Getting Ready for the ACT and SAT: What’s the Best Plan for Your Kid?

student taking SAT

As surprising as it sounds, your tiny baby will most likely eventually go to high school and then prepare for something after graduation. I was as surprised as you when we entered the almost-ready-for-college part of our parenting journey. Here are some things I learned about helping my kid get ready to take the ACT.

My most important suggestion is pretty simple: Relax. Take a deep breath as work with your kid to make a plan.

First the background: The ACT and SAT tests are intended to evaluate a student’s readiness to do college-level work. They aren’t intended to measure what a student has already learned, partially because the tests may or may not be aligned with your state’s learning standards. The tests are designed to be predictive, to measure a student’s potential to perform well in the future.

Some education experts question the validity of these standardized tests. Over time, average test scores show differences in average tests scores based on demographic characteristics. For example, in 2016, the average composite ACT score was 23.6 for higher income students and 19.5 for lower income students. (Source: ACT)

Similarly, on average, white students score 4.2 points higher in math and 5.6 points higher in English, compared to African-American students. Study findings indicate that these differences are largely attributed to preparation. According to ACT.org, students from all backgrounds benefit from taking rigorous courses in high school and earning good grades.

In fact, new research suggests that high school teachers are better judges of their students’ ability than standardized tests.

The good news is that ACT and SAT scores are just one factor that colleges consider as they determine which applicants to admit. Different colleges weigh the importance of standardized tests differently—and, according to Big Future, published by the College Board who creates the SAT, PSAT, and AP curriculum, it’s not the most important factor. Colleges pay most attention to the rigor of high school classes and the grades earned in them.

Many colleges have moved away from ACT/SAT scores, either partially or completely, in their admission process.  You can find a list of test-optional colleges for 22/23 here.

How should students prepare to take the ACT or SAT?

  1. Take the appropriate test. In general, Midwestern colleges accept ACT scores. Check with the colleges your kid is interested in to find out what test they prefer/require.
  2. Understand the format of the test, what content it covers, and how it is scored.
  3. Practice the test! Free practice tests are available online. Taking a practice test will let you know what areas are strengths and areas that might need extra practice. Use other free resources like Question of the Day to build skill and confidence.
  4. Talk to your high school counselor. They have lots of experience helping students navigate the college admission process.
  5. Keep in mind your kid’s academic goals. Don’t create unnecessary and unneeded stress around standardized test scores. In general, highly competitive colleges expect higher test scores. Some programs or scholarships may require a certain ACT/SAT, higher than just getting accepted.
  6. Enroll in rigorous high school classes. This should probably be the first suggestion! Earning a good ACT/SAT score doesn’t start in the spring of junior year.
  7. Consider taking an ACT/SAT review course or working with a coach. Ask questions about their historical success before you choose the one right for your kid.
  8. Realize that test anxiety is a real thing. Help your kid find anxiety-fighting strategies that work for them.
  9. Ask about super scores. Some colleges accept a composite made up of a student’s best scores on the subtests taken in different test administrations.
  10. Wondering about retaking the test and improving scores? Check out this research from ACT about the effect of multiple tests on scores. Timing is the most important factor — it’s best to wait until students have finished more academic courses.

My last suggestion comes in the form of a story. My older son scored in the 85th percentile the first time he took the ACT. That’s pretty good. It got him accepted into his first-choice college. It was not good enough to earn big scholarship money. Big money required an increase of about 6 points on his ACT score. That’s a lot.

He took the test a second time and his score actually went down. That was a common experience for others who took the test that summer, maybe because questions are often tried out in the summer test administrations. We decided that the stress and worry of wasn’t worth it. And that was the right choice for us.

Beth is mom to a high school sophomore and a first year college student. After fourteen years as a professional writer and editor, she earned graduate degrees in counseling and play therapy. Now she exercises her creativity as a school counselor. Beth loves reading, especially mysteries.

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