College entrance exams have been around for a long time – the SAT began in 1926, the ACT in 1959. That’s around the same time they became a source of anxiety for many students and their parents!
Making a plan to prepare for and schedule these necessary tests by winter of junior year can relieve some of the angst that can creep up if you wait until the last minute to jump into the game. And it does seem like a game at times, although not one that your child would choose to play if there were a way to opt out.
Can you opt out?
In truth, there is a way to attend college without taking either the SAT or the ACT; there are about 850 schools that are now “Test Optional.” This means that you can apply to a college/ university and only send your test scores if you are happy with the results (in comparison to the average scores of other applicants).
Make sure, however, that your child checks the fine print, as some test optional schools still require scores for students who wish to be considered for merit aid awards or to apply into a particular major.
Here is the current list of Test Optional schools:
Note as well that if your child has a documented learning disability, his test scores can be waived at a Massachusetts state school, as long as he discloses his disability at application time.
Wherever your student ultimately decides to apply, I do recommend that most students take either the SAT or ACT, as a way to have more options. Schools that are on the optional list now could change their testing policy. Also, as a mid-year junior, it is really hard to know which schools will ultimately make your short list at application time. So, for most students, it’s best to plow ahead and plan to take these tests.
Take advantage of practice tests
Some schools offer the PLAN in the fall off 10th grade. Check with your guidance office and, if given the chance, have your child spend a Saturday morning taking this practice ACT test (you can find a practice test outside of school, if yours does not offer it).
Almost all schools offer the PSAT (practice SAT) in the fall of junior year. Again, it will make life a lot easier if your child takes advantage of this opportunity.
Then, by early December of 11th grade, when the PSAT scores come back, you can compare the two results to see if one is a better option. All colleges and universities in the US will accept either the SAT or the ACT.
It’s worth comparing, as about 30% of students experience a significant difference in scores between the two tests. And while some kids will have the time and energy to focus on taking the official version of both tests in the spring of their junior year/ fall of senior year, others may choose just one test and focus there, taking it a couple of times to work on improving their scores.
Students who receive test accommodations at school should talk with their guidance counselor about applying to the testing agency for extended time, testing in an alternate location, etc. This should be requested a few months before each test, including the practice tests. It only makes sense to compare the two practice results if both have extended time (or not).
In terms of test prep, there are many options, from free to quite costly, depending upon whether it involves books, online instruction, individual or small group tutoring, classes, or some combination. As with most things related to college planning, it is important to consider what will work best for your child’s learning style, schedule and your budget.
Do plan ahead if you want to use a tutor or attend a class, as schedules will fill. It is usually recommended that a student prep for a test for the few months prior to the test date.
Remember, college testing is an important part of the process, and therefore a project that is best planned in advance. The more advance planning you can do, the more you’ll help your child be successful and with the least amount of stress during a busy year!