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How to Plan for Junior Year Tests (PSAT, ACT & SAT)

Hi Megan,

Your newsletter is helpful as always! I had questions about your test prep schedule.

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year? Or a different time?
  • Is August too early for a junior?
  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes?

I guess I’m just trying to figure out what is an ideal class and exam schedule and how to work it all in around marching band. I don’t want my daughter to be overloaded but I don’t want her to be behind either.


Great questions!

A lot of sophomores and their families need to work through this same ideas before school starts next year. Here’s a quick visual of the decisions you need to make: (Click here to see full size image.)


The PSAT Is the Deciding Factor

Why? The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. (That’s why all the paperwork has NMSQT on it!) Only juniors can qualify for National Merit recognition and it is worth the time and effort to prepare if your student can score high enough.

For more information on National Merit read “Frequently Asked Questions About the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships.”


For National Merit Contenders

Those high scoring sophomores who might score well enough to earn National Merit recognition as juniors NEED to prepare before the October PSAT.

The PSAT is only given once a year. Students only have one chance to qualify which is why I offer some advice that often sounds backwards. Students preparing for the PSAT should plan to take the August or October SAT. (August 27 is a new test date added in 2017!)

Yes, you heard me right. Students should take the SAT to prepare for the PSAT. The SAT can be taken multiple times and colleges look at a student’s best scores, so this first test is more of a dress rehearsal for the PSAT. Even before scores are released, the student will know how he or she did with pacing and what, if anything, he or she needs to study before the PSAT.

Just a note: In general students should not take the SAT (or ACT) without preparation. This can have some serious implications (read here). But when I tell my PSAT students to take the SAT a few weeks before they take the SAT, I know a few things:

  • The student has already been studying for the exam (the SAT and PSAT are almost identical)
  • The student has proven test taking skills
  • The student will take the SAT seriously and try for a top score

Following this “practice” SAT dress rehearsal, students may alter some aspects of their study plan to be 100% prepared for the PSAT in mid-October. PSAT scores won’t be back for months, so after the PSAT, it is wise to finish with college admissions testing. (Don’t wait on PSAT scores.)

Most of my PSAT clients like to retake the SAT. These are often kids who are just a few points away from their next goal—a perfect score, a 750, or a 700. One more crack at the test is often enough to make these small (but important) score improvements.

Then these students are D.O.N.E! They don’t need the ACT. They don’t need to spend all year chasing a perfect score. They need to reach a point where scores are “good enough” so they can get back to the important work of school, sports, extracurriculars, community service, family, etc.


Not a National Merit Candidate?

Great news: you have a lot of flexibility. Unlike the National Merit crowd, you get to make the decisions for your testing plan.

I strongly advise students to finish all SAT and ACT testing by the end of their junior years. Yes, it is possible to re-test as a senior. SAT and ACT are even making that easier by adding earlier test dates; SAT added a late August test starting in 2017 and ACT is adding a July test in 2018. But seniors need to focus on applications and that is so much easier when the SAT and ACT are out of the picture.


ACT or SAT? How can we decide?

I could write a series of articles on this topic. You can start by reading this one.

The short answer is to take the official SAT and official ACT practice tests at home and compare scores. (Just a quick reminder to NEVER take the real test for practice. Here’s the link from above and an episode of my podcast explaining the risks.)

Compare scores using the ACT / SAT concordance table here.

Which one did your student like better? Are the scores clearly higher on one test? Are there any other factors to consider (extended time for learning differences, strengths or weaknesses, schedule conflicts for one exam)?


Fall or Spring? When is the best time?

The best time is a personal decision. There is very little a student might learn at school that would improve his or her results on the SAT or ACT—with one exception.

When the SAT changed in March 2016, they began testing concepts that are found pretty far into the Algebra II curriculum. This means juniors who are taking Algebra II should wait until the spring semester to take the SAT. Or, better yet, give serious consideration to the ACT.

There are two factors I consider when planning the best time to test:

  1. When will a student have the most time to prepare?
  2. When will he or she be most motivated?

To answer the original question above, a student involved in marching band may not have any extra time to prepare for fall exams. Once she finishes practice and does her school work, she may not have any time or energy left. Additionally, I’ve heard of many uncompromising band directors who prohibit students from taking the ACT or SAT on certain Saturdays in the fall because of conflicts with a major performance. And it is not a good idea to stay out with the band until midnight because of a high school football game and expect to be thinking and processing at your best by 8:00 am the next morning.

A lot of my clients begin by eliminating their busy season for sports, activities, competition, performances, etc. Then they pick an exam date where they will have a better chance of studying and getting to the test day before they burn out from exhaustion.


My Two Cents

I was a fan of the SAT for decades. I preferred it to the ACT and found it more interesting and coachable. I do not like the new SAT.

It is a necessary evil for the ultra-high test takers who seek National Merit Scholarships. But they are already great at test taking basics and know the content backwards and forwards, so when I work with these students we are just perfecting their understanding of the questions, trying to master the three to eight questions that stand between them and a perfect score.

Regular and struggling test takers aren’t so lucky. The new SAT often “feels” easier to these students. It doesn’t help that the scores on the new SAT are inflated. Most students need to score 100 points higher on the new test (you need a 1200 now to be like a 1100 before.) To me this is sales trickery—like the high-end boutique selling dresses with a smaller size on the label just so I can flatter myself because I got a “better number” when I purchased that dress than the one down the road with a bigger size on the tag.

In the past 12 months, I’ve found that most test takers can get better improvement if they study for the ACT. The format of the test is less exhausting. And most students do better on math when they are allowed to use a calculator. (That no-calculator section of the SAT / PSAT is not good for the typical test taker.) So I’ve been teaching more ACT classes and encouraging more of my private clients to consider the ACT.



There is no simple answer to the question about when a student should take the SAT or ACT. So to give a brief response to the original questions:

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year or a different time? It depends. I will start classes in August. If your daughter needs to take the PSAT, I’ll see her then. If not, you might wait until early spring when band season is over.
  • Is August too early for a junior? Absolutely not! Each year I have dozens of students who are 100% done with testing in the early fall (September, October, November.) There is no better feeling than crossing this off your college to-do list.


  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes? I’m offering one PSAT class because only the super-high scoring students need to take that class (top 5% by scores) and that isn’t a majority of the test prep market. I’m offering more ACT classes through the year because I like it better, see better results, and think it is the more coachable test. I’m also finding demand for ACT classes outpaces demand for SAT review.



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Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking


Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?


Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!


Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.




The Good and Bad of the PSAT for the Average Test Taker

(If you missed the article on the PSAT for National Merit Scholarships, you can find it here.)

Most students will take the PSAT this October with no expectation of earning National Merit recognition for high scores. For the average test taker the PSAT presents an opportunity to practice testing, identify strengths and weaknesses, and begin incorporating standardized test results into the college search process—all positive outcomes. But the PSAT can include some negative consequences that students and parents should understand.

The PSAT or Preliminary SAT is given each October. For the highest scoring students, the PSAT offers prospects of National Merit recognition, but for the other 90-95% of test takers, it is just a practice test. This is both good and bad.

The Good

There are a lot of good things students and families can gain by participating in the PSAT.

Good: Colleges never use PSAT scores to make admissions decisions. This means a student can get an honest snapshot of his or her anticipated SAT scores without worry that those scores will be sent to colleges later in the admissions process.

Good: PSAT results show students’ strengths and weaknesses in testing and offer suggestions for improvement.

Good: PSAT scores are now on a similar scale to the SAT scores so families can compare results with the averages at colleges they consider. Remember the new SAT is back to two sections: reading / writing and math. Scores range from 200 to 800 per section, so the new perfect score is 1600.

Because the PSAT is just a little shorter (15 minutes) and a little easier (couple fewer questions and not quite as many really hard ones) the scores are scaled downward. Students can score between 160 and 760 on the PSAT. The missing 40 points per section are intended to show students there is still some work to be done between the PSAT and the SAT.

Students can use PSAT scores for comparison as they learn more about college admissions requirements. A 10th grader who scored a 720 in reading / writing (R/W) and a 460 in math can compare those results to the average scores at schools on her list:

  • Elon University (NC): 610-690 (R/W) & 580-670 Math
  • William & Mary (VA): 680-750 (R/W) & 650-760 Math
  • Stanford (CA): 730-790 (R/W) & 730-800 Math
  • Elizabethtown College (PA): 540-660 (R/W) & 530-640 Math
  • Texas State: 500-600 (R/W) & 510-580 Math

This student can quickly conclude that her math score needs work. Obviously, a student in 9th or 10th grade who has not completed Algebra I and Geometry will improve simply by gaining the basic concepts taught in class. Some families will conclude that high quality test prep is appropriate. Having actual numbers from the PSAT gives significance to college admissions statistics for many families and allows for timely planning if improvements are needed.

Good: Around the country more high schools are administering the PSAT during the school day, making it a convenient time for all students to practice. Schools and districts have the choice of a Saturday or Wednesday administration of the test. By giving the PSAT during school more students are included.

By contrast, fifteen years ago many districts in my area gave the PSAT on a Saturday morning. This meant participation was limited to those students who had transportation and the initiative to show up at school at 8:00 a.m. on the weekend.

Good: Because the PSAT if often given during school, students grades 9-11 are encouraged to take the exam. This means more students have an idea of what the SAT will look like before they reach that crucial testing time junior year. High scoring students can be identified in 9th or 10th grade in time to prepare for the PSAT in 11th grade. And families can begin using scores sooner—both for test prep and college planning. If your high school does not encourage participation for 10th graders, don’t worry; there are suggestions at the end of this article to help you get these same benefits without having to take the official PSAT.

The Bad

Taking the PSAT is not all good. There are some potential drawbacks families should understand.

Bad: More testing (or practice) is not always better. Some students are further ingraining bad test taking habits. Many parents believe that if there student can just take enough practice tests, he or she will improve, but this isn’t the case. Students who continue to approach the PSAT (SAT or ACT) the same way are proven to earn similar scores. In my experience, students are often “perfecting” bad habits rather than learning from mistakes.

Bad: For students with test anxiety, the PSAT can be terrifying. In these cases, the potential risks of having a bad experience on the PSAT may not be worth any of the benefits. Obviously we want students to feel prepared when they take the SAT as juniors, but taking the PSAT with a group at school may not be the best way to help a student who has already demonstrated issues with test anxiety.

Bad: PSAT scores are not available for months. In 2015 students received their scores in January. This means that by the time results are available, students have completely forgotten what they did on test day, undermining potential to learn from one’s mistakes.

Bad: (This is a big one!) In the past few years College Board has gotten much stricter about cheating. (Headline worthy scandals prompted some of these changes.) Currently students who show “too much” improvement from one test to the next may have their improved scores referred to the office of testing integrity (in other words, the office of “we think you cheated.”) Once scores are called into question, students have little recourse other than taking anther SAT under supervised conditions to prove the better score was genuine.

How does this relate to the PSAT? College Board has used PSAT results as points of comparison. The problem I have with this is that too many students don’t take the PSAT seriously. They don’t take any steps to prepare and show up to school with the idea that “It’s just practice and it doesn’t count toward anything.” In fact, some students are only taking the PSAT because it gets them out of classes for the morning. Unfortunately these “practice scores” could be used against a student later when his or her SAT score shows improvement so significant that the College Board questions the validity of those SAT results.

Ideas & Alternatives

First, talk with your high school student about the PSAT. Make sure he or she understands that scores are for practice, but should be taken seriously.

My daughter is in 10th grade and we have discussed how the PSAT can help us see her strengths and weaknesses and decide if it is worth preparing for next year’s exam in hopes of qualifying for National Merit recognition. She understands this isn’t a test for which she needs to stress-out or spend hours preparing. (Hopefully she will have time to work some practice questions after the speech and debate tournament this weekend.) But she understands that on October 19, she needs to give the PSAT her full attention.

If your student is going to experience undue anxiety about testing, speak to your school counselor about an alternative. Or keep your child home from school that morning. As a parent, you know what is best in this case and if the stress of one more standardized test outweighs the benefits, don’t take the PSAT.

If your high school isn’t offering the PSAT or your child is unable to take it due to schedule conflicts or illness, you have other ways to obtain the benefits of PSAT practice. Take the practice PSAT at home under timed conditions. Hopefully you have received PSAT Practice Test #2 from your school’s guidance counselor. If not, ask for it. If the school doesn’t have one, you can use the PSAT Practice Test #1.

The benefits of taking an official College Board practice test some Saturday morning at your kitchen table are

  • It is free. You might have the cost of printing out the pages, but the test won’t cost you anything.
  • You can get your scores the same day. This is huge for the learning and improvement aspect of the test. When a student scores his or her own test then looks over the problems missed, he or she will gain more from the experience than taking a test in October and months later getting some number from College Board.
  • You can participate in the process. I’ve encouraged some parents to get a second copy of the test and take it alongside their student. Even if you don’t test your own abilities, you can participate in an active discussion on what to do to improve and how these results compare to the average scores at colleges in your area.

Of course, these alternatives are intended for the 95% of students who are not attempting to qualify for National Merit Scholarships by taking the PSAT. If you have a junior who is an ultra-high scoring test taker who may miss the PSAT due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances, you need to contact your high school guidance counselor an get in touch with National Merit ASAP to request an alternate method of consideration.

The PSAT is generally a good experience for average test takers. Take time to discuss the importance of taking the test seriously and spend time over the remainder of the school year using the results to maximize improvement and further your college research.

Frequently Asked Questions about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships

dollar sign in clouds

Every October, high school students across the country take the PSAT to practice for the SAT, which they will take their junior. What many students and parents don’t know is that the PSAT also can qualify students for National Merit Scholarships. National Merit Scholarships can provide students with anywhere from a few thousand dollars to full tuition at the college of their choice.

Next week I’ll discuss the PSAT as it relates to the typical student, but today’s article will focus on those amazing test takers who have the potential to qualify as National Merit Scholars.

How do students participate in the National Merit Scholarship program?

Students are automatically considered for National Merit Scholarships when they take the PSAT; no additional registration is required. Junior year is the only time PSAT results can qualify a student for the National Merit program, so freshmen or sophomores taking the PSAT will not be considered for National Merit recognition.

PSAT registration is done through high schools. Check with the guidance counselor at your local school for PSAT registration information. Homeschool students can contact any high school in their area to test.

Who can participate in the National Merit Scholarship program?

To participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, students need to take the PSAT their third year in high school. Participants must be citizens of the United States or be a lawful permanent resident with the intent to become a citizen at the earliest possible opportunity.

All students are welcome to take the PSAT, so don’t worry if your child doesn’t meet the above criteria. However, not all students who take the PSAT will be considered for the scholarships, even if they earn perfect scores.

What PSAT score do I need to qualify as a National Merit Scholar?

This is the big question and I wish I could give you a simple answer. The fact is, the qualifying score changes year to year and from state to state. (Confusing, I know!)

National Merit recognizes Commended Scholars and Semi-finalists based on junior year PSAT scores. The top 3 percent of students in each state receive recognition, but because the qualifying score is based on a percentage of total test-takers, the cutoff score is different in each state and changes from year to year.

Since the new format PSAT was given in October 2015 there has been a lot of speculation on what scores will be high enough. Guesses include Selection Index results from 195-205 and above. These numbers are just guesses. It will take another year before the qualifying scores from the 2015 PSAT are released to the public.

If you know a National Merit Semi-Finalist, you could ask what they scored. That may be seen as tacky— a bit like asking someone what they weigh— but sometimes high-scoring students don’t mind the opportunity to brag a little.

Here is the list of National Merit Semi-Finalists in my state, Texas. Check your local media outlets for lists in other states. (These results were released on Wednesday.)

How are National Merit scholarship winners determined?

Students who meet PSAT score qualifications will be notified by their high schools, and homeschool students will be notified at their home address. Unfortunately, some schools are less organized and may not notify you immediately which is why it helps to check the released list of finalists. (see here for Texas)

To proceed in the program and possibly receive scholarship money, students must submit academic records, a letter of recommendation, a personal essay, and the completed application. The National Merit Corporation reviews all applications and determines finalists and award winners.

The most common reason students do not advance from semi-finalists to finalists is a failure to apply on time. Other reasons applications are denied include grades in school which do not merit recognition (think lots of C’s, or some D’s and F’s), incomplete applications, poor character references (not just bland, but BAD), or the failure to provide an SAT score to substantiate a student’s PSAT performance.

What types of awards does the National Merit program give?

National Merit awards three types of scholarships: National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships.

The National Merit Scholarships are worth $2,500. Corporation-sponsored awards range from one-time payments of $2,500 to renewable awards up to $10,000 per year of college.

College-sponsored scholarships can be worth anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to full-tuition awards with housing and living expenses included. This is where the National Merit designation really pays off.

However, like many merit scholarships, institutional awards are based on supply and demand. Schools in high demand (Harvard, UT Austin, Stanford, etc.) don’t need to use scholarships as a “carrot” to attract highly qualified students. These schools are already in high demand. Look for National Merit awards at schools with stellar academic reputations, but less prestigious names or exciting locations. These are often the schools willing to offer full tuition and housing scholarships.

What if I missed the PSAT?

Students who meet participation requirements but miss the PSAT due to illness, emergency, or other extenuating circumstances may still participate in the National Merit Scholarship program. They will need to send a letter documenting their circumstance to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation as soon as possible. In most cases students will be given an opportunity to test for the program.

Famous Scholars

Famous National Merit Scholarship winners include John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s; Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com; Mitchell Daniels, Jr., governor of Indiana; Stephenie (Morgan) Meyer, author of the “Twilight” books; and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

The National Merit Scholarship program offers 9,600 scholarships every year. Being a National Merit Scholar is an honor, and the potential for scholarship money is good if you have qualifying PSAT scores and are selected as a finalist. If you have additional questions about the program, check with your high school guidance counselor or visit the National Merit website: http://www.nationalmerit.org/