With a new semester under way at Arkansas high schools, counseling offices are abuzz with high school seniors finalizing college admissions applications and scholarship essays. While seniors are transitioning from the active part of their college search to playing the waiting game as universities and scholarship committees make their decisions, it’s a great time for high school juniors to begin preparation for an important year ahead.
Last October, high school juniors across the country took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. In January, students received their scores from the exam as well as detailed information on how they fared across reading, writing and mathematics competencies. After years of sitting for various standardized exams, the PSAT may have simply been another in a long line of tests for students.
The PSAT plays an important role in students’ college prep while also acting as a gateway for major scholarship opportunities.
The exam serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, one of the most prestigious scholarship competitions for the nation’s top students. With an updated test format and scoring system that more closely mirrors the SAT, the exam provides students with an opportunity to gauge their strengths. While National Merit Semifinalists for the Class of 2017 won’t be announced until September, students with an NMSQT Index Score of greater than 210 are well-positioned for recognition based on early data from The College Board, the organization that oversees the PSAT, SAT, Advancement Placement and other exams.
If the PSAT came and went with little notice for your student, Arkansas juniors will have a second opportunity in March to assess their college readiness. For the past several years, many Arkansas schools have participated in the Voluntary Universal ACT. The program allows districts to choose to administer a special version of the ACT late in the junior year. The test can be used as an official score for college applications and scholarships, unlike residual ACT exams that are offered at times on college campuses. The results provide students with the chance to see if they are currently meeting benchmarks that indicate a readiness for college-level learning. For those who do not, it is an opportunity to select courses for their senior year that will prevent the need for remedial coursework once they enter college.
Beginning in 2016, all Arkansas high school juniors will take the ACT through support from the state. Unlike the regular test dates, schools will play an active role in the registration process for the tests, and the test will be administered on a weekday in the first half of March. The test date for a school will depend on if the institution is offering a paper or computer-based version of the exam.
Though there are hundreds of books, weekend seminars and for-profit companies engaged in assisting students’ preparation for the ACT and SAT, two strategies that play a critical role in helping students see improvement in their scores are fairly straightforward and can be accomplished without substantial investment other than a student’s time:
- Format familiarity simply refers to knowing the structure, time format and types of questions students will encounter on the test. It’s surprising the number of students — even exceptionally talented students — who take the PSAT, PLAN, ACT or SAT “cold” for the first time, with little understanding of what’s in front of them. Knowing the type of questions a student will encounter and the frequency with which these questions will pop up is an important first step.
- Second, time management and pacing are important in each section. With text and data-heavy passages in the Reading and Science sections, a “skim and scan” approach can help students gain a general understanding of the passages, reference the questions to look for relevant points, and then more closely review the passages in order to answer the questions. A general rule of thumb for the math section offers students one minute per question. As students prepare, setting a goal to finish a few minutes ahead of schedule can provide additional time for review or will at least offset any change of pace that comes with stress during the actual exam.
Finally, it’s important to remember there is no penalty for making a guess in order to answer an ACT question. (By contrast, students are penalized for incorrect answers on the SAT.) Eliminate as many answers as you can. If you’re stuck, hazard your best guess and move along. While it can be frustrating to feel so close to knowing your answer is right, those extra minutes may be needed elsewhere in the section.
The Arkansas Department of Education offers some useful resources on their website to assist with test prep. The @ACTStudent Twitter account provides daily tips and insights for students on the test. Juniors should also visit with their high school counselor or academic adviser to learn more about any preparatory services their school offers to help get juniors ready for the exam.
Tests like the ACT are an important gateway in the college admissions process. Simply knowing the critical role the test score can play and giving one’s best effort on this free opportunity to take the ACT is critical in best positioning students for what’s on the horizon in the next step of their learning. Six weeks may not seems like a lot of time, but with some effort and intentionality, it might very well pay off not only over the next several months of your junior and senior year but also your four years of college ahead.