The landscape for getting into college has become markedly more competitive, and the scores a student submits from the ACT or SAT can make or break admissions into their chosen college. So test prep be-comes equally important.
We’re fortunate to talk with Josh Stephens, who counsels students around the world to navigate through the process of preparing and taking these exams. Josh also explains how students who are living around the globe, either as expatriates or foreign nationals, may have additional hurdles to clear v. their stateside counterparts.
A bridge to college
Josh brings a background that includes high school instruction, independent college counseling and journalism to his current role with ArborBridge, which is a company that assists American expatriates, foreign nationals or students from third cultures in preparing them for college.
Well prior to admission, students must tackle the college tests, like the SAT and ACT, and while the anxiety and aspirations all students have over college, he says there’s a lot that separates students who are on military bases or in diplomatic situations across the globe from those who are here in the United States.
Many military bases have their own high schools, and for kids who are part of diplomat’s families there are ap-proved schools they attend. However, these schools are incredibly diverse, and in the complicated process of prepping for tests it can be a much more difficult struggle.
- Students abroad may not have the level of guidance or advice they would normally have in an American high school
- Some of the kids who apply for American colleges are the only ones in their class to do so
- The sense of camaraderie is often missing, which is important for support and motivation
- Test dates may not be as available for students abroad, even though the dates offered are the same around the world.
- Certain test centers may opt-out of some of these dates (generally offered seven times/year)
- If a test center is on a military base, it’s not always available for students off base to take the test, and they may get shut out.
- Families stationed abroad tend to travel, so schedules may not place the student in the right place at the right time
What all students must do, according to Josh:
- Plan ahead and look up where their testing centers are and the dates that are available to them. Availability and the number of centers depends on the city, and availability can fill up quickly.
- Look at the date you’re going to apply to college, and work backwards
- Consider how many times you will want to take the ACT/SAT when looking at these schedules and plan accordingly
What’s better: ACT or SAT?
There’s really no “better” according to Josh, but he notes that the SAT is more popular overseas, while the ACT seems to be favored here in the US. He’s also quick to dismiss the Asian view that the ACT is inferior, saying that the two exams are “100 percent equivalent.”
Why is test prep so important?
Let’s face it, the days of simply sharpening a pencil and doing your best are over. Far more students are apply-ing to college than 20 years ago, and therefore college acceptance rates have fallen. The landscape is more competitive than ever.
- As the stakes of the process in getting into college are higher, the process of testing has also become more important because test scores are a part of the application
- As the tests become more important, the focus turns to preparing
- Test prep can raise your score, and it’s not known what a college’s “line in the sand” is for accepting stu-dents
- Strong test scores lead to admission, and admission is the key to scholarships and other benefits
It’s not an exam, it’s an opportunity
Here’s the good news: Josh sees the plus side of exams, and calls them an opportunity. Students who may have a little better than average, but not stellar, high school resume can go into these exams with the goal of getting a strong score. There are 2400 points on the SAT – before the pencil hits the paper you have zero. How many can you rack up by the time the bell is rung?
The extra time taken in studying, and the extra exam taken, along with the support of a good counselor, can therefore make all the difference.
What’s the best approach to take with test prep?
Most students take two or three exams. Josh recommends the following approach:
- Start with a practice exam; this can also be the PLAN or PSAT test (offered as early as sophomore year), but he points out these are two hour exams. These are good rough estimates for students to gauge their per-formance, but the brain operates very different in the second hour of an exam than in the fourth.
- A practice exam gives you a baseline score to work from, and to set goals
- Have a plan of study before you take the official exam, don’t just sit on your hands waiting for the next opportunity. The first exam should be taken either in January or in spring of Junior year
- If the real score on this exam is as high or higher than you wanted, you’re done
- If not, study for the next exam (generally offered in June)
- The last reasonable time to take an exam is in October of senior year, as early admission begins on Nov. 1
- If need be, take an emergency exam in November or December
- Anything earlier than January of Junior year Josh considers as overkill
- Anything later than December of Senior year is getting too late in the process
A word about the PSAT: some parents have heard this is an important exam to take because of scholarship potential, which is true. However, this is the National Merit Scholarship and unless the student records a score in the top one or two percent, the odds are minuscule that the PSAT will have a bearing on future awards.
Which test should your student take? Should both SAT and ACT be taken?
Josh says which test is best really depends on the student. Some will find one more comfortable than the other, but how you find that out is through taking practice tests. The majority of colleges accept both, likely be-cause most kids score fairly even when comparing the two.
- ACT: involves more direct questions to measure aptitude, and students should be comfortable with an-swering and moving onto the next question
- SAT: involves more reasoning and verbal ability through questions
Whichever test you choose, commit to it early and study; don’t go back and forth, because taking one test doesn’t mean you’ll do better on the other.
What about subject tests?
Subject tests focus on specific courses of study and are completely separate from the ACT and SAT. The-se are used by students to demonstrate academic competency and again should be viewed as opportunities to make a positive impression on an admissions counselor.
Not many colleges require these, only those that are the most selective. These exams will not take the place of the AP exams, and it’s up to the student if he or she wants to take them. However, Josh recommends to do so especially if it’s a way to play to your strengths.
If you decide to take a subject exam (or exams – you can take up to three in one sitting), these should gener-ally be taken toward the end of Junior year, and usually only once.
What types of test prep are out there?
Josh outlines the options from do-it-yourself to one-on-one tutoring, noting that no single method is perfect for everyone.
- Practice exams – found online, in books, and through tutors. The key in taking a practice test is in getting feedback.
- Book exams may give you a score, but may not indicate your strengths or weaknesses or why you scored as you did.
- Books also should be read strategically. Some can be 500 pages – pull out the topics and subjects that you need help in to study.
- Even investing in one session with a tutor to review an exam is beneficial
- You can spend money on good practice exams and good analysis, but if you’re ambitious on spending be careful. Know what your time and money will accomplish.
- Test prep classes – can be helpful in covering the basics, but if you are struggling with a low score or an ex-ceptionally high score, this may not be the best option as these will be too generic.
- Online courses – The Khan Academy has recently formed a partnership with the College Board to provide free SAT lessons. While these will provide good lessons with good teachers, it will only be helpful if stu-dents know which lesson to focus on, and is diligent in taking the lessons
The bottom line is that it all comes down to a student who is motivated and cares about their success. A self-motivated student will do better at every stage of the process as well as every stage of life. Find your mo-tivation and use that to propel you forward.
Josh’s 3 Quick Tips
- READ – perhaps the best test prep, read as much as you can – it’s a lost art
- Relax – it’s a tough process for everyone, especially if you have a dream school in mind. Nervousness and anxiety are counterproductive, so don’t focus on a dream college, but dream of the good education you will have
- Be positive – view exams as an opportunity
Question of the Day – How do you apply for federal loans, and how much are we eligible for?
A family I’m working with asked me this question, but the answer starts with reviewing the process.
- Federal loans are awarded by colleges, along with grants, loans and work study
- Parents and students fill out the FAFSA form to be considered for financial aid; this information goes to the college, which determine the type and amount of your aid
- An offer letter is sent from the college to the family, which outlines your aid; this usually arrives the April of senior year
- Grants can be awarded as well: Pell Grants, Supplemental, Work Study
- Loans that can be offered include Direct loans, PLUS loans or Perkins
- State Aid (for students attending college in the same state) can also be offered, and is generally need-based
- Scholarships can also be awarded from the college’s financial aid office
- Additional private scholarships are also out there, but are up to the student/family to apply for separately
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