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Juniors: How to Deal with Your First SAT Score

The school year is winding down, and current juniors are probably feeling a little overwhelmed with the prospect of starting the admissions process this summer. By now you should have taken the SAT or ACT, and are probably just receiving your scores.

You are possibly a little disappointed and freaked out if your first SAT score isn’t what you expected, and you most likely don’t fully understand if/how your scores will impact your whole college application. But perhaps even more significantly, this score report might have bruised your ego a little and made you doubt yourself.

This is a scary way to enter into what is supposedly one of the most important stages your life, so I’m here to tell you a few things that I hope will help.

1. Nobody aces the SAT on his or her first try (okay maybe a very, very few exceptions here but you get the point).

2. Since the SAT tests a mix of basic and advanced concepts, some students struggle because they encounter material they may have not yet covered in the classroom.

Now is not the time to get stuck in state of shock and fear. There is plenty of good you can do right now with this first valuable bit of information. There are two questions you must to ask yourself to assess the situation and lock in a plan on how to best prepare for your future exam attempts:

What type of learner are you? How much handholding do you need to focus on your schoolwork? Do you need an imposed structure to be productive? Or are you the type of person who self-sufficiently hits the books after dinner every night?

Depending on your answer you might be best served by doing some standardized test prep. Test prep with an experienced tutor will keep you on a schedule and help you improve before your next attempt. Or you may be just fine buying a $20 SAT or ACT test prep book, studying the test-taking strategies, and drilling with its practice tests.

Is your exam score due to lack of content knowledge, or do you have some test anxiety issues? Among the many strategies used to address test anxiety, becoming more familiar with the expectations and structure of the exam is the most important. Training to overcome anxiety includes learning how much you can realistically accomplish within the timing of each section, recognizing the level of difficulty in each question, accepting when its time to skip a question, how to eliminate answers, and when/how to make better educated guesses. This is the purpose of most test prep services and test prep books.

If this is a content issue, i.e. you forgot the math you learned in ninth grade, or you still can’t solve for “x,” the best way to address this is to find tutoring help from a favorite teacher, an older, successful student, or a test prep professional. Instead of digging out an old textbook from which to refresh, use that same $20 test prep book as a guideline on the types of questions you can expect and the concepts that need refreshing.

In general, it is important that you stay grounded and logical as you make these assessments and formulate your plan. Here are a few other considerations:

First, you have many more chances to retake the exam before your college application deadlines hit – October, November, and December. But don’t just sit around waiting for the next test date. Have a plan, practice, and prepare.

Second, also give serious consideration to the ACT exam as it approaches the college admissions assessment from a completely different angle than the SAT. It follows a similar schedule as the SAT, minus the November test date, and it is more “achievement-based,” meaning it is designed to measure the knowledge or proficiency of something that has already been learned, rather than “aptitude-based,” or designed to predict an individual’s ability to learn certain skills. Questions on the ACT tend to be more straightforward, and there’s no penalty for wrong answers. You must understand these differences as this might greatly impact which test you take and your score results. But be forewarned, there is a challenging science section on the ACT, and if science isn’t your thing the ACT might not serve you well.

Third, while most colleges will see it as overkill if you take the SAT or ACT more than three times, with logical preparation you won’t need anymore than that to get a score you are pleased with. Many schools also honor Score Choice for the SAT, meaning students can choose which SAT scores, by test date, they send to a college, and some schools also superscore, where they calculate a new composite score based on the highest section scores from all sittings. This can be beneficial to students who have taken the SAT multiple times. However, some students just aren’t great test-takers. For those students unable to get their scores within the range they want after a couple of tries, there are more than 800 test-optional and test-flexible colleges and universities in the US that either do not require applicants to submit SAT scores when applying, or deemphasize the importance of test scores in the admissions process.

And finally, it’s your first try. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Consider how much you simply increased your level of familiarity with the SAT exam this time. If you can claim that you have learned at least that much it is an excellent accomplishment.

There are many factors to consider as you assess and plan how best to attack your tests again this spring or next fall. Talk to your college counselor or someone who can help you keep your eye on the larger picture of your overall college admissions plan.

Good luck, juniors! Rest assured that disappointment with your first SAT will pass and you will be stronger for it.

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