Let’s start by stating the obvious: the SAT and ACT are tough exams. But, if you want to go to college and have the best chance of qualifying for merit aid, you have to take one test or the other.
Here’s a little secret though…I really enjoy standardized tests.
I know that this is not normal, but I am a Number 2 Pencil Nerd.
That’s the nickname my dad gave me in high school. I have never been a morning person, but I was always so excited to head out to my testing site on a Saturday morning – plenty of freshly sharpened #2 pencils in a pouch – ready to take on the challenge of the exam ahead.
After helping hundreds of students get their higher ACT and SAT scores, I still enjoy the testing experience.
Every year, when I head out to take the tests, there’s a little extra bounce in my step. And, as my husband can attest, I’m still not a morning person.
The thing is it’s easy to like something you’re good at. I enjoy the inherent challenge of a standardized exam and I know exactly what I need to do to get a near perfect score every time I sit for the exams.
You may be thinking: “That’s all well and good for you, Lauren. But what about me? I need a good score. I don’t enjoy the experience. What can I do?”
My weird obsession is my gift to my students because I enjoy sharing my unique perspective with them while never expecting them to like the tests like I do.
So here are 4 tips I have for helping students getting to a place of calm confidence (or at least reluctant competence) with the college admissions tests.
1. Understand exactly why the ACT & SAT are important.
The ACT and SAT are important factors in your college admissions package for two reasons.
First, they help corroborate your academic accomplishments in school.
Think of it from the college’s perspective. When a college receives thousands upon thousands of applications from students around the world, those students have been enrolled in a wide variety of classes with a wide variety of teachers who have a wide variety of grading policies.
You probably know what it feels like to coast for an A in an easy class while working your tail off to get a B- in a challenging class, right?
Now imagine that varied reality for every class that every student applying to a given college has taken.
How can colleges determine if a GPA is a true representation of a student’s learning without a standardized metric to help verify it?
The short answer: they can’t.
The ACT and SAT help colleges gain a more full understanding of whether a student’s GPA is an accurate representation of their abilities as they compare to other students from other schools.
Are the tests a perfect tool? Absolutely not. But are they helpful when they’re used in the way they were intended to be used? Absolutely.
This is why I cringe when I hear people campaigning for getting rid of the exams entirely.
While a more personalized admissions process with interviews for everyone would be nice, it’s just not feasible with the high volume of applicants most colleges receive.
So think of the ACT and SAT as your friend. They’re your very annoying friend who can, by the way, give you lots of money.
This is the second reason the ACT and SAT are important: merit aid.
If your family income labels you as lower middle-class or higher, you likely won’t be given much (or any) need-based aid from colleges. However, merit aid (sometimes called in-school scholarships) is often awarded on a straight calculation of your GPA and test score.
There is no greater carrot to motivate studying than a big hunk of cash and reduced (or no!) student loans after graduation.
I’ve had multiple students earn everything from modest $20,000 awards for their score improvements to over $160,000 in scholarship dollars over 4 years.
And, before you lament your score saying it can’t possibly earn you cash for college, if you work hard and know where to look, you can find cash for college for your score and GPA.
Working to improve your scores can pay off big for you and your family if you understand how the system works.
If you take ACT prep or SAT prep from me, I include a free bonus Cash for College workshop so you can learn just how to turn those test scores into free tuition dollars – even if you don’t earn 99th percentile scores.
My students have earned thousands of dollars in tuition and, as far as I know, I’m the only test prep expert teaching families how they can earn back their investment in prep in tuition dollars.
2. Accept the facts.
The ACT and SAT are hard. They’re administered early in the morning on a Saturday. They are (for normal people who are not me) terribly boring.
There are some things we cannot change.
3. Change your mindset.
While we can’t change certain facts about the exams, we can change our outlook on them.
While the ACT and SAT will only serve you in this season of life, the skills you can acquire by preparing for and triumphing over them can serve you beyond the college admissions process. Strive to view them as an opportunity to practice the resilience and long-term goal setting skills that you will need in both college and real life.
It’s also helpful to be specific about when you will start preparing, when you will test, and what score will tell you that your journey is done.
Setting a specific score goal based on research of your favorite schools’ admissions and merit aid policies is hugely helpful because it is: a) based in fact, and b) gives you a finish line to charge towards.
Setting dates for starting prep and taking the exam will help you avoid living in testing land (a very unhappy land, indeed) for forever.
Be clear and intentional and you may surprise yourself by how much motivation you discover lurking beneath the horror of having to take these exams at all.
4. Shift your approach.
If you’re not happy with where you are, it’s time to do something you haven’t done before.
The reason I get excited about taking the ACT and SAT each year is that I always prepare for the experience (yes, even after 10+ years of teaching) and I appreciate and never underestimate the challenge of the exam.
By having a set strategic game plan on test day and understanding that ACT Inc. and College Board are destined to toss me a curve ball or two, I can live in that magical land between confident preparedness and being present and clear thinking in the moment.
It takes work to get there. You have to invest time in not only reviewing the academics but especially in understanding the structure and strategy behind the exam.
Strategy is the most overlooked element of most test prep courses – including the ones put out by Khan Academy and Kaplan’s ACT partnership – which is why I am so passionate about changing the conversation around these exams.
Same old, same old won’t get it done.
If you want to earn a better score than you ever have, you’ll need to prepare in a way that you haven’t before.
And if you have any questions and want some personalized feedback on your next steps, please reach out to me directly.
I am always happy to help!
One more thing…
Keep in mind that, while there are quantitative aspects to your application such as your GPA and test scores, you are not defined by those numbers.
You will bring so much more to a college campus than these numbers can possibly represent. Admissions counselors know that and will take your personal statement, essays, letters of recommendation, and activities into account while assessing whether you’re a good fit for their campus.
While the tests are important and are worth working hard for, they aren’t the only thing a college will consider in your application.
And, while these tests don’t define your value, they can bring great value to you.
See them for what they are, work intentionally towards your score goal, celebrate big when you are done, and trust that you will end up at the school that will provide you with the tools and lessons you’ll need for amazing future success.