College Admissions Testing: A Primer
by Dr. Trama - Wednesday, June 6th, 2012 College Preparation & Planning

Most parents and students think that SATs are a fact of life for every college-bound teen.  Is this true? Yes, and no.  No, you can’t ignore them, but your score isn’t some predetermined measure of your intelligence either.  There are strategies and options to consider when you see the SAT on your horizon, and many of your decisions will come down to how far ahead you’re planning.  Commit to college early-on – as a freshman – and you will be more prepared to deal with the SATs by the time you’re a Junior.

First and foremost, know your options.  You can take the SAT, or you can opt not to take it at all.  If you decide to take the test, your smart bet is taking it two or three times.  You should also take practice tests, the most important of which is the PSAT/NMSQT.  If you decide, after trying a practice test or two, that the SAT isn’t for you, take the ACT, or apply to colleges that don’t require any standardized test scores at all (850+ of them exist).  If you’re an ace test-taker, you can even take SAT Subject tests.  All of these choices deserve their own explanations, which you’ll find below.

SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test)

As noted before, you can’t believe that the SAT is a measure of your intelligence.  It’s a test with a particular format, set of rules, time constraints, and loopholes.  The more times you take the test, the better you get at knowing its games.  Moreover, focused practice – reading test guidebooks and taking prep courses – makes a world of difference for students of all abilities.  Start preparing for the test early, even as early as Freshman year.  Begin your preparation by visiting the College Board Website.  They have practice tests, advice, and explanations.

The most basic explanation of the test is that it measures critical thinking skills, the ability to interpret and solve mathematical and verbal problems.  It scores your mathematical critical thinking abilities within a range of 200-800, and scores your verbal abilities separately, also within a range of 200-800.  There is a third component to the test, an essay section.  The essays are score within a range of 2-12, and count as 30 percent of your overall Writing score.  Colleges evaluate the component scores individually and as a total.  The test is given seven times a year.  Most students take it towards the end of their Junior year, and/or the beginning of their Senior year.

PSAT/NMSQT  (Preliminary SAT / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)

Of all the practice tests, the PSAT is the most important.  Why?  1)  It’s an official College Board testing situation with real stakes, (preparing you mentally for the SAT.)  2) It gives you personalized feedback.  3) Those who do very well on it are recognized as National Merit Scholars – a big feather in your hat when it comes time to apply for college.   For a more detailed explanation, visit the PSAT Website.  You can, and should, take the test during both your Sophomore and Junior years.

ACT (American College Testing)

After taking the PSAT and some SAT practice tests, you might decide that your SAT score will never accurately reflect your academic abilities.  Are you without hope? No.  There’s an alternative  standardized test call the ACT.  The ACT differs from the SAT in that it includes all high school subjects: english, math, reading, and science.  The ACT even sees its mission as different.  The subject matter is based on what you’re being taught in class, it and tests education development.  If you’re a good student, taking challenging classes, you will probably do well on the ACT.

SAT Subject Tests

SAT subject tests are for excellent test takers, those applying to very competitive schools, those who excel in particular subject, and those who know what they want to study when they get to college.  The subject tests are hour-long, content-based exams that let colleges get a better picture of who you are as a student.  These tests are about allowing you to shine in an area of your choice.  Of the twenty possible subject tests, you’ll be able to find two or three the best represent you.

When you think about the SAT in this light, it seems more of a choice than a fact.  You do have to make some decision with regards to the test, but rolling the dice and taking it once isn’t your only option.  Commit to college and pick a path that’s right for you.

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