College Entrance Exams

Admission to a highly competitive college has never been more difficult. Inundated with thousands of applications, top universities accept less than one in five applicants, and elite universities around one in ten applicants. Given the high academic record of their applicant pool, colleges rely on the SAT and ACT to filter out the students most likely to succeed on their campus.

How important are SAT scores? If one looks at the top fifty schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, the top college had a combined critical reading-math average of 1480, while the fiftieth college had a combined average of 1320. Admission to a top fifty school requires a student crack 700 in the critical reading, math or both. Even schools at 100 in the ranking have a mean combined score just under 1200.

Yet, for last year alone, the College Board reported that only 11% of test takers scored 650 or higher on the critical reading, and only 14% of test takers scored 650 or higher on the math. And grades do not guarantee success – for A students, the mean critical reading score was only 565 and the mean math score was only 581.

The message is two-fold. First, high SAT scores are expected at even moderately competitive colleges. Second, students who register high SAT scores get help preparing.

It is an “open secret” that students need to prepare for the SAT and ACT in order to score high. This should come as little surprise – students spend time studying for chapter tests and finals at school, and the SAT and ACT are big tests. The real question is how to prepare.

We find that the least successful method of test preparation is a short series of large classes. Students learn too differently to design a class that can address the individual testing needs of a diverse group of teenagers. The best method of preparation is in one-on-one settings with an instructor who has the ability and experience to identify different learning styles and translate years of test analysis into straightforward lessons customized to the strengths and needs of the individual student.

Students and parents alike mistakenly believe anyone can prepare for the SAT or ACT in a short period of time with minimal effort. But real success on the SAT or ACT requires sustained commitment to preparation. Students will retain more information, gain more confidence and comfort and deliver higher scores if they work on preparation on a regular basis over an extended stretch of time.

Another common mistake: thinking the SAT and the ACT are alike and require similar preparation. The SAT is a forward-looking test. It is designed to measure critical reasoning skills in reading, mathematics and writing – the skills colleges expect incoming freshman to possess. Time matters less than skill mastery, and the test builds difficulty into the question design. The ACT is a backward-looking test. It is designed to measure how well students have mastered basic skills in reading comprehension, mathematics, grammar and science. It builds time as a necessary component of the test. Preparing for the SAT requires a different mindset and discipline than the ACT. And yet, we encourage students to take both tests because students tend to favor one test over another, and also colleges prefer to see a student show initiative in sitting for both tests.

Because our approach focuses on relating the individual student to the test at hand, we have worked with hundreds of students with vastly different abilities and profiles, and yet at the end of the program, these students see success and real results. Visit the College Prep Case Studies to see how very different types of students worked with us to meet their SAT or ACT test goals.

In our performance-based world, we try to measure success objectively, and that means testing. Starting in elementary school and extending to graduate school, students face an alphabet soup of tests – ISEE, SSAT, SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT. Consequently, many students feel a general, continuing and growing sense of unease about testing. Some feel anxious. Some express outright panic.