Do You Need Extra Time on the ACT / SAT?

stand out from the crowd

In the past year almost half of my private tutoring clients have come to me needing extra time on the ACT. Unfortunately, only a few of them knew their learning differences could qualify them for accommodations on the exam.

All of these hard-working students managed to compensate for their various learning issues and successfully keep their grades up in high school. Unfortunately, none of the guidance counselors or caseworkers at their schools had suggested applying for extra time on the ACT or SAT.

How things work

Just as students can receive accommodations and modifications at school, they can also receive them on standardized tests: ACT, SAT, PSAT, AP exams, etc.

Accommodations vary depending on each student’s needs. Some students require large print exams. Others need extended time and frequent breaks. Some students need the exam to be read aloud.

Some accommodations are for temporary needs. I worked with a young man who broke his hand the week before the PSAT and his accommodation was the ability to mark answers in the exam booklet without having to bubble the answer sheet (something he couldn’t manage with a cast on his writing hand.)

What we want

Testing accommodations “level the playing field” for students with documented needs. They are not intended to give a particular group of students an unfair advantage; they’re meant to provide each student with what he or she needs to compete fairly with his or her peers.

No one would contest a visually impaired student receiving a large print or braille booklet, for example. Many students struggle with less obvious “disabilities.”

Students with dyslexia or processing speed issues will find it impossible to complete an equivalent amount of work in the same time as their “regular” peers. These students may be given additional time to test because the educational and psychological evaluations show a need.

What we don’t want

Many people hear “extended time on the SAT or ACT” and think they’d like to take advantage of this opportunity. Most students find timed exams challenging and wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra time on admissions tests!

What ACT and College Board don’t want is students and parents looking to exploit a perceived loophole in the standardized testing field. In other words, they want to provide appropriate accommodations to students with diagnosed and identified needs, but not provide “bonus” time for families shopping around for an advantage in the admissions process.

How do I know if I qualify?

Of course final word is left to the student support services departments at College Board and ACT. In general, students who receive modifications and accommodations at their high school may qualify for similar accommodations on their standardized testing. Because applications for modified testing need to come from a student’s high school, a visit with your guidance counselor or exceptional education caseworker is a good place to start.

How does the application process work?

Both ACT and College Board require their own applications with supporting documentation. (Remember ACT and College Board are rival companies like Coke and Pepsi, so approval by one does not mean approval by the other.) You may want to apply for both.

You will need to have current documentation of a diagnosed issue. Because all of the forms require the signature of a school official as well as some information about a student’s IEP or school accommodations, the best place to initiate this process is in your high school guidance counseling or exceptional education office.

If you have additional questions or can’t find the specific answers on the College Board or ACT website, call the student support service offices directly. I have found everyone in those departments to be well-informed and helpful.

Important issues

  1. Keep in mind that the purpose of testing accommodations is to provide a fair adjustment based on documented needs and part of that means protecting the fairness of students who will not receive extra time for special testing conditions. It is not unusual for applications to be denied. If you feel your application has been unfairly denied, ask for further information or a review.
  1. One of the most common reasons for an application to be denied is that the applicant no longer receives that accommodation at school. Think about it; if a student doesn’t need extra time in school, why should they get extra time on a standardized test!
  1. Once approved, accommodations follow a student through his or her entire high school testing time. This means a student who is approved by College Board for extended time on a 10th grade AP exam will have that extended time apply for the PSAT, SAT, and subsequent AP exams in 11th and 12th grade.
  1. The approval process can take between six and ten weeks– longer if you are asked to provide additional documentation or have to appeal the decision. For this reason, it may be wise to apply the year before your child anticipates taking the standardized exams.
  1. If your child has gotten by with informal arrangements at school, you may want to think ahead and get some documentation in place prior to 11th grade. Many students in small private schools advocate for themselves and come in before or after school to finish tests they are unable to complete in class. While I applaud students who take initiative to ask for extended time and those teachers who are willing to provide it in the absence of a policy requiring it, when it comes to college placement testing, more formal documentation may be needed.
  1. Look beyond names and labels. Over the years I’ve encountered many parents who did not want their child to carry a label: ADD, special education, autistic, etc. In many cases these parents have specifically avoided modifications in school to avoid the label. I encourage parents to learn more about the process and focus on the question “what does my child need?” rather than worrying about the label. (I’ll have an article this summer on how student with learning differences are viewed in college admission.)
  1. Applications must include up to date testing. If your child was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade and your testing is eight years old, the ACT and SAT may ask for you to provide more current documentation of an educational need. Plan ahead for the time and potential expense to get this done.
  1. Remember not all needs are obvious. One of the students I started working with in December clearly needed extra time. In the past year she finished chemotherapy. This family never thought to consider the lasting impacts of chemotherapy on their daughter’s brain and how it might impact taking a test like the ACT; they were just so grateful her leukemia was in remission and she was back to school full-time. When the student completed educational testing, doctors found her processing speed and working memory had been impaired. Now the daughter has extended time on the ACT and a better understanding of why she has to read things two or three times to remember anything.


Don’t wait for your school guidance counselor to initial this process for you. As I have found with my clients this year, you need to be informed and advocate for your child if you suspect testing accommodations are appropriate.

For more information, you can see the testing accommodations pages for

ACT Services For Examinees with Disabilities

College Board Services for Students with Disabilities


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After You’re Accepted– How to Choose the Right College


We are in the throes of making the final decision about which college to attend, and I’m wondering if you have any suggestions or could point me to some good resources. My daughter is a talented singer and focused on several liberal arts colleges with strong music programs or music conservatories, but doesn’t want to major in music. She is now grappling with the question of whether it’s better to be a “big fish in a little pond” at a school with a music department and opportunities, but not known for music, versus one of the schools known for music. (Her top choices are Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox) If you have any advice or could point me to some good resources to help her as she decides, I would really appreciate it.

First, congratulations! You and your daughter are in the enviable position of having to choose from a number of great options. Making that final decision is more of an art than a science, but I’ll share what I tell my clients.

No Bad Choices       

It may help to start out by recognizing that there are no bad or wrong choices. I understand many families feel as if they have to make “the right choice” and that belief only makes the process more stressful.

Your family did a lot of hard work in the past year as you limited the college list to a group of schools all included because they are good choices. Yes, different schools will provide different college experiences, but it is a lot like trying to decide whether to go to Hawaii or London for your next vacation. They are different, but both would be excellent experiences.

Honestly, Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox are all great schools. I can’t say one is better than the rest because it really depends on what you and your daughter are looking for. So there really is no bad school in this bunch.

Chart Key Data

I’ll admit I’m a right-brained spreadsheet nerd; I’ll do this step in Excel. Whether you create an electronic spreadsheet or a colorful chart on construction paper with stickers, you need to put key information in one place so you can accurately compare and contrast options.

I like to start with the numbers. Some of these facts may be more significant to your decision than others. Here’s my starter list:

  • School name, location
  • Type of location (college town, small town, big city) & any key location benefits (access to internships, arts scene, etc.)
  • Miles from home
  • How you plan to get to/from college on breaks & estimated cost of a round-trip
  • Approximate time (door to door) from home to campus or vice versa
  • Total students on campus & total undergraduates on campus
  • Intended major & minor (if applicable)
  • Plan for freshman year housing
  • Your best guess for housing after first year (on campus, off campus—be specific)

Then I encourage everyone to chart the financial aspect. Unless the cost of college is chump change, list it out. Make the cost of college part of your decision just as you would consider cost when purchasing a car, house, or vacation. You can use your financial statement from the college or the net price calculator from each school’s website.

  • Tuition
  • Room & board
  • Fees
  • Travel to school (minimum of twice a year)
  • Other expected expenses
  • TOTAL of all the above
  • Scholarships (first year, one time awards)
  • Scholarships & grants (these will be awarded all four years)
  • Work study
  • Loans (you can separate into student and parent)
  • Estimated payment per year

Pros & Cons of Each

Next we get into the details of each school. You may want to pull out notes made on your campus visit(s) because your on-site reactions to the campus and people are valuable.

Start by listing all the benefits of a particular school. (Just focus on benefits at this stage. DO NOT give in to the temptation to pencil in corresponding weaknesses at other schools as you go along.)

  1. Include academic benefits: particular majors or classes, unique courses, specific professors or programs, capstone options, J-term possibilities, and any reactions you had visiting with students or professors on campus.

In this case, what will your daughter major in if she doesn’t want music? Would she want to double major or minor in music if that’s a realistic possibility? What parts of the academic music program does she want to experience? Are there other classes, programs, courses of study, or general academic approaches she likes at this school?

  1. Include extracurricular or co-curricular benefits: teams or companies (include level of participation and your expected roll as a freshman), possible clubs or organizations of interest, required internships and other internship possibilities. The key here is to picture yourself on campus and describe in as much detail as possible your role in activities outside the classroom. You may have to dig to find answers.

Does your daughter hope to use her musical talent in an extracurricular activity? How likely is she to be able to get a part / position as a freshman? As a non-music major? Will a majority of music opportunities outside the classroom be reserved for music majors? Will it be harder for her to participate as a non-major? What about other activities or clubs not related to music?

  1. Include campus-living and social benefits: living-learning communities, off-campus fun, social organizations, campus recreation options, special dorms or campus housing perks. Here is where you list all benefits that are not academic or extracurricular. Some of these benefits might relate to the people and “feel” you got when on campus; that’s ok. You want a college where other students share your ideas of fun and will encourage and help you reach your goals.

What else did your daughter like about each school? Will living arrangements offer special opportunities? How does she picture herself spending her free time? Don’t overlook little things like good weather because small things experienced on a daily basis can be big. (Ask anyone who had to give up his or her regular coffee if little things matter!)

  1. Include feelings, prestige, and gut reactions. This is where its fine to say you just like the vibe on campus or that everyone else will be impressed with your choice. You can also say you feel safe being close to home (or that you are so glad to be far away!). Maybe you feel this school will do more to help you set up internships or engage in hands-on research. It might be that it is simply easier to talk to an actual person if you have a question.

Don’t discount your gut reaction.

How will your daughter feel at this particular school? How much will the school’s reputation for music matter if it is not her major? Does she feel confident at the idea of pursuing options at this school?

  1. Include practical considerations: cost, distance from home, ability to use AP, IB, or dual credit hours.

Once you have all the benefits listed, go back and list the weaknesses for each college. It has been my experience that the list of shortcomings is smaller if you do this as a separate step. Thinking of one school at a time, what do you wish this school had? What are the potential flaws? Are any of these problems enough to take a school off your list?

Narrow Your List

With all the information written down, you can begin eliminating schools from the list. Remember, these aren’t bad choices. Often these schools just don’t have as many benefits as some of the others on the list.

I like to approach this step by asking the student to eliminate his or her “lowest” option then asking everyone how it feels. If mom and dad can live with it, we take the choice off the list and continue. I like to give the student a lot of decision-making ability at this point, but I also allow for a parent “save” so mom and dad can keep their best option in the mix.

Ask Big Questions  

When you are down to the top two or three choices, it may be time to pause and ask some big questions. If you haven’t visited all of the remaining schools, I’d strongly encourage you to do so. Then spend some time as a family discussing these issues and any other questions you think need to be addressed.

  1. Is there a significant financial difference among these schools? If yes, spend some time with related questions. Is College X really worth $80,000 in loans? Or College Z costs $13,000 per year less; could we use that to get some experiences you think College Z lacks (for example take a year abroad with the money saved might make up for some other shortcomings.)
  1. Where will you feel most happy and encouraged to do your best work? Don’t overlook the intimidation that students often feel in highly competitive programs and don’t underestimate the value of feeling as if you belong academically and socially.
  1. Where do you want to be in five years? How will each school help you reach your goals? If you are planning to attend medical, law, or graduate school, will the cost of your undergraduate degree limit your ability to pay for future studies? If you haven’t asked, check on the post-graduation employment rate or graduate program admission rates.
  1. Which school will best serve the real you?

I usually explain this by admitting my own secret dream of being a modern day Martha Stewart where I grown my own organic vegetables, make beautiful floral arrangements, and have an eye for home décor. The reality is that I hate getting my hands dirty and working in the yard in the heat of the summer is my idea of torture. Add to that my complete lack of style and the real me has no business pursuing those Martha Stewart dreams.

Sometimes we approach college with the same disconnect from reality. Think about how you, with your personality, interests, and style of learning, will do at this particular institution.

Yes, College Y has a lot of opportunities, but are you the type of student who will seek them out and make them happen? Or would you be better off at College X where a lot of these opportunities are either built into class requirements (internships, research) or are so much of the school’s culture that everyone else will be doing them too. Sure, it sounds great to take the train into the city to see shows on the weekend, but if you are a stay-around-the-house type of person, then this benefit may not apply to you.

Make The Choice

After all your analysis and discussion, make a choice.

Then sit on that information for two or three days. (Which means your decision has to be made before the notification deadline.)

How do you feel? Hopefully, you can start to relax and settle into the good news. If after a couple days no one feels intense regret, congratulations, you have made your choice.

P. S. 

Keep in mind, there are only good choices, but if your initial choice doesn’t work out as planned, you always have options. Students can and do transfer schools. I left The George Washington University after my sophomore year and transferred to Rice University. If you find your initial college isn’t a good fit, you can change.

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How to Use 2015 PSAT Results for College Planning & Test Prep

Scores from the October 2015 PSAT and PSAT 8/9 are now available. Results have been online at since January 7 and today, January 29, high schools should receive individual printed score reports from College Board.

To help you make the most of the information, I’ve prepared two videos.

First, the full picture. In just over 19 minutes you can learn:

  • Where to access paper and online scores
  • What numbers are important and what doesn’t matter
  • How to tell if your scores are good
  • What you can expect for National Merit cutoffs
  • How to use PSAT results for college planning and future test prep

If you just want the basics, I also have a 2-minute overview. You will miss out on the nuts & bolts and some specific suggestions, but you will have a better idea of what all those numbers mean to you and your college admission plans.

Here’s the full version:

And the 2-minute summary:

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R. I. P. Old SAT


Tomorrow, January 23, we say goodbye to the old SAT as it is given for the last time. I will miss:

  • Math that emphasizes creative problem solving over long computation
  • The overt (and easily coach-able) emphasis on college-bound vocabulary
  • Short sections that never ask students to focus for more than 25 minutes on a given subject
  • Broad essay topics which allow multiple interpretations supported by any type of evidence

Going forward with the new SAT I think students will appreciate

  • The scoring system which no longer penalizes for wrong answers
  • A multiple-choice writing section based 100% on editing passages (like the ACT). Students won’t miss the Error ID sentences.
  • Changes to the written essay that move it to the end of the exam, remove it from the overall SAT score, and make it optional (like the ACT). Essay scores will now be “extra” and will not be factored into a student’s Evidence Based Reading & Writing score (again, like the ACT.)

The new SAT looks more like the ACT than its outgoing counterpart. Having two competing exams that share an increasing number of similarities is not good for students, many of whom benefited from having a real choice in admissions tests.

As the new format SAT moves from prototype to full implementation phase this spring, we will see how many students prefer it to the ACT and life will be simpler with two known choices and less speculation.

I guess it is time to recycle my old SAT books. I’ve had the new format book since it was released by College Board last summer, but it doesn’t have the same familiar dog-eared pages and worn cover held on by layers of packing tape.


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Why Go To College? (Or What College Is Not)

Tips to Succeed In College


As I go through the process of helping students prepare for college I’m often brought back to the essential question: why do we want our kids to get college degrees? If we can better understand the purpose then we can align all of our actions towards achieving that goal.

I will start with a couple things I think college is not. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree with me in which case your actions would be directed towards a slightly different goal than mine.

Don’t Go To College To Get A Job

We do not send students to college simply to get a job upon graduation. If the only purpose of higher education was to gain subsequent employment we would not need football games, sororities or fraternities, or any other social activities. College in this scenario would look a lot more like a trade school where students could take practical hands-on classes and begin internships or apprenticeships towards securing a future job.

If employment was the only goal for a college education most students could easily commute to their local junior college or state university. We would have no need for dormitories or residence halls and no need for any of the social components most schools offer.

Yes, some students are just looking for education to improve employment options. Trade schools, online classes, and local colleges can be the right answer. And, yes, we do hope that higher education will lead to more opportunities in employment, but most of us don’t think future employment is the only goal of a college education.

Don’t Go To College To Gain Social Status

A college education is not the route to acceptance in proper society or a recognized pedigree.

In the way that some people say that you need to go to college to get a job, others say you need to go to college in order to be accepted into the world. Often these are the people who justify the need to go to a bigger, better, or brand-name school because it will “open doors”. This is part of the myth of higher education in America.

I can assure you that a college diploma is not like the club card that will grant me access to the airport lounge. My undergraduate degree is from Rice University, an institution that perennially makes the top 20 list of national universities. I have that big name degree, but I have yet to find people fawning over themselves to extend me jobs, greater social positions, or extra fringe benefits.

We’ve seen a lot of backlash to this position in the past few years. You can find numerous articles listing successful people with degrees from non-prestigious schools or with no degree at all.

I believe it is important for students to seek out like-minded peers who will encourage them to achieve their best, but I don’t think you need to need a particular college name on your degree to earn status.

I’m not opposed to Ivy League or high ranking schools. I loved my time at Rice and feel I got a lot from the classes and the people I met. But that experience has not magically granted me a better place in society or opened doors. Doors have opened when I worked to open them.

Don’t Go To College To Play For Four Years

College is not a four-year country club experience. This is the complete opposite of the first concept that college is simply for a job. Under this focus people believe that college is a four-year social vacation as a transition from high school into the real world.

Few adults subscribed to this idea. Most understand that there has to be some practical balance between the fun parts of college life and the work that will prepare students for success in the future.

However, when I visit colleges and sit in on campus tours and information sessions, I see a lot of students who look like they are shopping for a good time. They pay more attention to fancy dorms, rock climbing walls, lazy rivers in the recreation center, and what’s being served for lunch. The fact that there is a Starbucks in the library should not be a major selling point for a university. But when students are just looking for the country club lifestyle it can be difficult to put the focus on what matters.

It’s been a few years (the example is dated) but this experience still stands out in my mind. I worked with a very bright young lady who was in the top 10% of her class at a private high school. We had spent a couple sessions discussing different colleges she might want to research and visit. She exclaimed at our next meeting that she had found the perfect school. After she told me the name of the school, a wonderful private liberal arts college, I asked her why this school was going to be “the one.” She told me that she was in love with this particular institution because they had outlet’s in the quad. (not classes, majors, research options, study abroad, or internships– the big issue was electrical outlets?!?) She could envision herself with her laptop computer plugged in as she sat from morning till night doing her schoolwork on the grass in the open air. All of these sessions, all of the information I provided, and the decision is swayed by outlets in the quad? !!!!!

Lifestyle perks are nice and colleges know that new dorms and fancy recreation centers impress prospective students. This is where you as a parent may need to step in and refocus the discussion on the actual merits of the institution if you are looking for more than a four-year country club experience.

What Factors Matter?

Why do we want our children to get college degrees? The answer is complicated and involves many factors. I want both of my own children to learn to think and express themselves, meet new people, develop academic skills they can apply to a variety of situations in the future, broaden their academic, cultural, and social perspectives, and take advantage of opportunities to work, research, and intern with people who can shape their careers. You can probably think of plenty of other things I’ve left off this list.

The problem is that all of these big picture reasons don’t show up in the quick online college search programs that limit your list by geography, major, size, etc. But having a better idea of what you are looking for in a college is important.

Even the very brightest high school students don’t always have clear priorities in what they want from a college. Their search process may be incomplete or completely off-track. As a parent you may assume you are looking at things the same way, but until you actually discuss and prioritize, you may find you and your student are looking for very different things.

Start By Finding Common Ground

I’ve started by giving some examples of what college is not. You might agree or disagree with me. So take some time and discuss your priorities.

  • What do you hope to get out of your college experience?
  • Why go to college?
  • What factors are most important?
  • What is less important or is something you can find at any school?

Not everyone will have the same answers, but if your family can identify these big picture goals, you will have a much easier time looking through the 4700+ degree granting institutions.

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