Did you know that many colleges base scholarship decisions solely on scores from college entrance exams, namely the SAT and/or ACT? While we know test scores are an artificial indication of your child’s readiness and ability to succeed in college, it is reality that they are very important for determining whether your child is accepted and whether or not he is granted any monetary help. It stinks, but we gotta deal with it.
Today I want to answer some frequently asked questions about college entrance exams, specifically for anyone new to homeschooling high school.
Three Four of our kids have taken both the ACT and SAT, and we’ve made our share of mistakes. Hopefully the information in this post will help you navigate these tests the first time around with more ease than we did!
[NOTE: If it is fall when you are reading this and your student is a senior, then NOW IS THE TIME to register for college entrance exams. Do not pass go; do not collect $200; just get ‘er done!]
FAQs about College Entrance Exams
1) Why take the SAT or ACT?
The thought of taking a four-hour exam is not a fun one for most teenagers. Especially when it takes place on a Saturday morning!! But it’s not a good idea to skip this excitement, and here’s why:
- Some schools actually base acceptance on test scores alone. They have a magic number score that guarantees acceptance; below that they look more at GPA and class rank and all that other stuff. Above that score none of the rest matters. Crazy, I know, but I’m just telling you what I’ve encountered.
- Many schools base their merit scholarships on test scores alone. I know this is a disappointment, but it is nonetheless true. Forget GPA or extra-curricular activities or the wonderful application essay your child wrote. It’s happened to us
twicethree times now, with twothree very different schools. “Your child is eligible to receive $X because of their test scores.” The only way to change that $X to a higher number would be for the student to retake the test and get a higher score. More on that in #3, below.
- Because homeschooling can involve inherently subjective evaluation, a standardized test is a good way to get an indication of whether or not our schooling has been successful. Now don’t get mad at me about this. I KNOW that many kids don’t take tests well and/or standardized tests don’t show the whole child; I KNOW that many of us have avoided standardized tests for years because we believe there is more to education than just filling in bubbles. But we could all use an objective assessment to give us some sort of idea — albeit not an infallible one, nor a comprehensive one, but just a glimmer—of whether our child has learned enough to succeed in a college environment. Perhaps it will show that a particular child would be better served to find a job that does not entail further academic training.
- As homeschoolers, we may have a suspicion of our child’s aptitudes for certain subjects, but a standardized test may confirm or refute those suspicions. This can give direction for career choice and/or selection of a major.
2) So how do you know which test to take?
It just depends on which schools your child wants to apply to, and to a lesser degree it depends on where you live. I’ve lived all over this country, and I’ve found that the SAT is more predominant on the East Coast, and the ACT is more prevalent in the Midwest and points further west. But if you live in Philly and your child wants to apply in Iowa, then you will want to check the school’s application requirements. We live enough in the middle that I just had my kids take both. The two tests are somewhat different, so I figured it was worth it for the experience alone.
3) Does the student have to take the test more than once?
The technical answer is no. But it is very advisable to take it at least twice, and there are good reasons for that. First, it is very difficult to make one’s best score when one is not familiar with the standardized test. So consider the first time as the practice and the second as the real thing.
Second, even a slight improvement can mean a major scholarship difference. We learned this lesson the hard way. Eldest was absolutely drained after taking the ACT and refused to take it a second time — and we let her determine that. Later we found out about the whole scholarship money thing (see #2 above); and we realized that she could have gotten a larger scholarship amount had she gone back and improved her score even a little bit. So the second child was not given a choice about taking it again, and she improved her score by FOUR points — and her scholarship money accordingly.
BTW, there is no guideline for what type of score you have to get to receive a scholarship offer. It varies WIDELY; each college has their own criteria. But it makes sense that a higher score will have a greater opportunity to be awarded something.
(For more information about how to prepare for the college entrance exams, see my post Homeschool ACT and SAT Practice.)
The best time to schedule is once in the spring of Junior year and then again in the fall of Senior year. It’s actually not too late to take it spring of Senior year; but by then most schools have already doled out their scholarship money, and you may be too late. (You can have your child take the test earlier than this, if you like, but the math may be of a higher level than they are comfortable with before this time period. Also, the tests do cost money; see #5 below.)
4) What about the writing portion?
If you’re like me, writing has NOT been one of your stellar homeschooling experiences, and you may be wary of your child being compared to other students. The SAT doesn’t give you a choice; your child WILL have to write an essay on that exam. But the writing score is not considered as part of the score total. (UPDATE: As of Spring 2016, writing is optional on the SAT.) With the ACT, you can choose to take it either with writing or without—and the fee will be different for each.
Again, check with the schools your child wants to apply to. #3 took the ACT with writing the first time around in spring, but by fall she had narrowed her school choices down to one (um, not my recommendation, but in this case it worked out okay). So I called the school and asked them whether they needed to see the writing, and they said they don’t even look at it. Saved me $14 or so! (And #3 was extremely happy, as well… 🙂 )
One thing about the essay scoring: those scorers are looking for a very specific type of essay, which is a topic worthy of its own blog post. Suffice it to say that it behooves one to learn what the scorers are looking for and help your student learn how to produce it. (UPDATE: I wrote about it here: Homeschool High School Writing Help.) (And here: The Five-Paragraph Essay: What, Why, & How for Homeschoolers.)
5) What about SAT subject tests?
Ah, I wish I knew; but actually, I don’t. Just being honest, here. 🙂 You know me, I am generally about making things easy. And my kids are not applying to really high-powered schools, or trying for AP credit, or wanting to prove some amazing niche of knowledge — which as I understand it are the reasons why one might want to take a subject test.
Some schools do require a subject test; others will consider them without requiring them… but I couldn’t see that it was worth the hassle, stress, or extra money for our family. The College Board says that some schools will require them from homeschooled students in particular, but I have not found that to be true. Again, research what the schools that your student is applying to require.
And that brings up what is probably the best piece of advice I can give about the entire college decision process: START EARLY WITH LOOKING AT COLLEGE ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS!! Get catalogs from any and all schools it is convenient to do so; many have them online. At the beginning of the catalog there will be a section on Admissions, and there you will find all sorts of good information about what the school wants to see in an applicant, including the minimum standardized test score and which test(s) it should be. Many of them now have sections specifically pertaining to homeschoolers.
Getting familiar with these catalogs and what they say can help you plan your high school curriculum and start gathering the data you will need for the application process. You can start this research any time you want, even when your child is still very young! Forewarned is forearmed, after all! 🙂 I wrote an entire post about this process: The Easy First Step to High School Curriculum Planning.
6) How much will the tests cost?
Expect a minimum of around $40, then also expect to pay a significant amount more if you are adding the writing portion of the test, an SAT subject test, or want to order any prep materials from the testing company. (This cost is one reason my kids only take the test twice… just sayin’…)
7) How do I get started?
That’s easy. Just go to the links below and follow the prompts. You will need to spend about 30 minutes on each one. They ask questions about your child’s current, future, and past coursework; their hobbies and interests, their desires for college, etc. And of course you have to pay them the money they want…
HERE IS VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION YOU WILL NEED TO KNOW WHEN YOU REGISTER:
The ACT school code for homeschoolers is 969999.
The SAT school code for homeschoolers is 970000.
If you have any other questions that I have missed, feel free to write them in the comments below. Or come on over to my Facebook group, It’s Not That Hard to Homeschool High School, and ask there! We’d love to have you! 🙂