all areas of the exam in order to improve your total score.

Colleges Tell Applicants What They Want

Students should look at all the colleges on their list and determine how each school evaluates standardized scores.  Most colleges and universities are forthcoming with their policies, often posting them on their websites.  Regardless of how a school calculates your best scores, they may request that you send results from all test dates. If a particular school does not request all scores, you can use score choice options to send only your best results.

In this day of highly competitive college admissions, you need for colleges to see your best ACT & SAT results.  Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you plan your own test-taking and college admissions strategies.