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Frequently asked questions

Q: How many times should I take the SAT?

Since February of 2009 (regardless of when you took the tests), you are able to identify only your highest combined total (from one single test date) to be sent to colleges.

There are positives and negatives to this relatively new policy. On the plus side, colleges will only see your highest total score. However, the overwhelming majority of colleges have been in the practice of mixing and matching high individual section scores and only considering those in the application process, even if those individual high section scores (critical reading, writing, math) occurred on different dates. It is unclear whether or not you will still be able to send scores from multiple test dates for colleges to then combine high totals. My hunch is that you may be able to do so for an additional fee, but I also expect that most colleges will adopt the policy of only counting the highest test date.

In any case, I recommend that a student take the SAT two to three times (usually two), preferrably within a few months of each other in the second half of junior year. Of course, schedules do not always allow this course of action, so this is just a general guideline.

Q: Are some SAT test dates easier than others?

The SAT is standardized to ensure that the level of difficulty remains the same no matter which month you take the test. The SAT is also normalized—a fancy word for “curved.” In school, a curve tends to benefit everyone, but that is not the case with the curve on the SAT. The College Board wants to make sure that the results from an individual test date produce very few low, low scores, very few high, high scores, and a majority of medium-range scores. Raw scores are adjusted within a certain range to produce scaled scores that achieve these statistics. The same raw score can yield scaled scores that differ by 50 points.

Each test date has a different group of students taking the test, and those demographics affect the curve. Consider the December and January tests, for example. Typically, seniors who are behind in the admission process, or others who are desperately trying to raise their scores, take this test. For a motivated and bright junior, this can be a good time to take the test and possibly benefit from normalizing. On the other hand, the March test brings out academically advanced students who will take AP, IB, and SAT Subject Tests in May and June. With so many high-achieving students, the curve may count against someone scoring at the upper end of the spectrum.

As far as fall test dates go, October’s curve usually has to adjust most of the “early decision” seniors, while November can benefit higher-scoring students and still be ready in time for early applications. Be sure to check with the colleges you are considering to stay on top of deadlines. Also note that there is no way to predict exactly who will be taking the test on a given day and how the normalizing that day may help or hurt you. It is best to plan to take the SAT on dates that align with your personal preparation schedule.

Q: What is the difference between the PSAT and the SAT?

The “P” in PSAT stands for “preliminary.” It is typically taken before any official SAT test. The PSAT does not have an essay and it only has five individual sections, as opposed to the SAT’s ten sections. So, the PSAT is only a little over two hours of testing, while students are usually at a test center for well over four hours on SAT test day.

Aside from the essay, the types of questions on the PSAT and SAT are identical. Therefore, PSAT performance is a fairly good indication of how a student may have scored on an SAT taken at the same time. Of course, the fact that the SAT is twice as long makes it more difficult for most students. Despite the differences between the two tests, it is very strongly recommended that you take the PSAT in October of both your sophomore and junior years. It provides a baseline for your scoring profile and you may even qualify for National Merit status. (Read the next question.)

By the way, to compare PSAT and SAT scores, just add a “0” to the end of the PSAT score and you arrive at the equivalent SAT score. For example, a 52 on the Critical Reading section of the PSAT translates to a 520 on the SAT.

Q: Should I prepare for the PSAT?

I usually think of the PSAT as the first step of preparation for the SAT.  While it is a good idea to be prepared for any standardized test, I typically do not recommend intensive preparation for the PSAT.  There are a couple of exceptions, though. If you scored fairly well on the PSAT during your sophomore year (above 65 in every category), preparation could help you to raise your junior year PSAT scores to qualify you for National Merit status.

The highest composite PSAT score is 240 (80 in each section). The top 3-4% of students are awarded by the annual competition. In recent years, the cutoff for National Merit recognition has been around 219-222. The majority of recognized students receive Letters of Commendation, while a smaller percentage go on to receive Semi-Finalist status and then possibly Finalist status. Finalists are eligible for certain scholarships from businesses, colleges, and the NMSC.

Certain selective academic programs (Governor’s School, for example) may ask for your PSAT scores as part of your application to those programs. If you plan to apply for these opportunities, then preparation for the October test may also be worthwhile.

Q: Is there an ideal schedule for SAT prep?

The ideal schedule for SAT prep works with your personal extracurricular obligations and academic tendencies. If you play a spring sport, for example, you should aim to have all of your preparation completed before March 1. The summer can be a great time to get a head start on test preparation, though I typically recommend continuing through the school year with practice tests and a few review sessions.

Some students feel more comfortable spreading their preparation out for 20 weeks, while others prefer to consolidate it into a more focused effort over the span of a month or so. I will say that it is great when students are able to complete all of their testing in junior year. This removes the pressure of SATs from senior year and allows you to focus on applications and grades. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all preparation schedule, and it is essential to consider all of the factors at play. I can help you to plan ahead with a timeline for test preparation based on your particular needs and obligations.

Q: What about SAT 2s?

SAT 2s are now called “SAT Subject Tests,” and they are administered several times a year. They are not offered as often as the regular SAT but, when they are offered, they fall on the same date as the regular SAT. Again, planning becomes essential. The best time to take SAT Subject Tests is at the end of an academic year, since they tend to test material that is found on AP tests and final exams. If you are preparing for APs and finals anyway, it makes sense to take the SAT Subject Test at that time.

You can take up to three SAT Subject Tests in one day. If you did not get in any Subject Tests in freshman or sophomore year, then I recommend taking as many as your colleges require in the one sitting. Most schools do not require “SAT 2s,” so it may not even be worthwhile to spend any time or energy preparing for and taking them.

Although Subject Tests are not weighed as heavily as SATs in the admissions decision, good Subject Test scores can certainly augment your application. If you will be taking the tests, then they warrant some preparation, though it is minimal compared to regular SAT prep. At the very least, you should familiarize yourself with the structure, content, and format of the tests and learn some basic test-taking tips. In the past, I worked with many students to help them to prepare for the Subject Tests, but my schedule does not usually allow for this anymore. If we plan ahead, we may be able to arrange a small study group to meet for a few sessions before the tests. Since the Subject Tests are more content based than the regular SAT, independent reading and review is critical. I can recommend some helpful books and resources to help you to prepare for the Subject Tests.

Since February 2009, you can elect to send or not to send SAT Subject Test scores individually, just as you can do with the SAT. For example, you may take three Subject Tests in one sitting but then choose to send only two of those scores when you apply to colleges. This is a retroactive policy, so you have the option of selecting only the tests you wish to send after February 2009, even if you took the Subject Tests earlier.

susanna short

Mendham, NJ

Sea Girt, NJ




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