Growing a Counseling Practice through Deeper Test Prep Expertise

When endowed with a deep understanding of admissions testing, college counselors can better assist their students and be a source of expert knowledge on a critical component of the admissions process.  Families may turn to counselors for advice on which admissions test to take, how many times to take each test, and how to use tutoring or practice to optimize the results. In some cases, these families may enter the counseling process with testing information that is either outdated or incorrect. A counselor who is current on the state of admissions testing and best practices for preparation can provide valuable guidance and be a more comprehensive resource.

In the last several years the world of testing has been in a state of flux, and only recently has the new paradigm begun to emerge.  Both the SAT and the ACT have changed – the SAT with a complete rewrite in 2016, and the ACT with more subtle but significant changes over time. The essays for both tests have essays changed, the SAT scoring changed as did the scoring for the ACT essay, the SAT Subject Tests may be decreasing in prominence, the testing calendar changed, and the accommodations process changed.  For families and professionals alike there’s been a lot to keep track of! Many of our time-honored pieces of testing advice must adjust to reflect this new reality.

How many times to take the SAT or ACT?

With deliberate practice and feedback-driven preparation, students tend to see score increases through three official testing administrations. Students typically see a significant score increase from official test 1 to 2, and marginal or sectional increases from test 2 to test 3.  Part of this gain comes from familiarity with the test, the timing, the process. Through successive administrations, students will grow more comfortable with the testing process and confident in their abilities. If they achieve interim goals and see a return for the investment of their time and energy, students will get a bump in self-efficacy, fueling further investment in the process and belief in their ability to convert study time into actual score increases.

We rarely see gains past the third official testing administration, and thus recommend, for most students, viewing the third test as final.

When to take the SAT or ACT?

For nearly two decades Applerouth has counseled families to fit all of their child’s testing into the junior year, but the expanded testing calendar, integrating July and August testing, coupled with the SAT’s expanded focus on Algebra 2, changes the timeline for some students. Students who are enrolled in Algebra 2 as juniors should not take the SAT prior to the March test. Students who completed Algebra 2 or its equivalent as sophomores can commence testing earlier in the junior year.  

'Students who are enrolled in Algebra 2 as juniors should not take the SAT prior to the March test' - @applerouth Click To Tweet

As noted above, we advise a three test plan (although we are delighted for those students who achieve their final goal in a single testing administration). Some SAT students may plan for the March, May, and June SATs while others may opt for a summer schedule, taking the June, August, and October tests.  With the advent of the July ACT, some students will focus on academics as juniors and go for the June, July, September ACT triad. Student needs will dictate the schedule.

Parents occasionally hear rumors that certain test dates are to be avoided.  As counselors, know that there are no reliably easy or hard test dates  from year to year.   Students should not seek an advantage by selecting or avoiding a particular date: such an advantage is a fantasy and test date selection should be dictated by the student’s preparation schedule, first and foremost.

Does the early bird catch the worm? Studying a decade of student data, we have found that students who begin preparation earlier junior year seem to have an advantage and achieve higher score increases and final scores. This has to do with students using the earlier start times to fit in more practice, more practice tests, and more official test administrations.

Additionally, many students who start earlier in the year report lower feelings of deadline-related stress. Knowing that their applications are months and months away can decrease the pressure from a make-or-break test. As long as students have completed Algebra 2 as sophomores, they can start preparation and testing at the beginning of junior year.

To determine the optimal testing schedule for a student, counselors must factor in the student’s activities and academic demands throughout the year. There is no one schedule that will fit every student: some can balance academics/activities and test-prep. Others will be better served pushing the lion’s share of preparation to the summer.  The key is to find the sweet spot in the calendar year when the student will have the 50-70 hours typically needed to complete all the preparation, homework, and practice necessary to achieve their highest final score.

Which test is best?

The SAT and ACT are more similar than ever before, with  a roughly 80% content overlap.  However, important distinctions remain and a student may have a natural advantage on one of these tests as a result.  Ideally, every student would take a baseline SAT and ACT practice test under controlled, timed conditions to determine their stronger test.  

Comparing the two assessments, the ACT is much speedier (less time per question), has more advanced math and science and is more straightforward. The SAT is more generous with timing, demands a higher level of reading, emphasizes reading skills in every section, has a deeper focus on Algebra and word problems, and places less of an emphasis on science. The SAT essay is derived from an AP language essay and focuses on critical textual analysis; the ACT essay requires the critical evaluation of multiple perspectives, but does not involve analyzing a long-form text  

Rather than speculate on the relative strengths and weaknesses of a student, it’s a best practice to have the students take timed SAT and ACT practice tests and then compare the outcomes. If a student performs better on one test by 60 points on the SAT scale, go with that test.  If a student scores within 60 points (i.e., a 1210 SAT and 24 ACT) then defer to the student’s preference. 

How to best prepare?

Once a student has identified his or her optimal test, it’s time to commence preparation. Several factors affect final testing outcomes.  From an effectiveness standpoint, distributing practice over time, doing a few hours per week, is far superior to cramming practice into a few intense sessions over a short time. Timed practice tests are essential to hone time-management, mental endurance, and self-regulation skills. Time on task is key: the more hours a student invests into deliberate practice, the more he/she reviews test content and missed items to inform new strategies, the greater the chance the student will achieve mastery over the material. Critical performance feedback is key to overcoming deficits.  Students also benefit from having a goal in mind for each test they take, viewing each official administration as a stepping stone towards a final goal.

How about the SAT Subject Tests?

Although the SAT Subject Tests may be declining in importance for some schools, they are still a significant factor for students applying to the most selective programs. Many admissions offices have dropped the requirement for SAT Subject Tests, but continue to recommend them or use them in the admissions process. Many colleges who have shifted their guidance from requiring to recommending SAT Subject Tests have the expectation that students coming from strong feeder schools with ample academic resources will submit Subject Tests.

When they are not required, SAT Subject Tests may still serve as a means for the strongest students to differentiate themselves from the pack.  Students taking Subject Tests will typically take them in May or June to coincide with corresponding AP exams, allowing students to double dip with their preparation.


Counselors can differentiate themselves by being deeply resourced in the domain of admissions testing.  Stay current on the changes coming down the pike from the College Board and the ACT, Inc., and be able to guide your students towards their best testing strategy to optimize their chances for college admission and merit-based financial aid.

This was a guest post by Dr. Jed Applerouth of Applerouth tutoring services. Click here to download a helpful summary of Dr. Applerouth’s research on high stakes testing.


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