Standardized Tests: Tips for Juniors

For 11th graders (and some precocious 10th graders), the testing season is here.  Whether you're taking the SAT or the ACT, it is time for Alison’s Top 3 Tips about standardized tests and college admissions.

Tip #1:  Be strategic about which tests you take.

Your strategy should be shaped by two things: what tests are required by the colleges to which you will be applying and which test suits you best.

What Tests Are Required

Start with what is required by the colleges to which you will be applying.  You’ll discover that there is quite a bit of variety and that the testing landscape is changing a lot, so it pays to take the time to do the research. Right now, these are the basic configurations for testing requirements:

  • No tests required.
  • SAT Reasoning OR ACT with writing required.
  • SAT Reasoning and SAT Subject Tests OR ACT with writing required.
  • SAT or ACT with writing required AND SAT Subject Tests recommended.
  • SAT or ACT with writing required AND SAT Subject Tests required.
  • SAT OR ACT with writing OR 3 SAT Subject Tests OR 3 AP Tests.

Faced with this variety of requirements, many students get the advice or decide for themselves that they’ll just take them all and cover their bases.  I think that is foolish – you get no advantage in the admissions process and you spend valuable time, energy, and resources taking unnecessary tests.  Instead, be strategic and focus your efforts.  For most of you, this will mean taking either the SAT Reasoning or ACT with writing test.  If you are applying to the most selective colleges, you’ll probably have to add 2 SAT Subject Tests. 

I do have two special caveats for international students (students who are not U.S. citizens, whose primary language is not English, and who have been educated outside the U.S.).  First, you should make sure you understand the testing requirements for international students – they are often different and include a test to demonstrate proficiency in English such as the TOEFL.  Second, you should take the TOEFL even if it is not required.  Many admissions offices consider your other scores in light of your TOEFL and therefore it will be helpful to you. 

Which Tests Suit You Best

SAT Reasoning or ACT with writing? 

The statistics gathered by the colleges suggest that for most of you, it doesn’t much matter.  You are going to score about the same in comparison to the national pool and that is why the colleges themselves will take either. However, a significant minority of you will do better on one or the other.  There are lots of theories for how to predict which test will “suit you.”  But no prediction is as valid as simply testing yourself.  Carve out some time to take one of each test, either at a test prep center, at your school counseling office, or in the privacy of your own home.  Do it old school and use paper and pencil just like you do on the real tests.  If you score decidedly better on one or the other, then go with that test. 

But what if you do equally well on both?  Then it gets a bit more complicated, because I think you need to consider whether you will be taking SAT Subject Tests. 

If you do not have to take the Subject Tests, then simply pick the one that most people at your school take, because you’ll be in sync with everyone else, have more resources for test prep, and it will be all around easier.  

If you can substitute the ACT with Writing for both the SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests, then go with the ACT.  You’ll definitely take fewer tests and, if need be, you’ll get more chances to retake the test and boost your score. 

If you do need the SAT Subject Tests, then it probably makes sense to go with the SAT because you’ll get in the SAT groove and you can leverage your test prep most effectively.   (For the record, this is new advice from me.  I used to say that if you do equally well on both, choose the SAT.  But because the testing requirements for colleges have changed a lot in the last three years and because at the same time, the ACT has caught up with the SAT in terms of its recognition and acceptance by admissions officers, I no longer have a decided bias in favor of the SAT.)

Tip #2:  Schedule your tests with your life in mind and schedule your life with your tests in mind.

Now that you know which tests you are going to take, get the test dates from the web, sit down with your calendar, and map out when you are going to take the tests.  Some things to keep in mind as you go through this exercise:

  • Be aware that if you want early decision options, you need to have ALL of your testing complete before November 1 – any test date after October 1 is probably out.
  • Some test dates may not be available in certain locations.  For example, there is no February ACT in New York and no May SAT outside the U.S.
  • Some SAT Subject Tests are available only on particular test dates.
  • Exploit opportunities to study once and test twice – finishing an AP class and studying for an AP exam in May?  Take the SAT Subject Test in May or June while the material is still fresh.
  • Don’t overschedule yourself.  No big events scheduled right before a test – you need at least a week of “open time” to put yourself in a position to do your best on the test.  What does that mean?  Hard choices.  For example, if you are a soccer star, your team expects to be in the state finals, and the finals game is scheduled the week before the SAT, then you can’t do them both.  Either bow out of the state finals or rethink your testing plan.  Sorry.  That’s the reality.

Tip #3:  Put yourself into the “Peak Performance Zone.” 

You want to go into the test confident and able to perform at your best, so do what it takes to put yourself into the “Peak Performance Zone.”  Peak performance does not happen by accident.  It is the result of intentional action on your part. 

  • Prepare.  Acquire the knowledge and skills you need for the test you are taking.  You can do that in any number of ways and all of them work if you actually invest yourself in the activity. 
  • Practice.  You can’t take too many practice tests.  Familiarity breeds success.
  • Sleep.  At a recent conference, a testing expert reported that a teen needs at least 4 good nights of sleep before a test in order to score his/her best.  Got that?  4 good nights!  So when do you have to start going to bed by 10 pm?  The Tuesday before the test!!!!!!  No late nights – even if it is dedicated to test preparation.  Get your sleep.

Questions, thoughts, tips of your own you’d like to share?  Post and continue the conversation!

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)