by Diana Simeon
Sophomore year begins with two preliminary college admissions tests: the PSAT (for the SAT) and the PLAN (for the ACT). Your teenager will probably take the PSAT twice and the PLAN once. There is no need to prepare for this first round of college admissions tests. They don’t count and no admissions staffer will ever see the results. However, they are helpful.
“It gives an indication of how they will score on the real test,” explains Megan Dorsey, founder of the Houston-based College Prep. You’ll have an indication of what your teenager needs to work on, as well as a sense of whether to focus on the ACT or the SAT (colleges only require one).
During the fall of junior year, your teenager will take the PSAT for a second time. This second PSAT is another chance to practice for the SAT, but it’s also the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship. Experts suggest that if your student scores within National Merit territory—the top three percent of test-takers in your state—the first time she takes the PSAT (sophomore year), it’s worth studying for this second, qualifying round. For starters, being a National Merit finalist (even a semi-finalist) raises your teenager to the top of the applicant pool—and it can also bring scholarships.
“The scholarships from National Merit are relatively small, around $2,500,” Dorsey explains. “But, there are many colleges and universities that have special scholarships set aside for any National Merit finalist that opts for their school.”
“At a minimum, every student should be familiar with the test. Don’t go in cold, having paid $50, and put an official score on record.”
In the spring of junior year, most teenagers take the SAT or the ACT (or both) for the first time. What kind of preparation to do for these college admissions tests depends on your teenager, Dorsey says.
“There are the teenagers you can hand a book, and they’re going to get it done themselves. Others may need more guidance.”
There are many prep classes: through a private tutor, a franchise like Kaplan or even free ones at your local library.
Dorsey suggests preparing. “At a minimum, every student should be familiar with the test. Don’t go in cold, having paid $50, and put an official score on record. You can at least pick up the full-length practice test and do it on a Saturday morning at the kitchen table.”
“Most teenagers are never going to get a perfect score, but they can open up some more doors if they can score three or four points higher on the ACT or a couple hundred higher on the SAT.”
The good news: your teenager can take these college admissions tests that count more than once. In fact, most applicants will take either the SAT or the ACT again during the fall of their senior year. Some colleges, typically the most elite, will want to see every score, while others will simply ask for your highest score.
Choose the ACT or SAT based on your teen’s success with the pre-test. Experts note that the ACT tends to be more coachable, but it’s important to be realistic about just how much you can improve a score, Dorsey says: “Most teenagers are never going to get a perfect score, but they can open up some more doors if they can score three or four points higher on the ACT or a couple hundred higher on the SAT.”