Are the ACT and SAT Viewed Equally?

Question: My daughter is preparing for college by studying for the ACT. Do top schools like the Ivy League or Stanford prefer the SAT over the ACT? Even though the school might say either one is OK, in your opinion does one or the other have more advantage?

Back when “The Dean” applied to college, the SAT was the top-dog test, especially at the “elite” Eastern colleges. The ACT, which was then more common in the South, West, and Midwest, was seen by some as a poor relation. But that was many moons ago (as my teenaged son is quick to remind me). And, today, both tests are viewed–and accepted–equally.

And, lest you worry that “The Dean” is receiving a kick-back from the ACT folks for saying this, I assure you that I’m not. In fact, my aforementioned son took ONLY the ACT and not the SAT. (Well, he did take a couple SAT Subject Tests, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

Having watched other students (and their parents) suffer through standardized-testing stress, expense, and early-morning Saturday wake-ups, I chose a “minimalist” testing approach for my own child. I said that he should select a test, take it just once, in the spring of his 11th-grade year, and if his scores were decent, he’d be done. If not, we agreed that he might have to try the other test.

We picked the ACT because it has a Science section (his strong suit) while the SAT Reasoning Test (known as the SAT I) doesn’t. Conversely, the ACT does not include vocabulary questions (my son’s potential Achilles Heel) and the SAT I does. So that’s why I directed him to the ACT. His results were strong, and so I said he didn’t need to do a re-test or to take the SAT I at all. (And when I pointed to his perfect score on the Science section, I reminded him of his mother’s genius. ;-) )

Several students who favored the ACT over the SAT have told me that it’s because the ACT imposes no penalty for guessing. “There was a lot less pressure on me when I took that test,” conceded one girl who took both, “because I didn’t spend any time or energy worrying about whether or not I should guess.” But conversely, although the ACT Science section is more about interpreting charts and graphs rather than about knowing that Neon is chemically inert and forms no uncharged chemical compounds, another high school junior admitted to me that, “Just seeing the word ‘Science’ in the test booklet nearly brought on a panic attack!” Thus, with test prejudice truly a thing of the past, students should feel free to take the test that fits their strengths … or even their schedules … and many may wish to try both to see where they’re most successful.

But, as noted above, although my own son was definitely an ACT guy, and I don’t have any concerns that a single college … no matter how snooty … will hold it against him, he did take a couple of SAT Subject tests, too. Some colleges that require two Subject Tests will waive the requirement for applicants who take the ACT with Writing, as my son did. But others will not. It can be confusing to keep track of which schools demand which tests. Also, students who insist that all the colleges they’re considering will accept the ACT in lieu of Subject Tests may be shooting themselves in the foot if they decide to add new schools to the list in the fall of senior year. Moreover, Subject Tests, even when not required, can help students to show off strengths in areas that the SAT I and ACT don’t cover, such as history and foreign language. In addition, students aiming for the most selective colleges often submit more than the requisite scores. So an applicant who sends in only an ACT score and no Subject Test results might be at a slight disadvantage when “competitor applicants” have submitted stellar scores in multiple subjects.

Bottom line:
The SAT and the ACT really are equally respected by all colleges, including the Ivies and Stanford, regardless of who might suggest otherwise. So as your daughter makes her college preparations, she can focus on the test which she feels will best showcase her strengths and meet her scheduling needs. I assure you that, if she doesn’t get the news she wants from her top-choice colleges, it won’t be because she took the ACT.

(posted 7/1/2014)

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Will Sub-Par SAT’s Keep My Daughter out of Top-Choice Colleges?

Question: My daughter has a 3.81 GPA in all Honors courses, but after two attempts at the SAT, her best score is 1760. The schools she likes list avg. SAT scores of 1900 and up. Does she stand a chance with her scores?

Most college admission officials are quick to insist that, “Course selection and grades are far more important than test scores,” and in a perfect world this is true. In OUR world, however, applicants can look strikingly similar on paper (not that anyone uses paper anymore). Many students take roughly the same courses, earn roughly the same grades, and participate in an all-too-familiar roster of activities (Key Club, yearbook, Model UN, orchestra, dance team, etc.). Thus test scores can become a tie-breaker, even if the admission folks don’t say so.

But will your daughter’s test results keep her out of her top-choice colleges? Maybe not. For starters, if her application includes other components that her target colleges “need,” this will help to take the spotlight off of her scores. Some of these “distractions” from the test scores could include:

-GPA (Is a 3.81 higher than the median at your daughter’s colleges? If so, this will help.)

-Athletic prowess (Is your daughter being recruited by a coach or, if not, might she at least fill out a roster and warm a bench?)

-Unusual or exceptional extracurriculars. (Can your daughter play the piccolo in the marching band or will the college boast that she was a national chess champion or Teen Jeopardy finalist?)

-Geographic diversity. (Do you live in a state, country, or town that is underrepresented in the college’s student body?)

-Minority, Legacy, or VIP Status (A “VIP” can be someone with a strong connection to the college itself … like the provost’s nephew … or it can mean a link to a big-wig in the world at large.)

-Full-pay (Will your daughter attend without needing financial aid or do you require only a little?)

If your daughter can say “Yes” to one or more of the options on this list, it will improve her admission odds. Other factors like a memorable essay or slam-dunk recommendations can help as well. And if her test scores are skewed—higher in the area that she claims as her strong suit and lower elsewhere—then admission folks will take this into account, too.

A couple other thoughts: Has your daughter tried the ACT? Some students do better on the ACT than on the SAT for a variety of reasons. For instance, if vocab is your child’s Achilles Heel, she’ll be delighted to discover that there aren’t any vocab questions on the ACT. And how about Subject Tests? Even if a college doesn’t require them, most schools will consider them anyway, and this can be a good way to show off abilities in areas not tested by the SAT I. For example, if your daughter does her best work in biology, American history or Spanish, good scores in those areas won’t completely offset low SAT’s but can still be a plus.

In addition, you mention that the median scores at your daughter’s colleges are in the 1900 range. So that tells “The Dean” that she’s not aiming for the Ivies or the other most hyper-competitive colleges. And that’s good news. It’s typically at the most sought-after colleges that test results can play the biggest tie-breaker role because so many applicants have near-perfect grades in a slew of AP, honors, and IB classes. So once you look beyond that exalted level, test scores can still affect outcomes, but they may not loom quite as large.

Finally, if any of your daughter’s top-choice colleges offer Early Decision, this might be a smart move. Admission officials are more likely to accept borderline candidates in the Early round than in the Regular Decision round. If you need financial aid and your daughter applies to a “binding” Early Decision college, she can bail out of the ED commitment without penalty, if her aid award isn’t adequate. (YOU, not the college, get to determine how much aid is “adequate,” but you do have to decide promptly.)

Bottom line:
Although SAT’s are often more important than students and parents are told, your daughter won’t be completely out of luck at her target colleges, especially if there are other mitigating factors that she can emphasize in her applications.

(posted 6/20/2014)

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Will Lower Math ACT Score Hurt Admissions Chances?

Question: I’m a rising senior now and I take my ACT test soon ,and as I’ve been doing the practice tests I’m finding that I always score in the really high 30s for Reading, English, and Science but in the mid to high 20s for Math. I’m frustrated because even though math has NEVER been my strong suit I’ve always worked very hard and taken higher level classes for the best grades in math (mostly always high Bs excepting an A in calc junior year yay!). I’m pretty hopeful that I’ll get a composite score above 30, but I’m not sure if colleges just look at the composite score at at every little component. What do they look at? I’m shooting for schools like Georgetown and UVA (resident) and I am kind of worried. Will a lower math score really hurt me in admissions for these kind of schools?

Admission officials will look at ALL of your ACT sub-scores, not just the Composite, and if one score (in this case, math) is well below the others, it will be duly noted that it is an exception. Also, if your math score is on the low side but you’ve already taken calc as a junior and gotten an “A” in it, this will be more important than your ACT score on that section.

But, even so, your math ACT score could still have some impact on your college verdicts, especially at the hyper-selective colleges like Georgetown, where your “competitor applicants” may have similar transcripts and high test results across the board. However, your other stronger ACT scores and your calc grade will help to push the math result towards the back burner.

Yet remember that the most sought-after schools are looking for applicants who not only have top grades and test scores but who also submit applications that include other distinctions … atypical extracurricular activities, extraordinary achievements, an unusual background, etc.

So if you don’t get the good news you want next year, it may not be at all connected to your math ACT score.

Hope that helps. Have a great summer.

(posted 6/20/2014)

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Advice for Son Expelled for Academic Integrity Violation

Question: My son was expelled from college a few months ago due to egregious academic integrity violations caused by depression and stress during the first few weeks of his freshman year. He plans to take classes during this summer and fall and get his Associate’s degree by December. He wants to apply and attend a 4 year university for the spring 2015 semester.

How much are his chances diminished because of his academic integrity violation (as a freshman, he got into multiple top 20 universities)? How are such situations evaluated by adcoms? What are some things that students in general can do in order to increase their chances at admission during their second time around?

Sorry to hear about this stressful situation. As a parent myself I feel your pain.

An egregious academic integrity violation will definitely have an impact on your son’s future options, but it would be helpful to know more about the exact nature of this violation. Although all colleges take academic integrity very seriously, there is still an unspoken pecking order which can mean that some violations (e.g., breaking or hacking into a professor’s files) may be viewed as worse than others (purchasing a short English essay off the Internet).

However, there is also a huge amount of subjectivity in the way these issues are viewed … just as there is in most aspects of the admissions process. So it’s very possible that your son will have no prayer of acceptance at one college while officials at a comparable one will at least consider his situation.

Because “top 20 universities” are extremely competitive and because many take few transfers, your son should not be optimistic about being admitted to any of the places that already said yes, but they are not entirely out of the question either … just not likely.

If there was a particular reason that a college was hot to get your son when he was in high school (e.g., he was a recruited athlete, an underrepresented minority student, a VIP), then these factors will also come into play when his application is reviewed. Some colleges may want him enough to overlook his past infraction; others will not.

If I knew more about this infraction, I could offer more targeted advice, but in general, here’s what I recommend for him when he’s ready to reapply:

–If he will be attending a two-year college to earn his Associate’s degree, he should talk to a transfer counselor at that school to ask about “articulation agreements” with four-year colleges that would guarantee your son admission as long as he fulfills specified course requirements and earns a specified GPA at the two-year college. If there are articulation agreements, then your son will know which standards he can meet in order to have a “safety” school lined up … one that will not judge him based on his earlier expulsion. (However, your son does need to disclose the expulsion to the transfer counselor in order to make sure that the articulation agreement doesn’t exclude candidates with ethics violations on their record, even if the violation came from another institution.)

–Your son’s applications should include a statement from him explaining what he did that got him expelled, what led him to this, what he’s learned from the episode, and why he is certain it won’t happen again.

–Assuming that your son was–or still is–being treated for his depression and stress, he should submit a recommendation from his therapist attesting to his improvement and possibly outlining an ongoing treatment plan, if there is one.

–Your son should try to build a relationship (or several) with professors at his two-year school so that these teachers can then write references for him that specifically attest to his academic integrity. It would be wise (albeit uncomfortable) for your son to confide in these professors, explaining his past problem and making it clear that it is behind him. Your son may even want to bend over backwards to prove to these new profs that his bad behavior is history. For instance, if his egregious violation was plagiarism, he could work with his new professors to hone in on and develop paper or research topics and then meet with the professors periodically to discuss his own ideas and his research techniques in a way that proves that, this time, his work is original.

–Don’t rush. It may take your son more than a summer and fall to complete his AA without pressure. Unless he can finish up easily by December, it may be wiser to encourage him to stretch it out through next spring. This could alleviate some of the stress and also allow him extra time to build the aforementioned relationships with faculty members. Moreover, he might have an easier transition to a new four-year university if he starts in the fall rather than at mid-year. Although I suspect that your son is anxious to get back on the track of what he views as his “normal” life, and although I’m sure you want this too, don’t be overly hasty. You could be turning up the heat in the pressure cooker yet again.

Finally, try to look for silver linings. I see at least one. When my own son, a high school junior, was inducted into the National Honor Society this spring, the keynote speaker was his AP Stats teacher whose talk was about making mistakes. She candidly revealed some of the biggies in her own life and emphasized that the true mistake is not the making of errors but the inability to learn from them. She told the parents in the room that, by allowing their sons and daughters to make mistakes now and to rebound from them, they will be helping these children to be more happy and successful later on.

So this whole debacle should be a learning experience for your son, and, as awful as it may feel at the moment, try to view it as a stepping stone to a more productive, informed future than he might have had without it.

Best of luck to you … you may need it along the way.

(posted 6/6/2014)

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Impact of Lower Scores from Second Testing

Question: My child has given SAT once and is registered to give it again on June7th. He is not well prepared. If his scores from the June 7th test are lower than the previous time, will it affect his admission process negatively?

Does he have to report his SAT scores from all attempts for college admission? Or can he choose to report only the best SAT score? He is planning to go to one of the in-state universities.

Some colleges require that students report ALL scores while others allow students to select “Score Choice,” meaning that they only submit their best results. The majority of public universities allow “Score Choice,” but the policies vary from school to school.

The colleges that require all scores almost always tell their applicants that they will only officially “use” the best scores, but they will typically still see everything.

Keep in mind, however, that it is to the college’s advantage … and not just the student’s … to use the best test scores, because then the college can include these higher scores when publishing annual averages.

So if your son does worse tomorrow, it should not have a negative impact on his admission verdicts. And if you feel that he has not adequately prepared, remember that often the mere act of re-taking a take can lead to higher scores, even if the student didn’t have the time … or inclination … to properly study.

Good luck … to both of you.

(posted 6/6/2014)

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Do I Have a Shot at a Private College?

Question: Will I be able to get into a private college? I am just finishing 10th grade and I have a 3.24 gpa; I’m in Choir; I play the guitar; I do a lot of community service through my church; I tutor elementary school students. Thank you so much!

You seem to be under the impression that a private college is harder to get into than a public one. But the truth is that SOME private colleges are among the hardest in the world to get into (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, MIT …) while others are the EASIEST. I won’t name names here, but there are plenty of private colleges that admit nearly everyone who applies. The majority of four-year public colleges have higher admission standards than these private schools, although the standards can vary greatly.

As a sophomore with a 3.24 GPA, you will probably have many options … both private and public … although the more selective colleges will expect a GPA that is higher than yours. (However, a range of factors such as the level of the classes you’ve taken, your family background, and other life experiences and challenges will also be considered before your final verdict is issued.)

You should try College Confidential’s “SuperMatch” to identify colleges that might meet your current preferences and that also admit students with a GPA in your range. Go to http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/ .Then answer the preference questions, being sure to select your current GPA under the “My Scores” heading. Note, however, that it’s still really early for you to hone in on specific schools, and–without SAT or ACT results–it’s also too early to get a really reliable sense of where you are most likely to get accepted.

When you select your SuperMatch preferences, if you choose “Private” under the “Public or Private” heading, and then “Must Have,” you will see a list of some of the private colleges that might be good fits for you.

But please remember that just because a college is “private,” it definitely doesn’t mean that it is BEST. In fact, some private colleges charge high tuitions (that may require students and their parents to take out big loans) and then don’t provide an education that is any better than what is available at a much lower cost at a public school.

So when it’s time to choose your college, do your “homework.” Check out average student debt, graduation rates, job placement rates, etc. and keep your mind open to both public and private, at least in the early stages of your search.

(posted 6/5/2014)

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One Year of Foreign Language?

Question: My daughter only has 1 year of Language. Her HS phased out the Spanish class, so she took arts and college prep classes instead. Now with only 1 year of language, can she get into admissions, or should she attempt to take a night class to get Spanish 101 at our community college? What are the options?

There are colleges that will admit your daughter with just one year of foreign language. Some of these will be schools that don’t require foreign language at all and others will be places that ordinarily do but will waive the requirement because your daughter got shafted when her school eliminated Spanish before she could complete two years. (She and her school counselor would have to write an explanatory letter and hope for the best.)

However, “The Dean’s” advice would be for you to encourage your daughter to take a night class next fall (or a summer class now) in order to make sure that she completes two years of foreign language. (There are also some very fun study-abroad summer programs, but these can be pricey and would have to include an intensive classroom component in order to count as actual language study and not just vacation!)

By applying with only one year of foreign language on her transcript, your daughter will definitely be limiting her options. The more selective colleges are typically looking for three or even four years and would consider two years to be the bare minimum.

(posted 5/28/2014)

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Can Student Who Flunked Freshman Year Start Over with a Clean Slate?

Question: My grandson failed his freshman year for non attendance of classes. He appears to have grown up and now wants to reenter college. Can he make application and request only high school transcript. There were no credits earned at his first attempt in college.

Your grandson MUST report his ill-fated college experience. However, admission officials can be very understanding when it comes to students who made a false start as your grandson did and then mature. But all college applications ask about previous college experience, and failure to disclose the truth could land your grandson in hot water. I have heard cautionary tales about students who were not forthcoming on their applications and who were later expelled from their college on the brink of graduation, despite a successful experience there.

When applying to colleges this time around, your grandson should write an essay or supplementary letter about how he screwed up and why he feels as if he’s ready to buckle down now. Ideally, he can provide references that corroborate this. For instance, if he has held a job or taken any courses, there may be an employer or teacher who would be willing to write about how he has matured and/or succeeded.

Do you, as the grandma, also see evidence that your grandson is ready to try again? If so, you might want to encourage him to take a community college class or two this summer just to prove to himself—and to others—that he is prepared to be a full-time student.

As noted above, college admission officials recognize that some teenagers who are not suited for college straight out of high school may turn into strong students even a year or so later. But if your grandson can provide tangible evidence that he can handle a college workload, it will improve his acceptance odds at whatever college he hopes to attend and will also boost his confidence and give him a running start when he returns to school full time.

(posted 5/13/2014)

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Advice for Applications After Gap Year

Question: I’m a senior in high school about to graduate. I got into almost every school I applied to but there weren’t any that really jumped out at me and in all the stress of indecission I decided to go to community college. I recently realized this isn’t for me and I want to go to a 4 year. I already rejected my acceptances and the decision date has passed. I’m considering just taking a gap year and getting right back into college after working during the year. Would I just reapply for the next year with my high school records? Also what are the chances of getting accepted after taking a gap year since it’s not like I’m deferring the acceptance I already have?

It sounds like you’re making some wise choices. If you’re not excited about any of the colleges that admitted you, it makes sense to take time off from school and consider other options.

When you are ready to apply to colleges, you would do so very much the same way you did the last time around … using your high school GPA, test scores, recommendations, etc.

However, you should definitely explain why you took the gap year and what you did during your months away from the classroom. You can use your primary application essay to do this or you can write a supplemental letter or essay, if you prefer.

You may also want to ask someone who met you during your gap year (e.g., an employer) to write an extra recommendation for you. In addition, you can retake standardized tests if you wish, but it definitely isn’t required.

Although most gap-year activities–unless they’re extraordinary–won’t do much to help an applicant to get into a college that he or she wasn’t qualified to attend straight from high school, admission officials do appreciate the fact that “gappers” are often more focused and mature than students who enroll right after 12th grade. So your gap year might help to give you at least a tiny boost when you apply to new colleges next fall.

However, if you think that you MAY want to start college in September after all, you can call the colleges that already admitted you to see if any of them still have a space for you. Although the reply deadline has passed, if these colleges are accepting any wait-listed applicants this month, they might consider giving a spot to you as well. Similarly, if during your gap year you realize that you want to attend one of the schools that already accepted you, you should contact the admission office there to see what your next steps should be. You may not have to submit a whole new application. Some colleges may tell you that just an update will be fine. Your acceptance at these places won’t be guaranteed, but your odds should be good.

Good luck, whatever you decide.

(posted 5/13/2014)

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Help for Despondent Son in Waitlist Limbo

Question: My high school senior was accepted to six schools, to one of which we had to submit a deposit. His first choice wait listed him, and now he anxiously waits. He revisited the week after the university notified him of his status, he spoke with his regional admissions counselor on campus, spoke with a lovely professor who gave him an additional recommendation while there and has since submitted his third quarter grades and more recent honors. He has a very high GPA and a 30 ACT. In fact, he is in the middle-upper range of admitted students at this East Coast school, which is quite selective and on the smaller side.

Now, It’s May 3. The Admissions Committee is likely deciding who to admit off the waitlist. My son is physically ill, anxious and refuses to accept that he is likely to attend the other school. Is there anything else he can do to help his chances and get him admitted off the wait list? Is it silly for him to retain any hope after a certain point, like the end of May? I think he should be cautiously optimistic.

This situation is worse than being rejected. He is so disappointed in himself, and I only want him to be happy and mentally move forward if he truly has no realistic chances to attend this school. Do you have any advice about this Wait list Limbo? I would greatly appreciate your input. Watching my son struggle with this is so difficult, and I feel so helpless.

As a parent myself, I empathize. As hard as this limbo-land is for your son, I suspect it’s even worse for you. It sounds as if your son is doing all the right stuff to try to get off the waitlist at his top-choice college. The only other suggestion I can make is for him to ask his school counselor to telephone the college this week and lobby for him.

Waitlist admission—as I suspect you know—is very much a numbers game. Colleges use the waitlist to remedy deficiencies in the entering class, and some years –if the admission folks have guessed well—there are no deficiencies at all. But, if they do use the waitlist, it’s often to fill specific voids (e.g., in gender, geography, race, ethnicity, undersubscribed majors, etc.) The students who are usually the first ones to come off a waitlist are those who can bolster some flagging numbers (and often who can pay full freight as well). So, if your son thinks he might be able to fill a void, he should ask his counselor to highlight this during the phone call by saying, “I bet you need more students from Alabama!” or “How is your German-major head-count this year?” If you don’t require financial aid (or if you qualify for just a little) the counselor can remind the admission office of this, too.

However, keep in mind that small colleges must be especially particular when selecting students from the waitlist. These schools often admit only students who can do “double duty”—i.e., they are both alumni children and soccer players or they are both minority students and tuba players. The admissions dean at a small and extremely selective liberal arts college recently told me that his waitlisted roster was actually stronger than the admitted class! That’s because his institution was required to accept certain students with “hooks” (legacies, athletes, etc.) which—in such a tiny school—left little room for the unhooked candidates whom the admission committees might have liked better!

Finally, I assume that your son has already told his regional rep that this college is his first choice and he will definitely enroll if admitted. Likewise, if the counselor makes a call, he or she can also say that “This student will come ANY TIME you contact him, even if it’s at the end of August,” if indeed this is true. While most waitlist activity wraps up before the end of June, there are some years when there is more “summer melt” (the number of enrolled students who bail out at the last minute) than anticipated, and thus a couple waitlisted students may get a surprise phone call just as they are Mapquesting directions to a different campus!

In The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” … apt words for your son right now. Yes, he should be cautiously optimistic, but he also needs to concurrently try to move on and get excited about the school where he has sent his deposit. Encourage him to reach out to other students who already go there or who will be in his freshman class. He can do this via Facebook, College Confidential, through friends or friends of friends, etc. If his number-one college doesn’t admit him, he may be sad for a while as he mourns the loss of a dream, but he should bounce back. (If he doesn’t, it may be a warning sign that something else is going on.) And, above all, you need to move on, too. If he sees you feeling despondent and helpless, he may believe that he’s disappointed you as well as himself. So endeavor to be upbeat about the option that he has right now. Learning to stand up again after a fall is an important life skill, so—whether he gets the news he wants or he doesn’t—your son should be in good shape, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

(posted 5/3/2014)

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