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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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Does test preparation really help in college admission?

Uploaded: Oct 4, 2010
An Alamo resident asks:

I don't mind spending money if it's well spent. What are the benefits of test prep? Does it work and how much do test scores count in college admission?

Dr. LaScala responds:

The college admission process at both public and private schools nationwide grows increasingly competitive and performance on standardized exams like the ACT and the SAT helps to determine where students spend the next four years of their lives. But keep in mind that frequent mailings, popular press, college rankings and the general hype surrounding college admission can vastly distort the importance of standardized tests. The most recent report by the nation's leading professional association for college advisors, NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling), states that test scores count significantly in the evaluation of a student's academic strengths; however, the overall GPA and rigor of coursework still take precedence.

Students should take standardized testing seriously. Although the student's resume is more than just test scores, even the most impressive application is diminished without solid performance on these exams. Virtually all schools that require a student to take standardized tests will accept scores from SAT or ACT, and some students submit both.

The latest version of the SAT has 3 sections—critical reading, math and the newest section, writing, which requires students to answer multiple choice questions and compose a short essay in response to a prompt. Generally, scores on the SAT are tied to critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The other big test is the ACT. The ACT is more content-driven than the SAT. This means that questions are more directly tied to what a student learns in grades 7 through 12. The ACT focuses on 4 areas—English, math, reading and science; it is important to note that all the material needed to respond to the science section is included on the exam. The ACT includes an optional writing component. Students should plan to take it because it is required by many colleges, and the scores can help to determine placement in college coursework.

Students benefit from taking full length practice exams of the ACT and the SAT under test-like conditions. The results do not become part of their permanent records and the practice allows them to make a more informed decision about which test they prefer. Some companies offer proctored practice tests or will supply you with a practice test to take at home. These companies often will score the exams free of charge and send back the results with valuable feedback. There is a high correlation between performance on the SAT and ACT, but once in a while a student performs much better on one of them. If so, this is the test on which to focus further preparation.

Both the SAT and the ACT are "coachable" so students who put in the time and effort often improve their scores. Students should complete one round of standardized tests by the end of the junior year. Although test preparation can be helpful, it important not to crowd the school schedule with excessive test preparation at the expense of grades. The type of test preparation to invest in depends on what how the student learns, and what is affordable in terms of time and money. A group seminar approach can do the trick for students who benefit from structure and assignments to stay on track. More independent, self directed learners can use good study guides and software programs to prepare. My guiding philosophy is that the ultimate preparation for any standardized test is doing the best academic work possible in high school. Then the student can focus on areas of weakness and test-taking strategies rather than subject matter that should be acquired in high school.

Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help college applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admission process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or
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