When teens are just starting the college admissions process and beginning to look at the ACT and SAT – the standardized testing part of the equation – there are a lot of unknowns and variables. Here to help answer some of the questions is Sara Harberson, who is also known as America’s College Counselor.
Sara is the founder of AdmissionsRevolution.com and SaraHarberson.com. She has been on both sides of the admissions process, first a dean of admissions at selective university and now as both Director of College Counseling at an elite high school and a private counselor to teens around the country.
She recently answered some questions from Between Us Parents about standardized tests like the SAT and ACT and how students should approach preparing for them.
Between Us Parents (BUP): I know it varies by school, but overall, how important would you say that standardized test performance is when a student is applying to college?
Sara Harberson (SH): Admissions officers like to downplay standardized tests—suggesting that they are just one piece of the puzzle.
If test scores are required, they matter a whole lot more than the admissions officers like to admit.
For highly selective colleges, high test scores won’t get a student admitted; they just keep a student “competitive” in the applicant pool. If the student’s test scores fall below range their chances of admission are highly unlikely unless they fall into a category which the college values (VIP applicant, blue chip athlete, student coming from an under-represented state or background, legacy applicant, etc.). However, high test scores can increase the likelihood of admission and scholarships at very selective and selective colleges where raising their average test scores is a priority.
For those students who have strong transcripts but lower test scores, they can look into test optional colleges which do not require test scores for admission. I have worked at an Ivy League university where high test scores abound and at a test optional college. How strict or flexible a college is with their testing policy (i.e. superscoring) reflects the type of environment that the student will encounter there as a student.
BUP: When you were an admissions officer, did you give much thought to how students were prepping for standardized tests? Do colleges and universities presume that kids are preparing for them and likely getting outside help?
SH: When I was an admissions officer, there was an assumption that almost every kid was doing some form of test preparation. But there are a lot of options out there: group classes run by a local individual or organization, group classes at an established test prep company, independent studying, online resources (free and for a fee), and one-on-one tutoring.
It is very accepted among admissions officers for a student to get outside help when studying for standardized tests. We’ve all been there, and the fact is that the student ultimately has to take the test themselves.
BUP: The free online test prep resources like Khan Academy are great. How much of a game-changer do you think that resource is?
SH: I view Khan Academy as a starting point. It breaks down the barriers and stigmas that can hold back students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or even students who have testing anxiety.
Most students begin to get more comfortable with the tests and content through a free online source, but they can’t rely on just this resource most of the time.
They still need to take practice tests leading up to the test day to monitor their scores, pacing, and to get real testing experience.
BUP: Those resources also presume that students are self-motivated and disciplined, which some teens consistently are, but many are not. What would you say to a parent who isn’t sure that a student can handle the prep all on their own? Is it worth investing in outside help if they think it will help their child improve their score?
SH: It takes an exceptionally organized and motivated student to follow through with self-study. Keeping up with the work and the practice tests is challenging especially during the school year.
I have seen some great success stories of students studying on their own, but this is a small percentage of the greater number of students taking these tests. Conversely, I see many more students doing expensive classes or one-on-one tutoring who aren’t putting in the work in between the classes and sessions. Instead, they are relying simply on the actual class or tutoring session. However, that usually results in little to no improvement in their scores.
No matter if a student does self-study, takes a class, or has their own private tutor, the only way to see results is to do independent “homework” and practice tests regularly leading up to the actual test.
In the end, if a student is motivated, I see the best results with an experienced private tutor. And, the price is usually well worth it to the family when they see the results.
BUP: What do you think are the 3 most important things for parents to know or do when it comes to standardized test prep?
SH: First, parents need to have their child take a practice ACT and a practice SAT well before junior year. I usually recommend the summer after 10th grade. If the tests are taken under the strict time guidelines, the family can get a clear sense of how the student would do on the actual tests. Tutors often recommend the test in which they are more of an expert. But if the student isn’t a good fit with the test, they won’t reach their potential. There are conversion charts on the Internet to compare ACT and SAT scores. The scores a student gets on the practice tests usually match up with their gut feeling about which test they prefer.
Second, parents need to make sure that their child does the introduction and bulk of the test preparation during the summer when they don’t have the pressure of schoolwork.
The test preparation can continue during the school year, but it’s more like maintenance rather than learning everything from scratch.
Third, they should reach out for recommendations from other parents who had kids who successfully got admitted to colleges where their child is interested. Parents are much more willing to share the name of a great tutor AFTER their own child has gone through the process.
BUP: Are there any misconceptions about standardized test prep that you’d like to clear up?
SH: The biggest misconception about test preparation is that just because a student does it, doesn’t mean they will see results. The student has to invest time in test preparation beyond the weekly class or tutoring session to really see significant results.
The other misconception comes from tutors who often encourage the student to take as many tests as possible and one right after the other. Elite colleges look down on students who do this.
I see the best results when a student leaves time in between the official tests to gain more knowledge and perspective.
Students should pick one test (the right one from the start) and take it up to three times between junior and senior year. They should spread them out with huge chunks of time in between. For example, a student could take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the winter of junior year, then the spring of junior year, and then possibly over the summer or early fall of senior year. Their very best results usually are in senior year if they are willing to put in the time to prepare over the summer.
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