If there is one aspect of the college process that causes more stress and that has garnered more publicity than any other, it is standardized testing. Despite much national criticism, standardized testing is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Having a national standard to measure students by, as one factor in the decision process, is just too important in the minds of many admission deans or directors.
Rather than enter into the fray about the efficacy of standardized testing, we will detail information about each of the exams you might take, as well as offer some suggestions about test preparation. There are many tests and each has its own rather complex system for registering in addition to getting your scores reported to the appropriate schools or agencies. It is therefore vital that you follow directions carefully creating a testing plan that is appropriate for you.
The College Counseling Office has registration deadlines posted on the wall. Please read the appropriate bulletins or on-line resources carefully for instructions about registration or sending your scores to schools.
Currently all Bullis sophomores and juniors are required to take this exam. The PSAT is a two-hour and ten-minute exam with 52 verbal questions, 40 math questions and 39 writing skills questions. Each section is scored on a scale of 20 to 80. It is offered during the school day at Bullis on the Wednesday national test date in October. The purpose of the test is:
- To introduce you to this type of standardized text so that you will be more comfortable when the time comes to take the SAT.
- To identify students with good testing ability who may qualify for National Merit Scholarships.
- To forward your name to colleges that may be interested in students like you, if you so desire, by filling out the Student Descriptive Questionnaire (SDQ) on the registration form for the test.
- To forward your name to certain U.S. government-sponsored scholarship programs, if you so authorize.
You do not have to register for the PSAT; we automatically register all tenth and eleventh graders. All you have to do is show up with two #2 pencils with erasers and a calculator. Your scores will be sent to you in early December. We are happy to discuss your results once they are in.
It is important to put the PSAT in its proper perspective. It is a practice test and your scores do not become part of your permanent record. The test is designed for juniors; scores are therefore scaled based on a junior testing population. Sophomores must recognize this as they look at their scores. Colleges never see PSAT results, so they cannot use them in the decision process. However, they can help you immensely as you prepare for the SATs; we cannot urge you strongly enough to read the entire score report. Go beyond the numbers and find out what the numbers mean. Using your score report along with your test booklet will help you to understand where you made mistakes; by doing so you will be able to better prepare for the PSAT you will take again in your junior year as well as the SAT.
The National Merit Scholarship Program uses students’ PSAT scores to identify those students with exceptional testing ability who may qualify for one of its scholarships. If your score is above a certain cut-off point (which varies from year to year), you will be notified in September of your senior year that you have qualified as a semi-finalist. You will at that time receive an application from the College Counseling Office to complete for the final round of competition. Approximately 15,000 of the 1.2 million students who take the PSAT will be designated National Merit Semi-Finalists. If you fall just below the index, you may be awarded a Letter of Commendation. The National Hispanic Recognition Program and the National Achievement Scholarship Program also use these scores.
The SAT is a 3 hour and 45 minute-long test that attempts to measure critical reading, writing and mathematical reasoning abilities. These are the same skills that you have developed over many years: reading comprehension, vocabulary, logic and basic principles of mathematics. The verbal, mathematical and writing scores are reported separately as three-digit scores ranging from 200-800. Colleges use your scores as predictors of your ability to be successful in their curriculum. Although the SAT is being updated to more closely parallel the components of a typical high school curriculum, even the designers of the test admit that realistically it is only an accurate predictor for the first year of college.
The SAT will be given seven times this school year, from October to June. We recommend that you take the exam once or twice in your junior year and a second, or possibly even a third time in the fall of your senior year. For test date, test centers and registration information, check the websites: www.collegeboard.org (for the SAT) and www.act.org (for the ACT).
The ACT is a three-hour multiple-choice exam that measures skills in English, mathematics, reading and science reasoning. Beginning February 2005 an optional 30-minute Writing Test became available. This component measures skill in planning and writing a short essay.
The ACT is designed for students who have completed (or nearly completed) their junior year. It is seen by some as a more accurate assessment of what you have learned in the classroom and can therefore be a better test for some students. The five-effort student who completes all of his/her homework, takes copious notes and reads the text with great care may do better on the ACT than the student who just seems to “get it” without having to work really hard. Because the test is broken into four sections rather than the two-part SAT exam, the ACT also tests a broader range of skills. Some people may feel more comfortable and confident with the format of the ACT exam and should by all means give it a shot.
The test consists of four (with optional fifth) 35-50 minute subtests that are scored separately on a scale of 1 (low) to 36 (high). You will also receive a composite score.
These exams were once known as “Achievements Tests.” They are not required by every school but may indeed be seen as more important than the SAT in places where they are required. Generally speaking the more competitive a school’s admission process, the more likely SAT Subject Tests will be required. Make sure to check with individual schools to fully understand their testing requirements.
Here are some guidelines to help you determine which subject tests you should consider taking:
|If you will finish...||You should consider taking...|
|Advanced Algebra, or Pre-Calculus||Math Level IC|
|Honors Functions or higher||Math Level IIC|
|Chemistry Honors (AP)||Chemistry|
|Physics Honors (AP)||Physics|
|English III or higher||Literature|
|AP U.S. History or upon the recommendation of your U.S. History teacher||U.S. History|
|Foreign language 4th level or higher or native speakers||French, Latin, Spanish, Chinese, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean|
Advanced Placement Exams, or APs, are three-hour-long tests based on full-year college-level courses. These tests were designed to allow students to obtain college credit and/or to exempt students from introductory college courses. However, some colleges also consider these scores in the admission process. APs are scored on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest score. Many colleges require a score of at least 4 before they will grant credit and/or course acceleration. However, some schools no longer give any credit at all. When you take an AP course at Bullis, you are required to take the AP exam in that subject. (While we do not offer AP English at Bullis, the majority of students enrolled in Honors English IV will take the exam.)
Your AP scores do not appear on your transcript and we do not send them to colleges. Like your other standardized test scores, your AP results are yours to send or not. If you have taken AP exams prior to your senior year and scored well, it may be in your best interest to have these sent to the schools to which you apply.
If English is not your first language or you have been educated in English-only classrooms for less than four years, you may want to take this exam. These tests are now administered via computer at specially assigned learning centers in the area. Please see your college counselor for further information.
Talk about the proverbial can of worms—test prep is a multi-million dollar industry in this country. Companies from the well-known chains to individual tutors make BIG money getting folks ready (or so they say) for all types of standardized tests. The debate about the value of prep courses or tutoring is a ripe one and better left for another venue. The Bullis College Counseling Office does not endorse any particular agency or individuals and strongly urges any families considering going this route to do so at a time that does not interfere with the primary focus of all college prep work—school. The school year is not an appropriate time for such work. Your focus should be on your schoolwork and involvement in the school community, not on the additional responsibility of a prep course or special tutoring.
Consider the words of Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Princeton University on this matter:
- One needs to remind people that if you start with false premises, such as the notion that test scores determine admission, you are likely to arrive at false conclusions, such as raising one’s test scores by a few points will significantly affect one’s chances of admission. The real consumer question is not whether for some people coaching may result in higher test scores, but whether the expenditures by many, and it involves millions of dollars, will make a significant difference in their educational outcomes to be worth it. Ultimately, those who think coaching of value must sit in the classroom with those students who know the subject without coaching.
Various studies of test preparation reveal that the gains that result from test preparation courses are quite modest. The standard error of measurement on the SAT is plus or minus 30 points for no particular reason. Thus the SAT score really represents a range, not some precise measurement of talent or aptitude.
- Review your PSAT results carefully. Don’t just focus on the scores; look at the detailed report of how you did on each particular section and type of question. Figure out the ones on which you need to work.
- Study the “Taking the SAT or SAT Subject Tests” booklets produced by the College Board or the “Preparing for the ACT Assessment” produced by the American College Testing Program. These guides are perhaps the most under-utilized resource in the entire college admissions field. Produced by the test-makers themselves, the guides include explanations of what the format of the tests will be, what exactly is covered in each section of the test as well as sample tests with answers.
- Buy (or borrow from the College Counseling Office) one of our test prep books or test prep software.
- Consider buying test prep software produced by both the College Board and ACT.
- Take practice tests; know the directions and the format for the tests. Don’t waste time reviewing directions.
- The most obvious choice on difficult questions is almost always wrong—but it’s not far off. When in doubt, look for the answer that is closest to the most obvious choice.
- Predict the answer before you look at the answer choices. For example, if you’re answering an SAT sentence completion, read the sentence, predict a meaning for the missing word and then scan the answer choices to see which one fits.
- The correct answers to multiple-choice reading-comprehension questions are easily defended factual statements or carefully worded opinions. Choices that use exclusive or extreme words (only, always, never, all, none) are rarely if ever correct, unless proceeded by a qualifier like “not,” in which case they are almost always correct.
- When you are asked to compare fractions, turn them into their decimal equivalents by dividing the top number by the bottom number (with your calculator!). It’s hard to know whether 6/15 is greater or less than 7/16, but you can easily compare their decimal equivalents. 6/15=. 4, while 7/16=.4375. Clearly, 7/16 is greater.
- Look for easy questions if you are running out of time. Vocabulary-in-context questions ask you to identify the meaning of a particular work in a passage, and can be answered quickly.
- If you can eliminate one or more obviously wrong answers, guess. The odds are in your favor.
- Darken the ovals on the answer sheet from the middle outward, not from the perimeter inward. It’s faster.
- Memorize vocabulary words using mnemonics—phrases that help remind you of a word’s definition: to remember “transient” (passing, momentary) think of the phrase “trains in transit.”
- Bring a digital watch (it is easier to read) and a calculator (it is permitted).