The ACT and/or SAT are college entrance exams that are typically taken the junior and senior years of high school. Many colleges have early decision deadlines in December, so it is best to get a good score on these tests well before then. Some colleges will combine the math score from one ACT with the reading score from another for admissions purposes, and the same is true for the SAT. Both tests also have an optional essay. Check with your college of interest for its policies regarding these tests.
The PSAT is given in October to high school sophomores and juniors. The test is very similar to the SAT, only the math goes through Algebra II instead of PreCalculus. For juniors, this test can qualify them for the National Merit Scholarship if they score in the top 99% in their state. For homeschoolers, you need to call a local school to register them for this test in August, as schools have to order the tests from the College Board. They should, at some point, also give you a preparation test booklet which contains a sample test. Have your student take this test and become familiar with the format and directions. Taking the October SAT is also a wonderful way to help prepare for the PSAT, as the tests are very similar.
ACT or SAT?
Most colleges will accept either test since they want to attract students from across the U.S., and the popularity of these tests tends to be regional. The ACT is more commonly used in Kentucky. It has an English section (grammar and writing), a math section, a reading section, and a science section. There is an optional essay section which some colleges require, so check to see if your college choices require it. (The University of Kentucky does not.)
The SAT gives more time per question. So if you are a slower reader (like me), you may score higher on this test. The SAT has an English (grammar) section, a reading section, and two math sections–one with a calculator and one without. While it does not have a separate science section, it incorporates reading charts and graphs into other sections of the test. The SAT also has an optional essay. Again, check with the colleges you are interested in to see if you should take it.
The math sections on both of these exams goes up through PreCalculus; however, they limit the number of trigonometry and PreCalculus problems to maybe 4 or 5 on each exam. So most of the math problems come from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.
From my study of the ACT and SAT writing sections, I believe that they both follow the A Beka curriculum rules of grammar, which is very traditional. So there are many questions on comma use, verb tenses, pronoun use, etc. For those who have not had a thorough study of English grammar, you can learn it. You could pick up a ACT or SAT review book, an A Beka 11th grade grammar rules book, or a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
The ACT’s score ranges from 1 to 36. Many colleges want around a 22 for admission and have an average score of 25 or 26. The score needed for academic scholarships ranges from one college to another. The University of Kentucky requires a 31 for the first tier of academic scholarships and a 33 for the second tier. Check with your college of interest for their scores.
The PSAT and SAT score ranges up to 1600. Most Kentucky colleges will use a conversion chart to convert the SAT to an ACT score. However, to earn a National Merit Scholarship, look at the Selection Index number on the PSAT. Though it varies each year, the Selection Index will need to be around 217 to have a shot at National Merit for Kentucky.
Most Importantly–These Tests Can Be Studied For!
Because they are standardized, the December test must be equivalent to the April test. So the test-makers must draw from the same set of skills when they create the tests. You may have to take four or five tests to see all of those skills, as not every test will have a matrix problem. But every second or third test will. So if you take enough practice exams, you can learn the problem types and recognize how to solve them quicker. Some students accept this challenge and are handsomely rewarded with full-ride scholarships.
This means practice. Take same tests, score them yourself, and then go back and learn how to do the problems you got wrong (or just happened to guess right). Think of this as a part-time job or a class you are taking. You have to be self-motivated to make this happen, and most high school students are not even thinking about how to pay for college yet. But this process is much less painful than paying off student loans for the next 10+ years. It’s worth a shot, and having a higher score can only help you.
Test Prep Classes and Practice Exams
For ACT prep classes, I recommend the ACT Mom. Her class has 8 hours of instruction and 7 hour of homework. This class will teach strategies for solving ACT problems. The more familiar you are with the problem types, the easier they are to solve.
For the SAT and PSAT, I recommend College Prep Genius. My son attended this class twice, and Jean Burk motivated him and helped him start the path to earn his scholarship.
These classes are a wonderful jump start to learning the material, but nothing can take the place of practice. You must take practice tests and then go over the problems you missed if you want your score to improve. We learn from our mistakes, so see what mistakes you are making, and then figure out how not to make those again. This takes time and patience, but perseverance builds character, and character will bless you throughout your life.
Practice exams can be found in several places. You can buy a copy of The Official ACT Prep Guide from Amazon. The 2018-2019 edition has four practice tests with answer explanations. The ACT website also has an online study program which you can try. If you scroll to the bottom of this website, you will see some free resources. The “Preparing for the ACT” link contains a free ACT test. The “Question of the Day” and the “Practice for Each Subject” also are good for practice. You can also google for “ACT retired tests”, and you can find older tests that are still awesome for practicing. Here is one website that has five extra tests.
For the SAT and PSAT, Khan Academy now offers free help. They have 8 full length practice tests. They have tons of video lessons to explain whatever you are not understanding on the tests.
Finally, when you are studying for one standardized test, you are studying for them all. My son found that when he studied for the SAT with College Prep Genius, those same skills transferred over to the ACT. So study with the available SAT tests for the PSAT. If you run out of current edition tests, then you can study from the older versions of retired tests.
If you have other ideas of what can help with these tests, please leave comments for me.