High School 2 College

November 25, 2009

I Need Help with the SATs: More Questions and Answers

If you search back in the previous posts to this blog, you’ll find the answers to most of your SAT, ACT, and college application questions.

But I’ve been collecting questions that have come up from students and parents since that blog, and I think it’s time to do another HELP question and answer.  Here goes:

Question: I’m a high school junior.  I know my PSAT scores will be available by around Christmas break.  But when should I take the SATs?

Answer: I recommend that most of my students take the March and May SATs in their junior year. Most but not all?  If you have a commitment when the March or May test is scheduled (March 13, 2010 and May 1, 2010), you can take the January test (1/23/2010) or June test (6/5/2010), but the January test is often difficult and is too soon after the PSATs come back for you to use that info to prepare for the next test.  And the June test conflicts with finals and SATIIs.  So for most kids, March and May SATs are just right.

Question: What about SATIIs?  When do I take them?

Answer: SATIIs, or SAT Subject Tests, are one-hour multiple choice tests that are given in a variety of subjects, like math, science, foreign language and history.  The most selective schools require two or more SAT Subject tests.  The fairly selective schools like to see two or more.  The less selective schools don’t much care.  You can take up to three in a day, but DON’T!  Don’t take more than two in a day.  You’ll be wiped out. Most kids take those either in June of junior year (6/5/2010) or October or November of senior year. They’re given the same day as SATs (except no SATIIs are given in March), so you can’t take both SATs and SAT Subject tests on the same day.

Question: I’ve heard about the ACTs.  Do I have to take those, too?

Answer: The ACTs used to be popular only for kids attending school in the mid-west.  Now nearly 100% of my students take the ACTs.  Some kids do substantially better on the ACTs, some do better on the SATs, and some score pretty much the same on both.  The ACTs are shorter and less stressful, and that’s reason enough for some kids to take them. Bonus: If you take the ACTs and score well, you don’t have to take SATIIs — and if you score really well, you don’t even have to take the SATs.  I’d recommend juniors take the ACTs in April (4/10/2010).  They also give the ACTs in June, but why not take them in April?  That way, you’ll have your scores back in time to decide whether you have to take June SATIIs.

Question: I’m not even in my junior year yet, but I want to get started early.  What should I do to prepare for the SATs?

Answer: One thing NOT to do is take the 10th grade PSATs.  What a waste of time and money!  There’s no value in taking that test, and it might do you harm, because if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to take the 11th grade PSATs with confidence.  Another thing NOT to do is take practice tests given by testing organizations.  I’ve found the difficulty of the tests is unreliable. Either the tests are too easy to build your confidence, or they’re too hard so the testing organization can get you to sign up for a course of prep sessions.  Don’t do it. The best thing you can do to prepare early is pay attention in math class, asking for extra help if there are concepts you don’t understand, and read.  Read.  READ.  It’s especially useful to read TIME magazine or Newsweek, especially the letters to the editor (“inbox” in TIME) and the back page essay.  The more you read essays, the better you’ll be at reading essays. Makes sense.  If you think your vocabulary is particularly weak, try SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I hate the name of that book, but it’s very useful.

Question: Do I really have to take the SATs more than once?  How many times can I/ should I take them?

Answer: Don’t stop at once, even with score choice, unless you get something spectacular the first time, like above 730 on each section.  This isn’t a good time to be lazy.  And don’t take them more than three times.  After three times, your score isn’t likely to improve so significantly that it would be worth the extra time and effort.  So, take the SATs twice or three times, usually twice in junior year and once in senior year.

Question: Should I send my scores to schools when I sign up for the SATs to take advantage of the four free score reports?

Answer: I used to insist that my students send their scores to different schools each time they took the test, but now that they’ve instituted score choice (you can hide entire seatings of SATs if you want), there’s not enough benefit to sending scores now.  Wait until ALL of your tests are done, which means the fall of senior year for most students, then decide which SATs, which SAT Subject tests, and/or which ACTs to send.  Don’t send anything anywhere until then.

Do you have more questions? Please do ask by posting a comment to this blog.  And feel free to tell your friends and guidance counselors about my blog.  It’s the teacher in me — I just like answering questions!

Wendy Segal

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