By: Raleigh Tutoring

For college-bound high school seniors, spring is a time of promise. With each college decision that arrives, they come one step closer to choosing where they’ll spend the next four years.

But for sophomores and juniors, the journey is really just beginning. Not only must they think about what colleges they want to apply to, they must also make critical decisions about the SAT, ACT or both. By March, most juniors have already taken either the PSAT, pre-ACT (formerly called PLAN), or both. Many have also taken the ACT, SAT, or both at least once, and wonder whether they should keep trying for a higher score. Still others have not yet gotten started on the testing process. Even sophomores should be thinking ahead: Many will take their first SAT or ACT in the fall of their junior year, and getting a jump on studying ensures they have ample time to get their highest possible score.

Here are some recommendations for parents of juniors and sophomores to help their teens make more informed decisions about the testing process:

1. Performance on the Pre-ACT and PSAT isn’t a great predictor of performance on the actual tests. Let’s face it: College isn’t even on the radar of kids barely into the fall of their sophomore year, which is when these preliminary versions of the ACT and SAT are given. Most go into these tests without ever studying. Plus, even though the math sections of both the pre-ACT and PSAT are designed for the average 10th grader, students who are on a slightly slower math track might struggle to comprehend problems that they’d have no trouble doing the following year.

So an average or even slightly below average score on either test doesn’t mean that a student won’t do very well on the full version of the test after another year of math and maturation. That said, students who score well below or above average can probably read more into their results and act accordingly. For instance, a student with a very low score might need more test prep than an average or high-scorer. Someone with an exceptional score on the PSAT might want to take the PSAT again in his or her junior year, which is when those who score in the 99th percentile become eligible for the National Merit Scholarship program.

2. Finish testing by September. Ideally, your teen should have an ACT/SAT score they’re satisfied with as their senior year begins. The application process is hard enough without testing hanging over their heads. If they got started late in their junior year or if they’re confident they can better a mediocre score, make sure they’re done by late September. Many schools have Oct. 15 application deadlines.

3. Colleges don’t prefer one test over the other. Of course, there are always exceptions, so research admissions criteria so your child isn’t blindsided by a college’s testing requirement. While colleges don’t care which test applicants take, some students have a definite preference for–and aptitude in–one test over the other. Learn about the differences between the two exams; for one thing, the ACT gives students less time to answer each question/problem than the SAT does. For another, the SAT math section includes about 20 problems that students can’t use a calculator to solve, while the ACT permits calculator use for the whole math section. We recommend that after a little trial and error, including practice tests and maybe one attempt at the exam, students pick either the ACT or SAT and stick with it.

4. Superscoring really is super. Most colleges practice superscoring, meaning they consider the highest section score a student achieves over multiple attempts. So if your child takes the SAT twice and makes a 550 on the math section the first time but a 610 the next attempt, they’ll ignore the lower score. Same goes for the ACT. Some students take either the SAT or ACT a third or fourth time just to get one section score higher, studying only for these section(s) because they’re already comfortable with the scores they made on other sections during previous attempts. Note: Most students don’t benefit from taking either test more than three or four times, thanks to the law of diminishing returns. We find that most students make the biggest gains between the first and second attempts on these exams, especially if they didn’t study prior to their first test.

5. The “optional” essay isn’t always optional. The last thing you want for your child is for them to discover that their “dream” school requires the optional SAT or ACT essay, which they decided not to do when they took the test twice as a junior. Now, just when they thought they’d be done with testing, they have to take one again in October of their senior year. Also, a school’s requirements could change from year to year, especially since the current version of the SAT just debuted in March 2016. Get a preliminary list of both aspirational and realistic colleges from your teen, and help them begin the process of collecting admissions requirements–including whether the SAT/ACT is required– for each one.

6. Use the summer to prepare. The summer before junior years is, for many students, an ideal time to begin preparing for the SAT and ACT. Free from hours of homework and other school-year commitments, many teens can devote a week or two to prepping for these tests, whether by taking a camp or class, studying on their own or with a friend using books or online study guides, or receiving individual tutoring. One caveat: Even with intense summer studying, most students will need to review prior to the exam. But at least they’ll be working from a solid foundation.

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