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MUST Have Items for ACT, SAT & PSAT Prep!

This summer I’m working on posting a couple short videos to the College Prep Results Facebook page each week. I’m sharing tips from my college visits (with my 16 year old!) and answers to common test prep questions.

If you haven’t already, follow the College Prep Results Facebook page where you can ask questions and find more test prep and college planning resources. (https://www.facebook.com/CollegePrepLLC/)

 

Here’s a quick video explaining the must have materials to prepare for the ACT, PSAT/SAT. I also share info on what books to avoid and free options to help you figure out which test is right for you.

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When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

This is one of the college planning questions that has a straightforward answer: take the tests, so that even with re-takes, you are DONE by the end of your junior year.

Avoid senior year panic

Yes, students can take the SAT and ACT as high school seniors. This year (2017) SAT has added an August exam date and next year (2018) the ACT will add a July test. These early fall options provide a safety net for students wanting another attempt at a higher score.

But the reality is that having to test in the fall of your senior year is stressful. (Ask the parents of these students who have contacted me in the last couple weeks when they found the June ACT or SAT results weren’t good enough.) Senior year is busy– fall especially. You will thank yourself later when you plan ahead to do all testing as a junior.

When junior year?

Anytime.

I typically start with a student’s extracurricular obligations and try to work around competition season, major performances, AP exams, etc. Football players, cheerleaders, and members of the band are so busy in the fall that winter or early spring tests might be better. Spring sport athletes and students with a heavy AP class load might want to avoid spring tests because they won’t have as much time to devote to the ACT or SAT. Look ahead and block out the busiest times.

Allow for at least one re-take. Most students take their test of choice two or three times. (A lot will take the other exam at least once “just to see”, but that isn’t necessary.) Both the ACT and SAT offer June exams which are good for retesting, but I wouldn’t wait until June to take the test for the first time because re-takes spill into your senior year.

The current testing calendar includes plenty of opportunities:

ACT: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July (2018)

SAT: August, October, November, December, March, May, and June

There is very little students will learn in the classroom that will help them on the ACT or SAT with one exception– Algebra II. Read more here if you have a student who will be taking Algebra II as a junior or who has consistently struggled in math.

If all test dates are equal, find a time where your student will have the most motivation and free time to prepare. Some students are eager to dive into the college process and will be ready to start in the fall; others do better in the spring when all juniors seem to catch “college fever” as the idea of college starts to become more real.

Would sophomore year be even better?

NO!

No, it would not. There is no compelling reason for a student to take the ACT or SAT as a sophomore. If you want to practice, print out the official practice tests from ACT and College Board and take them timed at your kitchen table. There will be plenty of opportunities during a student’s junior year to take these tests.

My daughter is getting ready to start her junior year of high school. She did not take the ACT or SAT as a sophomore. In fact, we are just starting test prep with a goal of some fall exams (PSAT and SAT). If earlier or more was better, we would have done it. And we didn’t.

Keep in mind that the SAT and ACT are challenging. They are constructed with a mix of easier, medium, and hard level questions and the goal of the test writers is to make sure not too many students get high scores. (Why would colleges want scores if everyone had top marks?) Develop your plan to allow for the possibility that not everything will go right the first time. Planning makes this stressful process of college admission easier.

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How Much Math Do I Need for the ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT are designed for high school juniors. But we know that not all juniors around the world are taking the same math courses. Here’s what students need to know before taking the ACT or SAT.

There is a catch.

Before I declare students are ready for either the SAT or ACT there are a couple caveats:

  • Completion of a course doesn’t always equal retention or mastery of skills. I’ve had students admit they never really learned geometry (or algebra) and just got by on homework grades and cramming. I have other students who are so far advanced (taking Calculus II as a junior for example) that they have forgotten the basics.
  • Both the ACT and SAT are difficult exams written with enough hard questions that not too many students will score in the top 10% (or top 25%.) Math questions are difficult not based on the course sequence, but based on the number of concepts combined into a single problem and the likelihood of making a mistake. In other words, there are hard questions that don’t go beyond junior high school math, but almost no students get these correct due to calculation errors, misleading answer traps, etc.

But there are some basics a student needs to complete before he or she has enough math knowledge to successfully attempt these exams.

ACT

ACT math focuses on algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry. In general I find most students are able to adequately prepare for the exam once they have taken high school algebra and geometry.

Some problems (about 4) include basic trigonometry which most of my students have learned in geometry class. SOH-CAH-TOA is all the trig you need. (If you don’t know it, your student probably does.)

Starting in late 2016, the ACT added some harder probability questions and problems that involve more math typically taught in Algebra II. While Algebra II is not required for success on the ACT, a junior taking Algebra II might want to make sure he or she has a solid understanding of Algebra I. (In some cases a few months of Algebra II is the perfect review for the necessary skills.)

SAT

The redesigned SAT (starting in March 2016) goes much deeper into Algebra II concepts than the old SAT or the ACT. In order to be adequately prepared for a majority of SAT math, I’m recommending students complete Algebra II before preparing for the exam.

This means juniors taking Algebra II might want to give serious consideration to the ACT which does not test as many Algebra II concepts or wait until mid-spring to take the SAT.

Tips for math review

I’ve found the free SAT review lessons from Khan Academy to be a good place to start for students taking either exam. You can start here.

For a general overview, skip the diagnostic quiz and scroll down to the videos and practice problems. Start with the basic video for any concept. I like to pause a couple second into the video and see if I can solve the questions quickly and accurately on my own. If I can, I usually fast forward to the end to double check I got it right. Move to the harder example then test your skills on the practice problems.

 

Whether a student takes the ACT or SAT, it is important to have a solid understanding of the math concepts tested in order to make the most of any additional test preparation activities you may pursue.

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Is It Better to Take the ACT or SAT?

In 2017 it doesn’t matter which test you take. Any college that requires standardized test scores for admission will accept either exam– with no preference given to one over the other.

Old habits die hard.

There are geographical preferences for certain tests that go back decades. Traditionally the ACT was most popular in the Midwest while the SAT was popular here in Texas and on the east and west coasts.

When I took the SAT & ACT (in the 1980’s) some colleges didn’t accept the ACT. That practice died out over a decade ago when all schools — even the elite Ivy League schools– decided to accept the ACT.

The ACT may offer an advantage.

This is one of those little details that might tip the scales in favor of the ACT. Some highly competitive schools ask students to submit SAT Subject Tests in addition to the regular SAT or ACT. (More on SAT Subject Tests here.) However, some schools will accept the ACT in place of the SAT + SAT Subject Tests. In these cases, one ACT can take the place of two Saturdays worth of SAT exams.

So why do I only see SAT (or ACT) averages on XYZ’s website?

Colleges are subject to the same historic and geographical trends we’ve already discussed. You might see only SAT averages on a school’s website if a majority of its applicants submitted SAT scores for admission. That school may not have enough students applying with the ACT to publish those scores. Just because you don’t see ACT (or SAT) averages in printed material or on the school’s website doesn’t mean those scores aren’t equally valued for admission.

Focus on the test that’s best for you.

Because there isn’t a “preferred” exam for colleges, you should take the exam that showcases your strengths. Yes, you can take both, but in my experience students are busy and have better things to do than to prep for two different exams when one will do.

Not sure which one to take? Use the official practice tests from College Board and ACT. Compare scores by comparing your percentiles. You can use this chart.

There is no better test– no favored test for admissions. The best test to take is the one that will allow you to get the highest scores possible.