My guidance counselors were more focused on character development and peer mediation than on the college application process. Senior year we had one college counselor for a class size of 600. With a case load as large as this, and due to the fact that there were no formal lectures delivered, most of the information regarding college admissions was left up to the student's families to deliver. Perhaps because of the high cost of attendance, the majority of my classmates were from very affluent families. My brothers and I were all on academic scholarship.
You may be wondering where I am going with this.
My peers grew up in a college-going culture. Most of their families worked in white-collar professions and were often second and third generation alumni of the nation's leading private universities. Groomed their whole lives to follow in the family tradition of an Ivy league education, college was a common topic around the dinner table. They visited schools and met with recruiters as early as the summer before Sophomore year. The combination of legacy status, training in sports like crew, fencing, and polo, and access to private SAT tutoring gave my classmates a distinctive advantage over me when it came time to apply to university, regardless if I was in the top 1% of my graduating class or not.
I was told about the PSAT the week before and the only information we were given from our school counselors was that it would take place during the morning session, freeing us up for the afternoon from any responsibilities. I scored above average and was satisfied with the results, not that I was able to interpret them at the time and definitely did not know the requirements for the most selective universities. Therefore, I continued working hard in my regular courses Junior year and signed up for the May and June exams without any additional preparation or guidance.
I was again satisfied with the results, progressively scoring higher each time I took the exam.
Senior year arrived and the guidance department told us to choose a few schools of interest and instructed us to fill out the applications. There was no mention of score requirements. I had visited a number of schools on a college tour with my father, but we didn't know what questions to ask admissions officers. We were looking for a nice place to live for four years, with a strong Liberal Arts program at an affordable price. Although I was technically a second generation college applicant, my parents went to the local community college and then to state schools later in their career, so a different approach to and understanding of the college application and admissions process was all that we knew.
Why is this relevant?
The role of an effective college and career advisor is perhaps one of the most important, yet often grossly underestimated, roles in the overall success of any high school and college student. From public schools in lower socioeconomic areas to the top private schools in the country, students need to be given timely information and have a clear understanding of their roadmap to a successful career.
Effective college counseling is contingent upon anything and everything related to college. Therefore, proper guidance regarding standardized testing and test preparation is essential.
What are my recommendations with regard to test preparation?
Let's go back to the basics.
All students are required to take either the SAT or ACT examinations and are encouraged to try both of them, see how they fare, evaluate their experience, and choose one on which to focus their preparation. Starting as early as 10th grade with the PSAT and/or the PACT will ensure sufficient time to adequately prepare for either exam.
Understanding the nature of these tests and deciding which test best suits the test taker with regard to past experience is crucial. For example, a student who reads a wide variety of material and has a strong academic vocabulary may fare better on the SAT. This is often why students from affluent families who grew up in households where more sophisticated vocabulary is the jargon tend to score higher on these exams. On the other hand, students who come from a strong elementary and junior high school curriculum and who do better at remembering facts and applying basic formulas may feel more comfortable with the ACT exam.
Additional information is available on the website associated with this blog. For the purpose of this post, an overview of what is measured on these tests can be found below:
The SAT tests students’ basic knowledge of subjects they have learned in the classroom—such as reading,
writing, and math—in addition to how students think, solve problems and communicate. The SAT
tells students how well they use the skills and knowledge they have attained in and outside of the classroom
(The College Board, The SAT Program Handbook, 2008, p. 1).
Your ACT scores are a measure of your current level of educational development in English, mathematics,
reading, and science—and writing, if you took the ACT Plus Writing. Knowledge and skills in these
areas are generally essential for admission to college and are considered important for success in college
studies (ACT Inc, Using Your ACT Results 2008/2009, p. 3).
While there are a few exceptions, including test-optional schools, most universities today require applicants to take one of the exams and no preference is given as to which one. In fact, although fundamentally different in their approach, the scores can be compared using correspondence tables to transform a score on the SAT to a score on the ACT and vice versa. Both exams are relatively similar in that they are used to predict freshman grades, not overall success in university as many believe to be true. The strength of the high school curriculum and grades in college prep courses are more telling of student's performance in university and that is why these two other admission criteria are given such weight in the admissions decision.
Regardless of which exam the student chooses to prepare for, adequate preparation is the key.
Although studies have shown that scores do not jump considerably, as with anything that you dedicate time to, the amount of input directly effects output. It goes without saying that spending countless hours with private tutors who reteach you material you may have missed out on during your formative years will have an effect on the end result. In the same manner, increasing your familiarity with the test, how it functions, the strategies for conquering the specific exam, and the opportunity to overcome test anxiety through mock sessions and multiple real tests also play a part of the equation.
The manner in which you prepare for the exam should be taken into account. At the core of any method of test preparation lie the elements of content review, item practice and orientation to the format of the test.
This can either be "student driven" where the individual obtains a book of practice exams and works their way through the material or through "coaching". Coaching refers to classroom based courses at major test prep centers, online test preparation (free or fee based models) or private one-on-one or small group tutoring in-person.
The difficult decision is whether to chose the student driven model or the coaching model and that is where cost plays a huge factor. The costs associated with any kind of test preparation can be predominately classified as monetary cost and opportunity cost.
Today there are a number of resources are available, both online and off, for free or for a fee. Deciding which materials to use can often lead to frustration. For recommendations on free and fee based resources, as well as for other useful information regarding standardized testing, be sure to review the information posted on my website.
It is my mission to provide resources and information for any type of student, regardless of their socioeconomic background. I hope that in doing so I do my part in leveling the playing field, giving access to the best options in higher education to all.