By Cara, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Sometimes, the college process feels like climbing a mountain – a little intimidating, with some obstacles you need to navigate along the way. But if you pick your milestones, break it down into smaller pieces, and remember to have some fun along the way, you will make it to the top. For juniors in the middle of college prep, the second part of the year can feel like you’re staring up a mountain – so what do you do next? Let’s pick one milestone that you can begin to tackle over the next two to three months: test prep.
Testing is often not a student’s favorite part of the process, and although more and more colleges and universities are embracing test optional and flexible policies, many schools still require, and place significant emphasis, on test scores. Ideally, students will have started to prepare for testing starting in 9th grade, but often that is not the case – leaving 11th graders with the task of conquering these exams in just a few months. Right now, juniors need to have a testing plan that addresses three questions: which tests should I take, when should I take them, and how will I prepare for them?
Which tests should I take?
If you haven’t already, your first step should be to decide which test, the SAT or ACT, is best fit for you. It’s counterproductive to prepare and take both, and the reality is, the tests have become more and more similar over the years. But for some, a difference in format and performance on these tests can clearly steer them in one direction or another. So how do you assess this? First, understand the differences between the two tests. Check out some SAT vs. ACT comparison guides. Next, take a diagnostic of each, which will allow you to directly compare your performance on both. If there’s one that’s a better fit for your abilities, then choose that test to prepare for. If there is no clear winner (which is not uncommon), go with the test with which you felt more comfortable. Something else to keep in mind: If you have qualified for extended time on one test but not the other, I would strongly recommend taking that test. If you qualified for extended time on both, the additional time can have a larger impact on the very time-sensitive nature of the ACT.
There’s not just the SAT and ACT students need to prepare for. There’s also SAT Subject Tests, AP and IB exams, and other tests like the TOEFL if you’re an international student. Students should plan ahead for all of these exams and take diagnostics and practice tests as part of their test prep plan.
When should I take them?
Students should spend a good amount of time planning out their testing schedule. When to take the SAT or ACT will vary greatly from student to student, but a general guideline for 11th graders just starting their test prep is to plan on the taking your chosen test at least twice between December and June of your junior year, with a potential third test date over the summer or in the fall of your senior year. However, students should ONLY sit for the SAT or ACT if they’re truly prepared. Don’t take it just to “see where you are.” Again, that’s what diagnostics are for. Never go into a test unprepared as not all schools honor Score Choice.
Keep in mind that summer plans, AP exams, and school/extracurricular commitments will also impact testing timelines, so talk to your counselor and tutor, look at the dates offered, and make a sensible plan. For example, if you’re taking AP exams, don’t sit for the ACT, SAT, or unrelated Subject Tests during the same week. Instead, plan for earlier or later test dates. On the other hand, if the subjects align, like SAT Subject Test in Biology E/M and AP Bio, planning for a May test date for the Biology Subject Test, either right before or right after your AP Bio exam, could optimize your timeline and outcomes on both. Whichever tests you are taking, don’t wait until the last minute to schedule your sittings. Pick dates months in advance and plan out a testing timeline between now and then that will allow for ample prep and practice tests.
How will I prepare for them?
When it comes to test prep, both the ACT and SAT are coachable tests. We know generally what the content will be, and there are plenty of practice tests available. There are also strategies that students can employ to improve their performance – all you need is practice! Take advantage of resources like official prep books, online prep courses, one-on-one tutoring, and more to improve your scores. Talk to your college counselor and parents about what’s the best test prep approach for you and what’s affordable for your family. Plan to take several practice tests throughout your prep so you can see how you’re progressing and what areas need improvement. Try to utilize test-taking strategies like pacing, process of elimination, and more during your practice tests so they become second nature by the time you sit for the real thing. A little bit of prep can go a long way toward helping you reach your goal score, so use all resources available to you.
There is much more nuance to the testing landscape, but if you’re standing at the base of the mountain looking up, these three questions can serve as a helpful starting point for juniors just now thinking about standardized testing. Also, use your college counselor and other school resources to help you draw a map of your college process. Remember to stop now and then, pay attention to how far you’ve come, and take in the view.
Need help developing a test prep plan and timeline? Contact us today for more information on our tutoring and test prep services from our team of expert tutors. On average, students who complete 40 or more hours of tutoring with an IvyWise tutor increase their SAT scores by 200 points, but we have seen committed students raise their scores by as much as 650 points. The average ACT score improvement is 6 points with some IvyWise students increasing their scores by 14 points! Score improvements on SAT Subject tests average 120 points.