Standardized testing may be the most worn out topic in college admissions. But that does not make it any less important. No matter how much applicants moan that “I am more than a number!”, the fact remains that standardized testing is the only thing that is wellstandardized and can therefore be used to directly compare students who go to different schools. First off, here is a handy ACT-SAT conversion chart:
Now onto the heart of the subject, what tests to take and how to prepare for them:
The SAT I is the test that has been around the longest, and out of all the books that my friends and I have used (and the general consensus in online forums), the “Big Blue Book” a.k.a. the official SAT study guide for the New SAT put out by the College Board is probably the best resource to use. It contains 10 full-length practice tests as well as helpful strategies for each section. After all who is better qualified to tackle the SAT than the College Board itself? Just remember, for the SAT, no matter how much endurance you think you have it really is grueling (well over three hours of concentration!). Make sure to get adequate sleep and eat a good breakfast! For those who would like a more indepth look at the SAT (and I will rarely suggest anything this long as a must-read, but I think this outstanding piece does qualify as one), a College Confidential forum member named Xiggi put a guide out at http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/sat-preparation/68210-xiggi-s-sat-prep-advice.html a few years ago, and it is fantastic (I can honestly say that he had a very large part in me scoring a 2380 on the SAT, I had scored a 225 on the PSAT, and his guide really raised my ability in the critical reading and writing sections). Finally, I would like to include one last resource that I found very helpful: http://www.flocabulary.com/wordlist.html
Though I am not a huge fan of the premise of the website (using hip-hop to teach vocabulary), their wordlist is nice because I find it to be 500 words that are commonly used in the SAT but whose definitions can be tricky at times. Also, it is one of the few online wordlists that includes the definitions. This will save you A LOT of time.
ACT: The good thing to remember about the ACT is that though all your scores for the SAT I and SAT II’s are sent on your SAT score report, the ACT only sends your highest scores. Also, the ACT is considered a “quicker” test though it is less than an hour shorter, time limits on the ACT trouble test-takers far more than time limits on the SAT. Thus it is good to practice beforehand. The jury is still out on which ACT test book is the best, the most common responses I heard were the “Red Book”, Kaplan, and the Princeton Review. It is important to note that only the “Red Book” has real ACT practice tests. The general consensus seems to be that the practice tests in Kaplan and the Princeton Review are a bit harder than that actual ACT test, so if you want real tests, better go for the “Red Book”! There is also the rumor that East Coast schools prefer the SAT. However, every admissions officer will tell you point blank that they do not prefer one test over the other. So that’s that. My advice would be to take the one that you feel the most comfortable with, and if you don’t get a great score on the first one, try for the second one, because colleges will take your highest score. Remember that in the ACT, your essay is separate so you can do poorly on your essay and still receive a high score (though your essay score shows up by itself).
SAT II’s: Not really much to this one, just take the three (most colleges require either two or three, be sure to research how many you need!) that you are strongest in (but in different subjects). Almost everybody takes one of the Math ones (the problems are easier in Math I but the curve is a lot worse. You can miss quite a few and get an 800 on Math II). Then usually they take one science one and one humanities one. This shows an ability in various fields and prevents your application from seeming too narrow or lopsided.
PSAT: Not much to this one. Many use it as a practice for the SAT (though there is no essay in the PSAT), but it is also used for National Merit Scholarships, so take this seriously! You can also take it as a sophomore for practice, which is often a good idea to get experience before taking it early in your junior year. Cutoffs very a lot from state to state (often by more than 10 points), so look up what your state’s cutoff scores for being a National Merit Semifinalist have been in previous years to give you an idea of what to shoot for.
AP Tests: These are not used as much in college admissions (in fact you will already be accepted to schools before you get your scores in senior year). I highly recommend Princeton Review books for these tests, as well as working with your AP teachers (who are likely to be more than happy to offer extra help as your scores reflect on them as well).
Retakes: Retaking standardized test is an issue that is still being debated, but most people would say that two or three times is probably enough, any more than that would be a bit excessive.
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