PSAT, ACT, and SAT Planning for High School Juniors

High school juniors in the United States have a very interesting year of testing options ahead of them. There are a total of four major tests that students will have the opportunity to take: the Digital PSAT, the Paper SAT, the ACT, and the Digital SAT. Who should focus on which of these different types of tests?

Digital PSAT: Administered in the month of October through a student’s high school. Students who are trying to earn National Merit recognition should prepare for this exam. National Merit recognition generally applies to students who score in the 95th percentile or above, and National Merit Scholarships usually go to students who score above the 99th percentile. For students who do not think that a National Merit award is in reach, taking the Digital PSAT is still an excellent way to try the adaptive, digital format they will find on the Digital SAT. Scores for the Digital PSAT will be back in November, so students will have plenty of time to review their PSAT results to prepare for the Digital SAT in the spring.

Paper SAT: Administered in August, October, November, and December of 2023. After these administrations, the current paper SAT will be retired and replaced with a Digital SAT. For students who want to take advantage of the expansive body of existing practice tests and review books, taking the paper SAT before it goes away is a good idea. Results from the paper SAT will still be fully utilized by colleges, so students would have nothing to lose by giving the paper SAT a try before they no longer have the opportunity to do so.

ACT: Administered throughout 2023-2024. In general, students who are faster test takers like the ACT. This is a good test to take if you have taken through Algebra 2 and a bit of pre-calculus. The ACT covers more math material than the Digital SAT: logarithms, matrices, hyperbolas/ellipses, and combinations/permutations. It also has a broader array of grammar concepts than does the Digital SAT: wordiness, idioms, diction, and sentence placement. Fortunately, students who want to take the ACT can use many excellent books and practice tests to prepare for this well-established test.

Digital SAT: Administered in the United States beginning in March, 2024 and continuing thereafter. The Digital SAT will be offered on national test dates, and many schools will offer it during the school day given the relatively short amount of time that taking the Digital SAT requires. Students will have their Digital PSAT results back in November of 2023 so they can evaluate whether the Digital SAT is a good fit for them. There is a great deal of overlap in the content between the ACT and Digital SAT, so if students wish to switch from one test to the other, it should be fairly seamless.

Please contact us if we can advise you as to the best testing plan for this upcoming school year.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

With the prevalence of internet accessibility increasing across the board, one key skill in education is diminishing: the ability to figure it out. It may be true that students no longer need to memorize key facts because they can always look them up, but being able to puzzle through things is essential to many jobs. After all, what happens when something can’t be looked up? What kind of world would we have if we didn’t have people who were willing to figure out new things? This ability to figure things out starts very young. Remember the toy where the small child has to match the shape of the block to the shape of the hole? Somewhere along the line, though, many children and young adults begin to expect less work in figuring things out. They’re given fewer puzzles to solve and more things to memorize. They stop looking at learning as a puzzle solving and start simply asking for answers (from a teacher or Google) if they don’t know.

The result is that by the time students get to the ACT and SAT in high school they often have very weak concentration and critical thinking skills. They view math as a set of memorized steps, not a puzzle to be worked through. They view reading as something to do only to gain facts, not as something that requires critical thinking. This leads to poor results and to many students struggling to develop skills that have long lain dormant.  

One key part of ACT and SAT tutoring is strengthening these weak skills. Students will often become frustrated when they say “I don’t know how to do this problem” and instead of explaining the steps a tutor starts asking them questions. But this is how these skills are built. Instead of explaining and having students memorize every type of question that could be on the test (an impossibility), asking the students questions and assisting them in breaking the question down and solving the puzzle on their own will enable them to figure things out on test day when a tutor isn’t there to explain things. Nine times out of ten, when a student claims they don’t know how to do the problem, they actually already have all the math or reading skills they need to solve the problem, they just don’t realize what type of math they need to use or where to focus their reading. Developing critical thinking skills leads to much batter results. Besides tutoring, students can develop their critical thinking skills in several ways.

Here are some every day suggestions for strengthening this key skill.

  1. Hypothesize before looking things up:
    Let’s say you need to know the date for some key historical event for a school assignemnt. Before hopping on the internet or grabbing a text book, try to figure out at least a range of time that even could have happened in. Make a game of it to see how close to the correct answer you can get by using all the information you have already in your mind. For example, if I needed to know the date of the moon landing, I might go through a thought process like this: I know the moon landing was during the Cold War and the Cold War was after World War II but before the 90s, so it’s probably between the 50s and 90s. I remember back to a TV show I where the characters watched the moon landing. The TV was black and white and their clothes seemed bright. There were also a lot of hippies as characters. Maybe the moon landing was in the late 60s or the 70s. Only once I have thought through all of this and come up with a hypothesis do I look up the answer: the moon landing was in 1969.
  2. Do puzzles regularly:
    Sign up for a daily word or number puzzle. Maybe it’s a Sudoku. Maybe it’s a mini crossword puzzle. Make it something you can do most days, but that you can’t look up the answer to. Don’t let yourself give up quickly! If you need to, put it down for a few hours and then come back to it later. Work through feelings of frustration and focus on how much easier it gets over time! Try to be okay with not figuring it out if you puzzle on it for a good amount of time and can’t crack it.
  3. Ask specific questions:
    If you’re stumped on something at school or in anything you’re working on, focus on asking really specific questions. More specific questions force you to think about the problem a lot more before getting help and will avoid the helper just giving you the answer without making you think. Avoid saying things like “I don’t understand this thing” or “I don’t know how to do this” and try instead to say things like “what is the relationship between these two things- I don’t think I fully grasp that” or “If I’ve already done steps one and two, what should I consider to get to step four.” Once you’re comfortable with that try asking yourself those questions before asking other people.

Developing the skills needed to figure things out is difficult, but it’s well worth the effort and will pay off in many ways beyond just standardized tests. Keep working on those skills and let us know if you’d like any guidance along the way.

Michal Strawn


When Should You Take the SAT and ACT?

If you are planning on trying to earn a National Merit Scholarship and apply to highly selective colleges and universities, the following general test schedule might be a good fit for you:

  • Take the SAT in August or October of your Junior year–this will help you be well-prepared for the PSAT in October of your Junior year. Since you have one chance to do well on the PSAT for National Merit Scholarship consideration, a “dress rehearsal” with the SAT will be extremely helpful. You may also want to try taking the PSAT as a sophomore for additional practice.
  • Take the ACT in December of your Junior year. This test date has a Test Information Release available so that you can analyze your test questions and answers.
  • Evaluate your PSAT scores and December ACT scores so that you can determine if the SAT, ACT or both tests would be the best fit.
  • Take the ACT, SAT, or both in the spring of your Junior year. Most students improve the second time they take the test, so it is a no-brainer to try the tests at least a couple of times. Consider taking the March or May SAT because of the Question and Answer Service; you can get a copy of your test booklet and answers. Also consider the April or June ACT, since those dates offer the Test Information Release.
  • Take the ACT or SAT again in the summer if needed. If your scores are not quite where you want them to be, try the July or September ACT, or the August or October SAT. Keep in mind that many schools superscore (take the best score from each test section), so you may want to try to improve your weaker test sections. Ideally, if you can have your testing complete by the time you start applying to colleges, you will be much less stressed.

Please keep in mind that the above timeline is a general suggestion, and many other factors should influence when you take the tests. Here are some other things to consider:

  • Does your state offer in-school ACT or SAT tests? If so, you may want to focus on being well-prepared for those test dates. You will get to take the test during the school day in familiar surroundings, possibly giving you an enhanced opportunity to perform well.
  • Is a certain time of year less busy for you because of decreased extracurricular commitments? If you are a fall athlete, perhaps you should focus your preparation on the winter tests. If you have a busy spring, try to get your testing done in the winter.
  • Are you being recruited for sports? Coaches often like to have your test scores as early as possible. You may want to move your testing timeline up a bit if recruiters would prefer that you do so.
  • Are you only applying regular decision? Many students want to weigh different financial aid offers and want more time to consider possible schools. If so, you do not need to have your testing complete until December or January of your senior year.

I hope you found this helpful. If you have questions about the best test-taking timeline for your particular situation, please reach out to us and we would be happy to help.

Mini Blog FAQ: Why Do I Have to Take the ACT?

The ACT is a test that is currently used by colleges and universities across the United States to judge students’ college readiness. It is one of many criteria used by admissions officers to decide who will be admitted. It is also a graduation requirement in some states and school districts. The SAT is a similar test that is used in a similar way. Colleges and universities that require an admissions test will accept either the ACT or the SAT so students can choose which one is the better fit for their skills.

Read more on figuring out which test is a better fit for you.

ACT Testing Update

A little over a year ago we posted a blog about a very exciting announcement from the ACT. The company had decided to begin offering students the opportunity to retest individual sections of the ACT. Students were elated- gone were to be the many long mornings taking the entire ACT; instead, they looked forward to taking the full test only once and then focusing on just a few sections for improvement on test dates thereafter.

Unfortunately, this change was postponed. With the global pandemic closing many test centers, the ACT was struggling to find enough seats for even just the students who needed to take the test for the first time. Individual section retakes simply could not be prioritized when some students couldn’t take the test at all.

The fallout from that situation is still felt in many locations as large backlogs of students who haven’t been able to test try to make up for lost time. Due to this and other concerns the ACT has once again postponed the implementation of the individual section retakes, saying in part


“ACT will not be rolling out section retesting in the 2021-2022 school year. We plan to use insights from our efforts to offer this feature as we enhance and innovate new product offerings. Though there are merits to this enhancement, we have renewed our commitment to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to take the full ACT test.”

https://www.act.org/content/act/en/new-act-options/section-retesting.html

On a positive note, however, the ACT has begun super scoring for students. Students who have taken the test multiple times will see a super score on their score report. This score takes the best section scores that the student has across multiple test dates and reports it as one single composite score. If, for example, a student takes their first test and gets a 25 on reading and a 20 on math and then takes a second test and gets a 20 on reading and a 25 on math, the super score will be calculated using the two 25s and ignoring the 20s.

Students who are applying to schools who accept super scores can use this to their advantage! The students will still have to retake the entire test each time, but they can focus their energy on just one or two sections with lower scores since they know that their previous good scores in other areas will be reflected in their super score no matter what.

Of course, if you would like some support in making a plan for taking the ACT then get in touch! We’re happy to discuss  your specific situation and help you prepare!

-Michal

Latest Changes to the ACT, SAT, and Test Optional Colleges

With so much in the news about changes to college testing and admissions, I have heard the same questions from many clients. I wanted to pass along the very latest and best information that I have about the SAT, ACT, and test optional policies.

How have the ACT and SAT changed their upcoming dates?

• ACT just announced that they will have test dates on June 13th and July 18th. If there is a need to move the test date because of local health conditions, the June test would be moved to June 20th and the July test would be moved to July 25th. Despite much speculation that the summer ACT tests would be cancelled, they are on track to go ahead.

• SAT announced that they are cancelling the upcoming June SAT date, but will have a total of 5 national test dates for the fall with sufficient capacity to test all students who wish to do so. There will be an SAT each month starting in August. Additionally, the in-school SAT that was cancelled in the spring will be offered in the fall.

What if the country is still locked down in the fall and it is unsafe to take the SAT and ACT in person?

• Both SAT and ACT will make online, at-home versions of their tests available this fall should it be necessary. At-home tests have already been made for the GRE, GMAT, SSAT, LSAT, and AP exams. Should they make the online tests available, I believe they would simply keep the test as it is in its current format, but have virtual proctoring, test session recording through a computer’s camera, and browser lockdown to prevent cheating. More details about the precise format of the online tests will be forthcoming.

I have heard that many colleges are going “test optional,” and that my child now has the option to not submit SAT and ACT scores. Does this mean I don’t need to have my child take the SAT and ACT?

• “Test optional” does not mean “test blind”—if you can take the ACT and SAT to improve your application, it is definitely in your interest to do so even for test optional schools. Only 21% of all the 5,300 U.S. colleges/universities are test optional, and only 10% of the top 20 nationally-ranked universities (U.S. News & World Report ranking) are test optional.

• Only two schools in the United States, Hampshire College and Northern Illinois University are test-blind—they will not consider ACT and SAT test scores in any way. All other colleges in the country will consider test scores when making admissions decisions.

• The University of Chicago, the most highly-ranked test optional University, actually saw its admissions rate decline to 6% and its average SAT scores improve after going test optional. Their admissions website encourages “students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential.” Only about 10-15% of University of Chicago applicants choose to not submit their test scores. https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/first-year-applicants

• For the University of California system, temporarily being test optional this year “does not lower the bar for admission, but accommodates the real barriers students have faced as tests have been cancelled and classes have moved to Pass/No Pass grading. Admissions to UC campuses is highly sought after and will continue to be just as competitive.” Submitting test scores can support students’ “statewide UC eligibility, application for certain scholarships, and help them fulfill some University graduation requirements.” https://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/response-covid-19.html

• If you are able to take the SAT and ACT, do so early and often.

o Grades may hold less weight in admissions decisions than in previous years since many high schools are instituting “pass/fail” or no grading for the 2020 spring semester.

o Students who would traditionally have impressive extracurricular accomplishments from the spring and summer will not be able to showcase their talents as they normally would.

o Students may be unable to make college visits to demonstrate interest in schools, and do in-person interviews.

o Accurate letters of recommendation may be more difficult to obtain since letter writers may not have the same level of personal contact with students that they normally would.

o As always, the more objective information you can provide to a college about your solid academic qualifications, the better your chances of admission. Taking the SAT and ACT is one of the easiest ways to make this happen.

–Brian Stewart

Free Local Activities for Summer Break

I was recently in a library here in central Ohio working with a student. As the student completed some practice problems I was watching the other folks coming and going from the library and saw a dad with his daughter come in to check out some books. The girl was maybe in 7th or 8th grade and I was excited to see her in the library- more kids should be reading over summer break! However, then I saw what the dad was checking out: every test prep book in the building.

Now, I’m the first to admit that the summer is a great time to get ready for the ACT and SAT tests, but students (especially students that young) should also have time to be themselves, explore their interests, relax, and do things they wouldn’t have time for during the school year. They need to recharge their batteries! That doesn’t mean they can’t learn- but the learning doesn’t have to be as structured as multiple hours of test prep every day! Many parents enrich summers by paying for lots of camps and activities, but parents whose budgets don’t allow for that may find enrichment more difficult. Here is a list of summer activities in the Columbus area where are free (or mostly free) to enrich your students’ summers.

Science:

1.                 Park of Roses
2.                 Franklin Park conservatory (Free the first Sunday of each month)
3.                 Educational Programs through Columbus Metro Parks

Social Studies:

1.               Find as many historical markers as possible
2.               Visit the Shrum mound
3.               Visit historical cemeteries
4.               Tour the Ohio Statehouse/ Ohio Supreme court (you may have to pay for parking)
5.               Attend Cultural Events (Asian Festival, Greek festival etc)

Art/Literature:

1.               Columbus Museum of Art (free on Sundays)
2.               Grandview Art Hop
3.               High Street Art Hop
4.               Tour the Thurber House (free on weekdays)
5.               Shakespeare in the Park (at Schiller park)

General:

1.              Check out programs at local libraries and community centers
2.              Ask an adult friend if you can shadow them for a day

Outside Columbus day trips:

1.               Great Seal state park (find the great seal)
2.               Hocking Hills nature hike
3.               Air Force Museum (Dayton)
4.               Great Serpent Mound (you pay for parking)

What free activities are you doing with your kids this summer? Let us know and we’ll add it to the list!