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Man in a suit tutoring a student

How the Class of 2018 and 2019 Should Approach the SAT

– By Mark Greenstein, President, Ivy Bound Test Prep

Every round of reported SAT scores brings questions from parents and students about whether a score of 1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2000 / 2100 / 2200 (the child’s SAT score) is “good enough”. This article cannot do full 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.

On the ACT / SAT front, a student pining for a certain college should not be considered “done” if s/he has yet to post an ACT (or SAT) score that’s in the Top 25 percentile of the college’s last reported SAT range. The August 2016 US News Survey gives the 25th and 75th percentiles for the Class of 2015, and the colleges themselves give median GPAs in their catalogs.

There are “special admit” exceptions. These are narrow categories for recruitable athletes, diversity candidates and extraordinary circumstance families. Many students wrongly presume they fall into one of these narrow “special admit” categories. Until a student athlete is contacted by multiple colleges about playing for them, s/he is not a “recruitable athlete”. And a Vietnamese-American is not automatically “diverse” in the eyes of most colleges. Many parents over-include their families in the “extraordinary” category. “Legacy” is no longer extraordinary and “knowing someone with pull” is often illusory.

For admission to top tier colleges in this modern era, very few students can feel an admission is highly likely until they have a GPA that’s WELL above the median and an ACT score that’s two points above the “Top 25%” mark. Yes, this math means that even a 36 ACT score can’t generate a “highly likely” feeling for an applicant to a college where the Top 25% mark is 35. Absent a “special admit”, no applicant to Cal Tech, MIT or the Ivy League can ever feel highly likely about a given college.

At Ivy Bound Test Prep, we know of too many stories recently of students who would have been accepted had they reached a higher ACT threshold. We often have parents whose students earned very good scores ask whether taking an additional test is “too much” / “overkill”. The answer is:

There is no SAT overkill when targeting a top tier college.

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. The extra study is the right thing to do so long as the student and parent realize:

A) Falling short of a high goal is not a failure — even a 2 point improvement significantly expands college opportunities.

B) The extra study should not come at the expense of grades, good extra-curricular activities, and healthfulness.

C) Extra tutoring and extra practice testing help only incrementally; the bulk of the improvement comes in the time we cover the Sixteen Lessons and the first three Practice Tests. Parents and students who recognize this have a prescription for maximizing the student’s score with a healthy attitude. Our clients already appreciate that.

D) The ACT or SAT is the most important single test in most high school students’ careers

E) Many surmise that attending a name college is a higher predictor of postgraduate success (including household income) than ever before.

Now to what few parents recognize: The overlooked reasons why 2018 and 2019 grads may want to push hard.

F) More students want to attend 4-year colleges than ever. Yet no new colleges are being built, and few have increased their class sizes. Though the American college-age population will likely decline in the coming years, the college-bound population will not. The value of the 4-year degree from a competitive college is higher than ever, so more students will continue to seek it.

G) The stratification of colleges – top ones being pathways to BETTER grad schools and/or better post-graduate jobs – is likely to continue as more employers view colleges in a “meritocracy”. Top tier firms can only recruit in so-many places; more and more they are cherry-picking from the cream of the (perceived) best colleges.

H) The top tier competitiveness will continue also because top American colleges remain a beacon to FOREIGN applicants. These colleges LOVE strong foreign applicants because accepting them adds “diversity”, a trait colleges like to tout, and because foreign applicants pay full tuition.

Smiling students in class

The best chance to avoid disappointment on the college front is to put yourself in the hands of a good college counselor, and take reasonable measures to maximize your SAT or ACT score. For four to six weeks in the summer, 5 – 10 hours of tutoring a week and 5 – 10 hours a week of self-study is a mild sacrifice that yields big gains. The student can consider it a part time summer job. For SAT study, we seek only 3 – 4 weeks with a tutor, but just as much self-study time. Once school resumes, taper to just 2 – 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.

If summer is out of the picture, a two week SAT “Holiday Boot Camp”, is also good. Students who do serious study early take the late summer off, but they should then do the 1.5 – 3 weekly hours ramp-up when school resumes.

So to end where this began: Overkill. Here’s a small qualifier. Getting a perfect 36 ACT and then trying to get 1600 on the SAT may be overkill in the eyes of some peers. Getting 2300 and taking the SAT again – no college will shoot you down on grounds of overkill. Colleges love excellence, and college trustees, admissions officers and faculty love displaying excellence. Even if you don’t want to gratify some college with a great ACT score, consider that there could be value beyond college: Investment banks, hedge funds and certain top laboratories will continue to be impressed by a “perfect” 36 (or 1600). Ivy Bound itself gives teachers with 1600 or 36 higher pay. Don’t sacrifice grades, good sports, sleep or wholesome fun to pile on extra points. But for a few more weeks, you might reduce or even jettison:

  • Xbox
  • The mall
  • Netflix
  • Your Facebook expansion
  • Voluminous texting time

Short of 1550, there’s room to improve in the eyes of many top colleges. At those colleges, a 30 point SAT improvement CAN make a difference.

When assessing your score against a college’s reported percentiles, please note that those percentiles will be three years old, and given the upward trends for competitive colleges the percentiles will be higher (a good estimation is by .1 to .15 points per year on the ACT scale).

The good news in all this ratcheting upward is not stated enough:

  1. The rewards for college success are higher than ever, as top graduates now receive starting salaries that were unheard-of 20 years ago, even adjusted for inflation.
  2. Less-recognized colleges are better than ever. The quality of education at a “third tier” college may now be equivalent to the quality that “top tier” colleges provided 25 years ago. The student who knows he wants aeronautics may flourish more at Embry-Riddle University than Harvard. The student who is interested in mineralogy/oil exploration may be better set for a career by attending the Colorado School of Mines than attending Princeton. It is for the undecided student, or the decidedly liberal-arts-focused student that the “elite” colleges provide an automatic advantage.

Ivy Bound holds free “Know the SAT / Understanding College Admissions” parent conferences the first Sunday night of every month. Parents and educators can reserve a spot by emailing info@ivybound.net or calling 860-666-7715 x 0.