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  • Jason Flurry, CFP

How to use your ACT and SAT scores to your advantage

Which scores to report and whether to report them at all


When students are applying to college, they have to report their grades, activities, and awards for the 3-4 years that covers their high school career. If a student starts to take high school classes in the eighth grade, that adds another year and it all totals up to a lot of days and a lot of history for colleges to consider. Depending on how things have gone, that could create a very favorable situation or one that’s not so attractive in the college’s eyes. No matter how good these high school years may have been though, there’s still one thing that only occurs maybe on only two or three days out of the over 700+ days a student is in high school that could make or break that student’s success with college admissions and with scholarships. And that’s the ACT or the SAT.


Getting a good result on those handful of Saturday mornings is essential for most students who are applying to college. And because of that, there’s a lot of pressure to perform well in those situations. I found that it’s best to do a little practicing on your own and then try each exam to see which format feels the best. Some students really gravitate to the SAT and away from the ACT, yet others are just the opposite. Figuring out which format and test style suits your student and then focusing all of their efforts in that area can make a huge difference in their outcomes.


Imagine the possibilities Wouldn’t it be great if every final exam that you ever had in your life had an opportunity to retake it multiple times and also get outside help to improve your score? I mean at that point you’d already kind of know what’s on the test and then you could bring in an expert who specialized in helping students score well on that test to help you make sure you did well. It would be a little bit like legalized cheating, but in the world of standardized test, it’s called getting an SAT or ACT tutor. And, if you have the ability to do that, I highly suggest it.

A qualified tutor can work with you on an individual basis to help you determine which test format you should pursue and help teach you both the content for the test itself, and valuable test taking strategies that can improve your speed and keep you from making common mistakes that waste time and hurt your scores.


If you’ve taken the ACT or SAT once already, it’s good to get the results of those scores and also sign up for the option that tells you which questions you got right in which ones you missed. That report will show you what material was covered in each question and it can give a tutor some valuable insight on how to help you improve your scores.


Once you’ve built your college list, you can also look to see what thresholds are needed to qualify for admissions, scholarships, and invitations to their Honors Colleges. With that information in hand, you can set some goals and work with your tutor to help reach those goals. It may take two or three times, a financial investment, and some dedicated time to improve your test taking abilities, but let’s do the math. If you spent $2000-$3000 prepping for the ACT or SAT and got the score you needed to reach a higher level of scholarship, that increase could be worth between $4000-$6000 in additional scholarship money each year. That’s a pretty good return on your investment, wouldn’t you say?


Have a game plan Some students tend to do very well in one section of the SAT or ACT naturally and struggle a bit in other areas. Getting feedback on which specific topics need improvement allow them to focus on those areas for subsequent test efforts. And, if you find that the college is on your list super scores your test results, you can focus on each area individually with each subsequent test you take. Super scoring will give the college the option to take the high watermark of each section and combine it to the highest possible composite score, which could make all the difference in whether or not you’re accepted.


You may find that some colleges will super score for Admissions not for scholarships. Other colleges may super score for their Honors College and have different policies for Admissions and their in-house merit-based scholarships. It’s important that you find out these things in advance so you’ll know best how to prepare.


I’ve found that a general rule of thumb is that colleges will super score for admissions and for their Honors College, but in order to win their best merit scholarships, they’re only going to take in consideration your best single Saturday morning effort for SAT or ACT. Do your homework to find out how this applies in your situation and then build your tutoring program and timelines accordingly.


How much do I have to share? A lot of people ask me, “Do I to have to report all of my scores are just the ones that help me the most?” I always say that unless the college specifically requires you to report everything, only report those that help you the most. If you’ve taken the ACT and the SAT but one converts to a higher score than the other on a relative basis, only report the one that’s the highest. The college is more interested in your results than in your efforts. And just like with grades, the higher the test score the better.


Hopefully with the right amount of prep and a few good Saturday mornings your students can hit home runs with their SAT or ACT scores. For many colleges, the test scores, grades, and the level of rigor student has taken can make up as much as 80% of their criteria for admissions. That’s not the case everywhere and you owe it to yourself to become an educated consumer when it comes to understanding what each college wants. You can learn a lot more about that but checking out some of my previous articles but let me also mention an interesting trend I’m seeing gain momentum in recent years.


Silence can be golden Some students have a wonderful track record in high school but for whatever reason they don’t do well on standardized tests. More and more colleges are realizing that and understanding that because of the way they’re weighting the test scores in their admission formula, they’re missing out on some very qualified students who would be valuable members of their community otherwise.


Since 2004 some colleges and universities have begun to make reporting SAT and ACT scores optional on their admission applications. At first, many of those colleges were smaller, more obscure colleges, but over the years that list has grown quite a bit and now includes many well-respected colleges, like the University of Chicago, Wake Forest University, George Washington University, NYU, Drexel, American, and many others. You can find a complete list at www.fairtest.org. There’s over 1000 colleges that have joined this list now, including the majority of all colleges in the Northeast and over 50% of colleges in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.


Naturally, if your student has a good SAT or ACT score and you want to submit it, you should. However, if a standardized test score is the missing link in an otherwise very solid application package, knowing that there are colleges who will not penalize you for a less than ideal test score is a nice tool to have in your toolbox. Your student may profile much higher there than at other colleges who overweight test scores in their admission formula.


Learn to play like a pro Just like with many other aspects of the college planning process, the whole SAT and ACT test requirement is a bit of a game. You have to understand the rules to the game in order to play well, and like I said earlier about having opportunities to gain advantages by prepping and taking the tests multiple times, you get some special “do over” opportunities in this game that you really can’t find them very many other places.


You have nothing to lose by trying again when it comes to your SAT and ACT scores, so give it all you’ve got. Combine your best efforts into an awesome super score and leverage your time and money to get the help you need with a qualified ACT and SAT tutor. A couple of extra points here and there could make all the difference for you and getting into the college of your dreams or winning that big scholarship. And remember, if things don’t work out, there’s a growing list of colleges who are interested in a more holistic view of who you are beyond just your test scores. Get to know them and learn to speak their love language. It’s all a part of what you have to do to be to colleges at their own game and get the best results possible for the least amount of money possible.


You can do this and I hope this information helps you do it even better.

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