When Should I Take the ACT / SAT?

Students working in classroom

Even with the upcoming changes to the SAT, the answer to “when should I take the ACT / SAT” remains the same: sometime during junior year. Here’s why.

Complete Testing As A Junior

Your goal should be to complete all admissions testing prior to senior year. If you can take (and retake) the ACT or SAT and any Subject Tests during your junior year then you are free to devote 100% of your attention to college applications as a senior. The seniors who decide to retake either the ACT or SAT are left in a state of limbo– working to complete applications, but at the same time studying and waiting for the updated test scores. Simplify your application process and finish testing during your junior year.

Find The Best Time For You

Now that we’ve narrowed the testing window down to sometime junior year, you need to find the time that is best for you. There are two major factors to consider:

  • When will you have the most time to focus and prepare?
  • When will you be most motivated?


For most students, junior year of high school is the most academically challenging. There may be times during the school year when you are so bogged down with school that you don’t have much time or energy left for anything else. Take these times off your potential testing calendar.

Also try to avoid peak times for any sports or activities. I always joke that I teach all the baseball guys in the fall because in the spring they belong to coach. Trying to prepare for a major test at the same time you are spending nights and weekends practicing for marching band, the big theater production, the national qualifier debate tournament, or the basketball playoffs, isn’t your best option.

The ACT is given six times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June. The SAT is given seven times a year: October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. I’ve crossed out those last test dates because starting in March of 2016 the SAT is changing and you don’t want to take the redesigned SAT this spring while the College Board is still figuring itself out.


You may not be able to wait until you feel perfectly ready, but you will study and test better when motivated. Studying because you have to or because mom says to isn’t usually motivated studying. My best students come to class with a purpose– “my goal is to get into Noter Dame and I want to improve my ACT by 4 points” or “the coach said I need a few more points then he will offer me a place on the team (and full scholarship!)” or “I need to study before competition season begins.”

You don’t have to have a specific school or score in mind, but when you can start connection your actions to your future college plans, you will do better. At the beginning of junior year many students still think of college in general terms as something that is still a far off dream. Usually by spring the junior class catches college fever and you will hear friends talk about taking the ACT or SAT, visiting campuses, and making plans to turn that dream into reality.

Allow Time to Retake

As you plan your first attempt at the test, understand that most students take the ACT or SAT more than once. You should factor in time to retake the test. For me, this means the June test dates are reserved for retakes; I wouldn’t suggest a student take the test for the first time in June.

What’s Missing?

I’ve outlined the key factors for planning to take the ACT and SAT. Notice what I didn’t mention? I didn’t suggest you give any thought to what you might learn in school this year. Why? Because a couple more months in English and math isn’t going to make much difference. The material covered on both the ACT and SAT has a basis in the concepts taught in school (grammar, algebra, vocabulary, geometry, etc.), but five more months in Ms. Binkley’s Algebra II class is unlikely to help your scores.

Do not think that you need to plan your testing around your school calendar. You would be better off finding a quality test prep program and spending four to ten weeks specifically reviewing for the exam.

The Decision Is Yours

Once you eliminate conflicts and find a time when you are motivated and ready to study, the choice of test date is yours. There is no easier or harder test. There is no better time to take the ACT or SAT. Scores are NOT based on the group who tests on a certain date, so you don’t need to play mind games trying to figure out when you can avoid the smart people. You test when you are ready. Period.


Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success, Testing | Leave a comment

When Should We Begin ACT / SAT Prep?

Alarm Clocks

“When Should We Begin ACT / SAT Prep?”

This is a common question at the start of every school year as families plan ahead. As parents we want to avoid last minute panic and do things right, but there is such a thing as starting too soon.

First, I need to clarify what I mean by “test prep.” A lot of skill building will take place in school this year and it is valuable learning, but not what I would call test prep. For me, test prep is focused preparation designed to help a student score higher on a particular exam. For example:

  • Reviewing algebra concepts – NOT test prep BUT
  • Looking at algebra questions from past ACT tests to prepare for the October exam IS test prep.

I’m in favor of building key skills from an early age. Students most often do this in school with some extra practice as homework. Desirable academic skills include the ability to

  • Read critically and for detail
  • Comprehend and evaluate college-bound vocabulary
  • Understand and apply standard rules of grammar and usage (including punctuation)
  • Craft an organized, thoughtful, and well-written essay
  • Recall and apply terms, formulas, and concepts from algebra, geometry, and fundamental math courses
  • Problem solve
  • Evaluate and compare evidence and answer choices

These skills, when developed over time, are the best preparation for the ACT / SAT. You can’t start too early with this type of preparation.

Actual test prep assumes students have learned foundational content and focuses on the application of knowledge to a specific test.

Example: I assume my students know geometry, but we may need to review specific formulas commonly tested on the ACT. After a year, many students will forget the equation for a circle. [(x – h) 2 + (y – k) 2 = r2 in case you wanted to check your memory!]

Example: My students rarely have subject-verb agreement errors in their own speech or writing, but we need to review the ways in which this error appears on the SAT because the test writers know how to fool even smart students with wrong answer choices that sound good.

Example: I show students short-cuts specific to the test and type of problems so they can answer more questions correctly and save time to work on the hardest problems in that section.

This type of focused test prep is best done in the 4-10 weeks

before a student takes the ACT / SAT.

Spending more than twenty years working with high school student to study for the ACT and SAT has led me to believe that four to ten weeks of preparation is enough to cover the material and not so much that students loose momentum. Here are my answers to frequently asked questions (usually from parents who have been encouraged to “start early or else miss out.”)

Won’t he do better the more he studies? (Or the more practice tests she takes?)

I wish! I wish the ACT and SAT were mastery-based activities where more repetitions always led to improvement. Unfortunately, that’s not how these tests work. Yes, some preparation and practice helps, but more doesn’t always mean better. Read Debbie Stier’s book “The Perfect Score Project” to see how, as a motivated adult, she spent a full year studying for the SAT and – spoiler alert—didn’t get a perfect score. In fact, she struggled to get even 100 points improvement in math.

Shouldn’t my child learn more by preparing sooner?

Test prep is truly a situation in which quality trumps quantity. I need students to produce quality results on test day. High scores require focus, test-specific strategies, and knowledge of content. Too often the student who tries to study for three months or longer looses momentum and either plateaus in her progress or, worse yet, burns out. Limiting test prep to a shorter period of time actually helps with focus and meaningful practice in the weeks leading up to the big exam.

But, my child is the exception. And we’ve heard of exclusive programs that run for a year or more. Are you sure?

Realistically, your child is better off using that two to ten hours a week as a 9th and 10th grader and doing something meaningful with the time: join a club, volunteer, start a business, take an online elective, read, improve class grades, or find another way to tap interests and abilities. Just because you CAN start test prep now doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Yes, you will find tutors and programs of all levels ready to sell you on test prep. (Just like my blind friend receives offers for auto insurance and I’m sure we could find a car salesman to sell her a car.) A lot of businesses will tell you anything in order to make the sale.

I’d rather see you leave as a satisfied customer who is ready to give my name to friends and neighbors. Yes, I’ve made exceptions. This summer I did test prep in 10 days. My client lives in Hong Kong, but was in town for two weeks while her father conducted business in Houston. She and I met daily and she left with a study plan for the September ACT and can contact me when she has questions. But over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of students who benefited from doing focused test prep when they were most motivated—nothing motivates like having an exam date on the calendar.

So as you plan for this school year, juniors should pick their test (ACT or SAT—more in coming weeks on how to do this) and look at the schedule to find the best test date. Junior year is the time to prepare and finish your attempts at admissions exams.

All younger students should work on building academic skills, getting good grades in school, and developing strengths and talents through outside activities. A little practice from taking the PSAT or doing the online question of the day won’t hurt as long as you keep perspective that this is casual practice not high-pressure training. Save the real test prep for when it matters—junior year.


(If you have questions about test prep or college planning, let me know. I’m always looking to answer your questions in future articles or on my podcast, The College Prep Podcast.)

Posted in Academic Success, ACT Success, PSAT Success, SAT Success | Leave a comment

Five Common, Yet Unexpected, College Costs

$100 Bills

Graduation time once again. I love hearing about college plans from students I’ve worked with over the last couple years. And I really enjoy the college graduation updates from past clients (although I start to feel old when I see some.)

This time of year seems so full of promise as families prepare for new schools and graduates seek new jobs. Sometimes in the middle of celebration and excitement of expectation, we can forget to plan for reality.

Everyone knows college is expensive. Most families preparing to send a student to college for the first time in the fall take into account the standard cost of tuition, housing, and food, but there are a number of often-unexpected college costs families should plan for.

Some families are fortunate enough to be able to work these unexpected costs into their monthly budgets. Unfortunately, each year we see students forced to withdraw from college because they can no longer afford to continue.

Here are some of the expected “unexpected” costs of college that you should plan to pay.

1. Fees

There are expected fees every semester: facilities charges, computer lab fees, or library fines. But there are some fees you may be surprised to find on their bill—recreation center charges for online classes, athletic passes regardless of your interest in sports, and class materials charges that are not listed in the course catalog. These added charges can add hundreds of dollars to a student’s college costs every term.

You may be able to negotiate some charges by calling the university, but many are non-negotiable. I bitterly remember paying hundreds of dollars per semester in graduate school for the recreation center on the main campus. I never set foot on the main campus because all my classes were elsewhere. No luck in getting those charges reversed

2. Travel

Every college has an online cost calculator that includes student travel to and from school. However, in reality, the cost of travel can be much higher than expected. As the cost of gas and airline tickets changes, your college transportation costs will change.

Students attending college far from home may encounter significant fluctuations in the cost of airline tickets, and they also may find it expensive to transport their belongings to and from campus each year.

3. Textbooks

Textbook costs are another expense that families plan for; often, though, they’re taken by surprise by how much more the actual expenses are than their preliminary estimates anticipated.

The cost of books varies depending on the type of class. A student taking biology may find the single required textbook costs $170. Another student taking a literature class may find the paperback novels are much less expensive at $10 to $20 each, but with 14 required novels for a single class, it adds up. Students can expect to spend $500 to $900 per term on textbooks.

Students can save by comparison shopping and purchasing used books when possible. Renting books may offer a money saving alternative. I’m not a fan of using digital textbooks exclusively because I don’t find students retain the information in the same way, so I’d personally use that option as a last resort.

4. Parking and Car Expenses

Students who had a car throughout high school understand that there are usual operating expenses in keeping a car. What many families don’t anticipate is the expense of parking and keeping a car on most college campuses.

Some schools have ample parking and hand out parking permits at no charge. However, students living on small, crowded campuses or in busy urban areas may find the cost of parking is $200-$500 per month. (Yes, you read that right—per month!)

When parking is a problem on a particular campus, many students look for short-cuts then find themselves with parking tickets, and over the course of the semester those charges add up. The student who agreed to the low-cost lot behind the stadium may be tempted to skip class or park “illegally” when the weather is bad or when he is running late.

If parking isn’t free at your college, find out what options you have and budget accurately. 

5. Greek Life

On paper, the cost of participating in Greek life—sororities and fraternities—can seem minimal. Each chapter will often have annual dues, and there may be additional fees associated with living in the house. The unexpected costs, however, can quickly add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per semester.

My neighbor just brought her daughter home from the daughter’s freshman year in college. They found the monthly sorority charges were DOUBLE the pre-rush estimate given to parents. Fortunately, the added expenses didn’t break their budget, but not all families will have money available in the middle of the school year for things like added sorority costs.

Keep in mind some of the added cost of Greek life is optional, but may not feel like it at the time. Lots of sororities and fraternities participate in special events on and off campus. Students may have to purchase tickets to these events, appropriate attire (no one wants to wear the same dress to all the dances), and make donations to their sorority or fraternity’s causes. Often these costs don’t make it into the planning budget, but they should.

To get an idea of the actual cost of participating in Greek life, students should ask current members about their expenses over the past year or two and plan for additional “social” costs throughout the year.

6. Snacking

Most entering freshmen and their families understand that some degree of snacking takes place in college, but they usually underestimate the amount of money college students spend eating outside of the regular meal plan.

College students will find that vending machines around campus can be linked to their dining points or will accept credit cards. This makes it very easy to swipe the card to get a soda or a snack in between classes, but doing so each day adds up. Late-night pizza delivery during study sessions or the daily iced mocha at the coffee house seems typical of a college student, but can add hundreds of dollars to a student’s cost of college per year.


It is important for students and parents to accurately budget the amount of money they will need to pay for each year of college education. Underestimating purchases such as snacks or textbooks or failing to account for potentially high costs of travel, parking, or participation in activities such as Greek life can leave students thousands of dollars short at the end of each academic year.

What unexpected college costs have you encountered? Leave a comment (see box above).


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Best Places Online to Find SAT Practice Questions


Because SAT scores can be a key factor in college admission and/or scholarship consideration, many students also search for practice questions that will help them prepare for the test. The SAT tests concepts on a college-bound level, so precision and detail are essential to any study program. You will want to seek out quality practice material, not cheap knockoffs.

If you are looking for SAT practice questions, always use official College Board materials. When the difference between getting a question correct can be a matter of a few words, using official practice materials ensures that you are preparing with questions like those you will see on test day. You don’t see professional baseball players practicing with softballs! You don’t want to waste your time or money practicing with questions that are close, but not quite the real thing.

Fortunately, College Board offers many online resources that will help you prepare for the SAT. Unfortunately, the SAT is going to change in 2016 and currently there are very few materials available for the redesigned test. This is one reason current juniors and sophomores may want to hit the books and take the current SAT before the last one is given in January of 2016.

Here are the current resources available to students. (Note: most are free or low cost.)

Question of the Day

Every day, College Board releases a practice question to help students test their abilities in reading, math, or writing. Students can access the past month’s questions on the College Board website or use the SAT Question of the Day app. These practice problems give feedback to help students learn. If you give an incorrect answer, you will have the opportunity to try again, then read an explanation of the solution. In addition, you can see what percentage of people answered the question correctly, which will help you determine if a particular problem is easier or harder.


Practice Questions

Students who want to practice a particular type of question may want to use College Board’s online practice questions. These questions are divided by type: sentence completion, passage-based reading, multiple-choice math, student-produced response math, error identification, and sentence and paragraph improvement. Because the questions are grouped by question type, a student can focus on one area at a time.


Full-Length Official Practice Test

Working on individual questions or question types can be helpful, but students who want to practice their pacing or put together all of their skills in a realistic test environment will want to take the College Board’s full-length practice test. Students can pick up a print copy at their schools’ guidance counseling offices. You can also download and print an entire ten-section practice SAT, complete with answer key and scoring guide. (Try to get the print copy. It comes in booklet form—like the actual test—and will save you printing 60+ pages.)


Print Book: “Official SAT Study Guide”

If you have used SAT Question of the Day, practice materials, and the full-length practice test from College Board’s website, but still need more sample SAT questions, you can order “The Official SAT Study Guide.” This book—available on the College Board website, online retailers, or local bookstore—contains ten full-length official SATs. It provides hundreds of pages of official SAT questions for those students who want to practice more before they take their official test.


Khan Academy

The College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to provide practice material and lessons. Students can view tutorials and solve previously un-released official questions. Khan Academy will also have questions for the new SAT/ PSAT, so students taking the October 2015 PSAT or March 2016 SAT with the redesigned test will find official practice materials here.


Unofficial SAT Questions

If you are looking for additional SAT practice questions online, you will find that there are many other websites that offer sample questions. Use caution when studying with questions that are not provided directly by College Board. As you prepare for the SAT, you will see that many questions are detail-oriented; using materials that emulate official problems but are not actual problems may not be in your best interest for studying– like practicing baseball with a softball.

In my experience as an SAT coach, these unofficial materials often do more harm than good. I would actively discourage you from using practice tests that come from any source other than the College Board—this includes those free tests offered by big-box test prep companies (these tests are skewed and are intended as a sales tool not simply a diagnostic service.)

Be thoughtful when you review questions so you can get the most out of every question. There is enough official material for you to study.


The SAT underwent substantial changes in 2005. Analogy and quantitative-comparison questions were eliminated, and the writing section was added. Practice materials from before 2005 will not be useful in preparing for the current test.

As the SAT changes in the next year, new practice materials will be released. Students and parents will want to pay attention to use the right materials for the right test. Current materials will NOT be useful for the redesigned test and vice versa.

Posted in SAT Math, SAT Reading, SAT Success, SAT Writing, Testing | Leave a comment

Drinking on College Campuses

drinking on campus


We are in the middle of that season—the time when parents need to talk to even the most straight-laced students about drinking. With prom, end of year parties, and summer around the corner, it just makes sense.

As you have these conversations this spring, you might want to begin to broach the subject of alcohol use and abuse in college.

Some parents look back on college tailgating or parties and fondly remember having a few beers. But the reality of college drinking is that 40% of students engage in heavy binge drinking, according to numerous national surveys.

In addition, even casual drinking can lead to severe consequences for students in violation of campus and local alcohol policies. And college drinking doesn’t have the same natural limits students have while in high school—no parents waiting up or neighbors keeping an eye out.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is the most commonly used drug among youth in the U.S. It is responsible for more than 4,700 deaths among underage drinkers each year. Although the legal drinking age is 21, people aged 12-20 account for 11% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S.

Alcohol Abuse Is a Problem Among College Students

Sometimes college drinking is done responsibly, but studies show that many college students abuse alcohol. In fact, approximately one-third of all college students are believed to meet the qualifications for alcohol abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines alcohol abuse as a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, relationships, or ability to fulfill responsibilities at work or school. Alcohol abuse may involve drinking in dangerous situations and can lead to alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Policies Vary by Campus

Every college has its own policy on alcohol use by students. Some colleges actively discourage alcohol use by asking students to abstain from drinking and severely punishing students who have alcohol on campus or are found to be intoxicated. Other schools are more permissive, allowing students of legal drinking age to possess alcohol in campus housing, serving beer at football games, and even operating campus pubs.

Entering freshman should become familiar with the alcohol policy and consequences for violators before they start school. Each year college freshman are arrested and expelled for alcohol related violations.

Campus Consequences Can Be Severe

Because every college has its own alcohol policy, the consequences for a single alcohol-related offense can vary from campus to campus. Minor consequences include warnings, fines, and parental notification. For more severe or repeat offenses, students can be kicked out of university housing, suspended, or sent for alcohol evaluation and treatment. The most extreme punishment is expulsion.

Students Can Face Legal Charges

In addition to punishments determined by the college, students can face legal charges according to the laws of the city or county. Common grounds for citation include underage drinking, supplying alcohol to minors, and driving under the influence.

Even if all the drinking takes place on campus, students are subject to local laws regarding alcohol consumption. Every year, college students found in violation of local laws are ticketed, charged, assessed fines, and even face court-ordered treatment or jail time.

Parents May Not Be Notified

The law does not allow colleges to share a student’s grades, health records, or disciplinary history with parents. However, colleges and universities are legally allowed to notify parents when an underage student has been drinking or using drugs.

College policies on contacting parents vary; in recent years, many schools have increased parent notifications in an attempt to reduce alcohol problems on campus. Parents should ask about the policy at their child’s school.

Students Have a Choice

In the college search process, students can seek out schools whose alcohol policies match their own views. Those who prefer a social environment where issues of alcohol use and abuse are uncommon may seek out dry campuses or find universities with “healthy living” dorms, where all residents agree to avoid smoking, drug, and alcohol use. Ultimately, the decision to drink (or not) is up to each student.

Students should learn about campus policies and the prevalence of alcohol on campus when they research prospective colleges. If they do choose alcohol-tolerant campuses, it’s important to be aware of the schools’ policies about alcohol, as well as city and county laws that apply. In addition, parents should know how their child’s college handles issues of alcohol possession and consumption.

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