Thursday, December 30, 2010

How is the SAT scored?

The SAT is broken up into three subjects: math, verbal and writing. There are three math sections, three verbal sections, two grammar sections and an essay (which combine for the 'writing' score), and an unscored experimental section used for future tests. The best score for each subject is 800 with 200 the poorest score on any one subject. A 'perfect' score on the entire test is 2400, the worst possible score is 600.

Each question on the test is worth one raw point regardless of difficulty. A missed question carries a penalty of -1/4 of a point and omitted questions receive a score of zero, neither adding to nor reducing the score. These raw scores are converted to a final score by multiplying the raw score by approximately 10 points.

A student can receive a 'perfect' score on the test today even though she has missed a couple of questions because the test is curved. After all the tests have been marked, the scores are equated to ensure that the May test wasn't 'harder' than the March test was. What this means in practice is that students who score in the middle on a given subject, receive a 500. This is done in part so that college application reviewers have a year in year out standard of comparison. Because of the curve, students may receive an 800 on a subject subscore even though they have missed one or two questions. This is true for each subject, though it seems that the verbal portion of the test generally allows for the most misses.

Hope this helps with working out how it's scored! Leave me a note if you'd like clarification.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When should I start taking required tests for my college applications?

Assuming you are applying to schools which require (or recommend) standardized tests for admission, you should start thinking about them relatively early. I highly recommend that you avail yourself of the opportunity to take the PSAT and/or PLAN (pre-ACT) at your school in the fall of 10th grade. Your test score will not be counted toward any future college admission process. I advise taking it as it will give you a close-to-real experience of how you'll deal with taking the SAT and/or ACT.

In the fall of your sophmore year you'll still have up to two years to work on areas of weakness. This may seem like a crazy long time, but if vocabulary and reading comprehension are your downfalls, you'll need time to build your vocabulary and get enough reading under your belt to improve your comprehension. If you really struggle with the reading and vocabulary on the SAT, recognize that you are really, really going to struggle in college level classes. This is something to get to work on now so that you don't drown in reading that's over your head your freshman year (or in AP classes). The math and grammar sections can be quicker fixes for most students with a good foundation, but still take time: time you will not have in the spring of your junior year.

So, take the PSAT/PLAN in 10th grade and use your results to work on areas you struggled with. At this point you may decide that you're only going to take one of the tests as you did much better on one than the other or that you want to take both.

Most students take their first SAT in March or May of their junior year and then take two SAT IIs (don't know what these are? check my archive.) in May or June. (Note- Now that the UCs are not requiring SAT IIs we may find that this advice changes. I'm not sure how many schools will follow suit and how many UC majors are going to 'recommend' taking them still.)

The SAT is administered in Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Mar, May and June each year. Therefore you have six reasonable dates to complete up to four tests assuming you don't take anything more than once, and almost everyone takes the SAT twice. Assuming you take the March SAT and do need to take SAT IIs, you can take up to three on a given test date, but I recommend only taking two. So, you'll take two SAT IIs in May which will leave the June test date open to either take a third SAT II option to see how you do, or to retake one of the previous tests. Your junior year will be crazy, but you'll probably be best prepared for these tests at the end of that school year. If you're not happy with your results, study over the summer and take the SAT again in October, leaving the Nov. and Dec. dates open for last ditch efforts which will hopefully not be necessary. Notice that the SAT I and SAT IIs are administered on the same dates and it is not possible to take the SAT and any SAT II on the same date.

The ACT is generally administered in the same months, but usually not on the same Saturday. This can be important if you've gotten yourself in a bind. Say you're very unhappy with you SAT score and on top of that you didn't realize you had to take SAT IIs and it's Nov....of your senior year. This is the time to figure out if the ACT is a good option for you if ever there was one!
Both tests have accomodation (usually on the Sunday) for students who can not take the Saturday test for religious reasons.

Is the SAT an IQ test?

The SAT is NOT an IQ test! SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test and really shows what skills you have acquired, how good you are at taking timed multiple choice tests, and how good you are at taking THIS timed multiple choice test.

It's key to prepare for the test by becoming familar with the types of questions it asks and how it asks and answers them. If you begin to prepare for the test early, you can recognize areas of weakness and acquire the skills they are looking for.

Take advantage of the PSAT. The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT, but of about the same level of difficulty. Taking it at your school will prepare you for the experience of taking the SAT and its scores are not sent on to the schools to which you apply.

What are the SAT II subject tests?

The SAT IIs are one hour multiple choice subject tests which many schools require. Most schools which require them want them as well as the SAT I, some schools may want them in place of the SAT I. The SAT II subject tests used to be called the Achievements. As of the graduating class of 2012, the UC system no longer requires the SAT II subjects tests, but they will be recommended for some majors.

These are tests on individual subjects such as literature, math, biology, US history, chemistry, Spanish, etc. The SAT I does not require the student to bring in any outside knowledge of a subject other than having the skills necessary to solve the problems. This is not true of the SAT IIs. For example, a question on the US history test may ask you to recognize which president implemented specific legislation. The literature test requires knowledge of literary terms such as metaphor.

Subject Tests

U.S. History
World History
Math Level 1**
Math Level 2
French with listening
German with listening
Spanish with listening
Modern Hebrew
Chinese with listening
Japanese with listening
Korean with listening

Notice that some of the languages can be taken with or without listening, some cannot be taken with listening (Italian, Latin and Hebrew), and lastly, some can be taken only with listening.

** Some schools will only accept the math level 2 for a required SAT II. Check the universities you are applying to before you take math level 1.

I'm graduating in 2012, do I have to take the SAT II for UC admission?

The University of California system is dropping the requirement that applicants must take two SAT IIs (in addition to the SAT I) for the high school class of 2012. This means you may not have to take any SAT IIs. HOWEVER, they are still recommended for some majors at some of the UC campuses and you may need to take them for non-UC schools which you are applying to as well.

It is fairly crucial to have decided what schools you are going to apply to no later than the summer of your junior year. If you do need to take SAT IIs, you will have three last opportunities to do so in Oct., Nov. and Dec. of your senior year. Keep in mind that you may need to keep at least one of those dates free to take the SAT I a second time as the SAT I and SAT IIs are offered on the same dates. You can not take both on a given day.

The Cal State system and the UC system will continue to require the SAT I.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What SAT/ACT score do I need?

Parents and students often ask about what score is needed to get into College X. Firstly, while these tests are important they are by no means the only element that a university considers when assessing an application. Grades in high school will almost always be the most heavily weighted consideration.

Having said that, it is simple to look up the average score of admitted applicants for most schools. This score should reflect the middle score, in other words, half of the students who were admitted had a higher score and half had a lower score. Simply look up the school and search for "scores of admitted freshmen" for the previous year. Below I've included a few of these from some popular California schools. The SAT is scored out of 2400 and will be the first number after the name of the school, the ACT is scored out of 36 and will be the second number.

UCLA- 1940/27
UC San Diego- 1870/27
UC Davis- 1770/24
UC Riverside- 1644/21
Univ. of San Diego- 1840/29
USC- 2070/29

Should I take the SAT, ACT or both? How do they differ?

How do these tests differ? Both are widely accepted college admission exams. The SAT is more familar to people on the West and East coasts, while the ACT is the most commonly taken test in the the Midwest and the South.

The SAT is made up of math, critical reading and writing sections (including a mandatory essay). The ACT consists of English, math, science reasoning and reading sections (as well as an optional essay).

The SAT is a slightly longer test and tends to have trickier questions. The ACT is slightly shorter, but gives the student less time to answer its more straightforward questions.

The SAT has a wrong answer penalty that the ACT does not include. The SAT provides five answer choices for each question while the ACT provides four. Both allow students to choose which tests to send on to colleges- this is called Score Choice. There are no specific vocabulary questions on the ACT as there are on the SAT, but there is a science reasoning section which does not appear on the SAT. The science reasoning section does not require any prior knowledge; it is in many ways a reading comprehension section. A few trig questions appear on the ACT, questions through algebra 2 appear on the SAT.

Which test do I take? First, check the colleges you're applying to to make sure that they all accept both tests. All four year colleges should accept either test, but double check to be absolutely certain. At that point students should take a practice test of each format and see if they do better on one than the other. If it proves impossible to take two complete tests, consider taking half of each (every other question in every section) or at least look over each test to see what kinds of questions they each ask and decide which seems most comfortable to you. It may sound as if the ACT is easier than the SAT, but that is not necessarily so; it really depends on the student. Detail oriented people can do very well on the SAT and struggle with the time constraints on the ACT for example. It's also important to remember that the scores are scaled, so your score is based on how you did compared to everyone else taking the test to a large degree. All California schools accept the SAT I and most require the essay if you decide to take the ACT.

The new(ish) SAT

The SAT was significantly altered in 2005 and is different from the test many of us fondly remember from our own high school experience. A new section has been added and the perfect 1600 point score is now a perfect 2400 point score.

There are three parts to the test broken into 10 sections: three math sections, three reading comprehension sections, two grammar sections, an essay and an (ungraded) experimental section used to test questions for future tests. The test is longer with these changes. The total testing time is three hours and 45 minutes.

Analogies were removed. The 'verbal' portion of the test now only contains sentence completions (a sentence with one or two missing words) and reading comprehension (a very short to fairly short passage followed by questions about the reading).

The math section changed little, but it does now contain questions up through algebra 2.

A 'writing' section was added. Basically the College Board canabalized the SAT II Writing test (even more formerly known as the Achievements) and pasted it onto the SAT. This portion of the test consists of a 25 minute essay on a prompt which is provided and multiple choice grammar questions. The essay and grammar sections combine for a third 800 point score component.

So that's the 'new' test. One other important change occurred last year. Students now have the option of 'Score Choice' and should take advantage of it. Score choice allows the student to hold back their scores from schools. The ACT has long offered this option and now the SAT has followed suit. What this means is that schools the student applies to will only see the scores when a student releases them. It takes a bit of the pressure off and allows students to hold back a score if they test better on one occasion than on another.