College acceptance or rejection hinges primarily on a student’s high-school grade point average (GPA). However, since grading policies are not uniform among the thousands upon thousands of secondary schools in the United States, standardized tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and the American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT) provide college admission officers with a common yardstick for measuring academic ability and predicting how a boy or girl will fare as a college freshman. The most commonly used tests are described below.
- Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT): administered in October of tenth or eleventh grade. The test serves as a warm-up for the SAT. At slightly more than two hours (shorter than the SAT), it measures verbal, math and writing skills. Colleges are not privy to these scores, but doing well on the PSAT may qualify a student for one of six thousand five hundred National Merit Corporation Scholarships. The awards range from $250 to $2,000 per academic year for up to four years, or a onetime payment of $2,000.
- Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT): the most widely administered standardized college entrance exam. SAT test dates are scheduled every month during the school year except for September, February and April, with the scores available in about two weeks. Most youngsters take the exam in the spring of eleventh grade or the fall of twelfth grade. The SAT evaluates knowledge and skills in math, vocabulary and reading.
- American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT): the other major standardized college entrance exam, also given during eleventh or twelfth grade. The ACT differs greatly from the PSAT and the SAT. It is a three-hour multiple-choice exam divided into four parts: English, mathematics, reading and science reasoning, always in that order. Many colleges in the South and Midwest require students to take the ACT test and submit their scores when applying for admission; other institutions accept either the ACT or the SAT. The ACT is growing in popularity: about 1.7 million copies of the test are given annually (in October, December, February, April, June and, in some states, September), as compared to 1.8 million copies of the SAT.
- PLAN test: The PLAN test, administered in the fall to high-school sophomores, tests the same knowledge and skills as the ACT assessment and provides students with an estimated ACT score. Some schools allow tenth-graders to take both the PLAN test and the PSAT. It can help direct students in their course selection and also functions as a scholastic and vocational aptitude test.
- Scholastic Assessment Test II Subject Test: Some colleges require applicants to take one or more SAT II Subject Tests, formerly referred to as Achievement Tests. These exams test knowledge in a particular area, such as English, math, a number of sciences, history and foreign languages.
Contrary to what many anxious high-schoolers believe, the exams are not indicative of intelligence. By all means encourage your youngster to study hard, but don’t add to the pressure she may already be feeling. Some teens approach these test dates as if their futures hang in the balance. The SAT is just one of several facets that make up a student’s profile.
Preparing for the SAT or ACT
Your child’s verbal and math scores on the PSAT or the ACT equivalent will indicate where he or she needs improvement. Many teens have benefited from test-preparation courses, offered through a number of companies. While the instructors do review test content, they mainly coach students on test-taking techniques and strategies—for instance, learning how to rule out incorrect answers and knowing how much time to allow before moving on to the next question. If you and your child choose this route, be sure to enroll in a reputable, established program. Many focus on specific areas that are giving a youngster trouble, be it math, vocabulary or reading.
Any practice for the test should be on an authentic PSAT or SAT. The exams are produced by the College Board, a national membership association of schools and colleges. Teens can ask their guidance counselors for free copies of its booklets “Taking the SAT I” and “Taking the SAT II.” The College Board also publishes 10 Real SATs, a hefty guide containing full-length exams. You can find it and the SAT II companion (Real SAT II: Subject Tests) in bookstores or order it from the College Board directly. The organization’s Web site contains many helpful resources for students, including sample PSAT and SAT test questions.
What Else Do Colleges Look for in Students?
If grade point average and standardized test scores were the sole criteria for gaining admission to college, schools could replace their admission-office staffs with a single pocket calculator. Simply add up the numbers, subtract the class ranking and however many seats were available would go to those candidates with the highest totals.
Obviously, the process is far more complicated. In weighing an applicant’s qualifications, colleges look to ascertain how well this young man or woman could be expected to handle college-level course work in an environment that demands far more self-sufficiency than high school did.
The transcript, student essay and letters of recommendation that accompany the application also convey an impression of this faceless person’s character. A college is a community; some are the size of small cities. Admission officers are seeking newcomers whose presence will enhance campus life in some way. How a teenager spends his time away from class says nearly as much about him as his time in class. So extracurricular high-school activities, recommendations and the essay, when required, are definitely taken into consideration. Participation in after-school activities indicates that a student is disciplined, has excellent time-management skills and commits herself to a passion, whether it be in the arts, sports or the debating team. Admission departments pay attention to work experience and community-service activities too.
Recommendations, from a current or recent teacher, guidance counselor and/or the high-school principal, give prospective colleges an idea of how the applicant is perceived by her peers and members of the community.
Finally, the college-application essay not only assesses writing proficiency and analytical ability, it provides a glimpse into the writer’s personality, creativity, values, energy and sense of humor. Typically, applicants are asked to describe themselves and their aspirations for the future. Other essay questions are more abstract. Like many amateur wordsmiths, teens tend to freeze up the moment their fingers touch the keyboard. Instead of a personal, engaging voice, the resulting prose is often bloated and stiffly worded, or overly earnest and oozing insincerity. Encourage your youngster to just be himself.