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I Did Well...Am I Done?

Every round of reported SAT and ACT scores brings questions from parents and students about whether ____ score is good enough. This short answer cannot do justice to the question since grades, quality of the transcript, extracurricular activities, recommendations, competitiveness of the high school, personal statement, and college choice all contribute to a college's acceptance decision.

But on the ACT / SAT front, I want to add a bit more about which students can consider themselves "done". We often have parents whose students earned very good scores ask whether a fall practice test is "too much" / "overkill". My answer is:

On the SAT front, I don't believe in overkill.

If a student is eager, or at least neutral about SAT study, more study and practice testing is an opportunity to do great for him/her self. So long as the student and parent realize:

  1. falling short of a high goal is not a failure -- even a 100 point improvement significantly expands college opportunities
  2. extra tutoring and extra practice testing help only incrementally; the bulk of the improvement comes in the time we cover the Lessons and the first three Practice Tests. Only then will we have a prescription for maximizing the student's score with a healthy attitude.
  3. the SAT is the most important single test in most high school students' careers
  4. that attending a name college is a higher predictor of postgraduate success (including household income) than ever before.
  5. But the overlooked reason why 2008, 2009 and 2010 grads may want to push hard is: these are the highest American high school population years; students graduating in these years are at the peak of the "boomlet". Since no new colleges are being built, and since foreign applicants (who pay in full) rise each year, American 2008s, 2009s and 2010s are facing the biggest pinch ever.

The best chance to avoid disappointment on the college front is to take reasonable measures to maximize your SAT score. Over the summer, 5 - 6 hours of tutoring a week and 5 - 8 hours a week of study is still LESS than a part time summer job. Once school resumes, I believe in tapering to just 1.5 - 3 hours of weekly study, including practice testing and a QUALITATIVE review of those tests. That review can include "mastery mode": a student who can teach her study partner or her tutor why the wrong answers are wrong and where the source for the right answers is, is a student who is unlikely to get beat on test day.

Our students who have gone through all our lessons and reviewed at least three practice tests can take the summer off, but they should then do the 1.5 - 3 hours every other week ramp-up starting when school resumes.

So to end where I began: overkill. I'll qualify my remark slightly. Getting a 36 ACT and then trying to get 2400 on the SAT, or getting 2300 and taking the test again to prove something to yourself or someone MAY be overkill in the eyes of some colleges. Still, there could be value beyond college -- investment banks and certain top laboratories will continue to be impressed by a "perfect" 2400. (Ivy Bound itself gives teachers with 2400 higher pay). Don't sacrifice grades, good sports, sleep or wholesome fun to pile on extra points. But you might jettison Xbox, the mall, and some IM time for a few more weeks.

Short of 2300, there's room to improve in the eyes of some top colleges, and at those colleges a 50 point improvement CAN make a difference. We know of too many stories recently of students who would have been accepted had they reached a higher SAT threshold.

When assessing your score against a college's reported median, please note that that number will be two years old for the Class of 2008, and given the trends, for competitive colleges the median for 2008s will be higher.

The good news in all this ratcheting upward is often unspoken: less-recognized colleges are better than ever. The quality of education at a third tier college is now equivalent to the quality that "top tier" colleges provided 25 years ago. Thus no student should feel badly about stopping on SAT with a score that will get her/him in to a decent four-year college.