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SAT or ACT: How to help your child get ready

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By GreatSchools Staff

(5) Find out how colleges weigh tests

Colleges vary in the degree to which they consider a student's SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process. At many colleges, tests are just one factor considered when evaluating an applicant. Other factors include high school grades, extracurricular activities, an applicant's personal statement, and recommendations from teachers and counselors. Other colleges have have dropped admissions testing as a requirement altogether. A national commission recently recommended that colleges and universities consider dropping college-entrance tests as a requirement, claiming the tests don't accurately predict student success in college.

Colleges also differ in the way they use test results in making admissions decisions. Some colleges, for example, will look at an applicant's highest math and reading scores even if the student earned them in two different test-taking sessions. Others will average the scores if a student takes a test more than once or look only at the highest score earned in a single session.

It's important for students to ask questions before deciding which tests to take and when. Your child's high school counselor is a good place to start.

(6) Plan a test timetable

Students usually start by taking the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in the fall of their junior year and sometimes in their sophomore year for practice. This test, administered by your child's high school, is not counted for college admissions, but a junior who gets a high score can qualify for a scholarship.

Students typically take the SAT or ACT in the spring of their junior year of high school. By then, they have completed most of the coursework that will help them in the test, and they can still retake it in the fall of their senior year if they feel they can improve their scores.

It's important to research college admissions deadlines to be sure that the test results your child needs to report will be available in time, and also to check to see if SAT Subject Tests are required. These tests measure a student's knowledge in specific subjects such as English, math, biology or language. They cannot be taken on the same day as the main SAT test, which means your child will need to take all these tests into account as he develops his timetable.

Your student should also consider when he can spend time preparing for the test before deciding when to take it. If he can only spend time taking practice tests in the summer, then taking the admissions test in the fall of junior year may be a better option than waiting until spring.

A final note on retesting

If your child takes the SAT or ACT more than once, he can select the test results he wants to send to colleges. However, many admissions officers say they only look at the test with the highest score. Again, it's important for students to find out the policies of the colleges they're interested in.

Research shows that students can often — but not always — improve their scores by retaking the test a second or even a third time. The College Board reports that students who take the test a second time typically see a 30-point increase on their combined score. But experts also caution against taking the test over and over unless a student has a solid reason to believe he can significantly improve his results. In addition to being expensive, test prep and testing take time a student might otherwise invest in improving his grades.

Comments from readers

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