Though top schools have become more competitive, kids tend to be better able to grapple with these processes and pressures than most of us were when we applied to college. Little has changed about the process: testing in the junior year, applications in the senior year. Along the way, standardized testing has generally increased in importance. Since that’s my area of expertise, let me fill you in on how it affects kids eyeing four-year colleges.

SAT and SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II)

The SAT Subject Tests are important for admissions committees at the most competitive colleges (typically the “top 100” scrutinize SAT Subject Test scores). These were once known as “Achievement Tests” and mattered only for advanced placement purposes. Now the more competitive four-year colleges use SAT II scores for ADMISSIONS purposes. Many schools desire three strong scores, others just two. Some colleges insist on certain ones being included among them, typically the Math, and if you are bound for an engineering school, one of the sciences. Ivy League schools use the SAT Subject Tests as part of their “Academic Index” for athletes, a base evaluation that includes GPA, SAT I, and SAT subject tests about equally.

The good news is that the same work that results in good SCHOOL grades tends to result in strong Subject Test scores. These are knowledge-based tests, similar to most school finals. Thus SAT Subject Test mastery can coincide with a strong report card, with only a little extra prep. We suggest 4 to 8 hours with a tutor per subject. A student who feels s/he NEEDS more than 12 tutoring hours on an SAT Subject Test should not be taking the test in that subject.

It is the SAT that demands extensive prep. The SAT tests skills as well as knowledge, and many of these skills are not taught in high school. Even good high school math teachers rarely combine Algebra and Geometry the way a single SAT question might. Even good English teachers rarely invoke the kind of detailed reading comprehension skills the SAT demands. And hardly any high school curriculum teaches “reasoning”, which has crept into the SAT more and more over the last 15 years.

As important as the SAT is, few high schools incorporate SAT study in their curricula. To many teachers, “teaching to the test” is mildly repulsive. It’s too bad – many parents would prefer their schools devote a few hours to targeting the SAT than to reading yet ANOTHER novel or doing MORE personal reflections. Parents whose kids are in stodgy schools thus look elsewhere for help that directly targets college-bound kids. Organizations like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Ivy Bound exist and succeed in helping students because they exclusively target the tests.

In one-on-one tutorials where the instructor comes to the home, or in classes, students join us after school or on weekends to make sure they maximize their skills and test-taking abilities. Along the way, many parents tell me that the process of targeted test prep has helped their children with their overall academic test-taking, study skills, and time management. Though none of these is a direct goal of an Ivy Bound tutorial, I am happy to see they are worthy byproducts.

SAT Subject Tests and APs

AP stands for “Advanced Placement”. These tests are given once a year, in May, in various subjects. Scored on a 1 – 5 scale, the APs are used by colleges to determine whether a student’s high school achievement merits her starting in “Spanish 2” or “Advanced Chemistry” for example. Rarely do AP scores influence college admissions committees. Exceptions include students from high schools where the curriculum is lax, taking AP courses and earning As, but only getting 1s and 2s on the AP tests. On the other hand, a 5 on the AP might corroborate a student whose application showed a “C” in the subject, but a note that “the teacher hated me because I was mean to his daughter”.

APs have largely replaced SAT Subject Tests as guides for advanced placement. Thus the Subject Tests have become important PRE-admission, and APs can be important for POST-admission.


The ACT is a competitor test to the SAT. Colleges view the ACT as an equally valid standardized test and ALL colleges accept either test score. The ACT tests a broader range of subject matter than the SAT: in addition to math and verbal skills similar to those on the SAT, the ACT has trigonometry and a “Science Reasoning” section testing data interpretation. The ACT’s breadth makes it a more difficult test to study for. The exception is students with a weak vocabulary, as vocabulary is extensively tested in the Sentence Completion sections of the SAT, sections that do not appear on the ACT.

Other significant differences between tests include:

  • ACT tests trigonometry; SAT does not.
  • ACT math questions are more straightforward; SAT math requires very careful attention to the ENGLISH aspect of math questions
  • ACT is on a 1 – 36 scale; SAT has a 600 – 2400 scale, including many more gradations.

Our general advice is to target SAT study exclusively. Since SAT is more “coachable” than the ACT, we suggest ACT study only if a student has done thorough SAT study but still has scores well below his or her goals.


What’s the difference between the PSAT and the SAT? First, every SAT I is seen by the colleges. The PSAT is not seen by colleges. Unless you get a tremendous score (top 2%), the PSAT is meaningless. The top 2% in each state qualify for National Merit recognition. While that’s nice for self-esteem, colleges are not impressed if that recognition is not followed up with an equally strong (or close) SAT score. Second, the format differs. The PSAT is shorter and does not require an essay. Its “writing” section os error recognition and grammar. Third, the scoring differs, though not significantly. PSAT gives two-digit scores from 20 – 80 and SAT gives three digit scores from 200 – 800. For National Merit recognition, a strong PSAT verbal ability is doubly rewarded, as the formula is Math + Verbal + Writing. Again, “Writing” should be called “Error Recognition” or “Grammar”; it is a 30 minute multiple choice section that comes at the end. It is NOT a handwritten entry (your child didn’t miss something).

There is no discernible difference in level of difficulty between PSAT and SAT. However counselors find that SAT scores move towards the median for Reading – i.e. high PSAT scorers usually fall on their SAT (unless they prep); low PSAT scorers usually rise on their SAT. Since the SAT tests the same level of reading and the same type of vocabulary as the PSAT, we surmise that this “norming” owes to the SAT being a longer test. Longer questions rein in extremes. For Math, the PSAT is meant to be easier. The test makers exclude some “third year” math that will show up on the SAT. Also, the PSAT does not have “stopper” questions. The hard questions on the PSAT Math come at the end, whereas very hard SAT math questions can come in the middle of a section. Students who struggle a long time with a single question are then pressed for time on the rest of the section, often leading to careless errors or incomplete sections.

Since the PSAT is not the best indicator of SAT performance, we have an antidote for parents interested in seeing their child’s likely SAT prowess early on. Buy “The Official SAT Study Guide” from Barnes & Noble. Have your child take any of these tests. (If taking the Ivy Bound course, use any of the first 3 or last 3 tests, as our students will get this book at Lesson 1 and we reserve 4 or 5 tests for true practice testing.). Though 30 minutes shorter, these tests contain the same questions that appeared on the actual SAT for those dates. They can be scored at home on the same 200 – 800 scales. That will allow you get a realistic snapshot of how s/he would do on the test.

I say “snapshot” because by no means are SAT scores set in stone. The SAT measures knowledge and skills. Both can be coached. To the extent the SAT may measure intelligence (I’m agnostic on that issue), it’s an intelligence that can be improved upon. It’s not “randomness” that leads so many of our students to raise their scores 200 points or more.

Better: take the SAT in the sophomore year in addition to (or if the school permits, instead of) the PSAT. That gives a truer snapshot.

Who should prep, and when?

SAT prep is not for everybody. Kids bound for junior college do not need the SAT at all. Kids who expect to attend four-year college but who show little interest in doing anything beyond their class assignments will get something out of a course, but they may be better served by waiting until summer before senior year. Kids who are willing to do the extra work for a 2 – 5 month period should find significant improvements. The majority of Ivy Bound’s students improve over 150 points, and enough make 250 point improvements for us to say that diligent SAT prep is well worthwhile. Considering the number of merit scholarships available, where crossing a certain threshold earns the student $5,000 – $15,000 PER YEAR, it is sensible for the serious student to devote 2 – 5 months to a potentially life-changing test.

Such students should consider doing the prep early. The SAT is offered seven times a year, so there is always a “target” date that they can look to. Even if their school is not giving the test, a neighboring school will be available in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December. We at Ivy Bound stay with the students throughout their Junior year: if they prep for the January exam, we’ll send emails throughout the winter and spring to reinforce reading and math skills. For any test date, Ivy Bound students are invited to “attend” the statewide conference calls we hold the Sunday prior to each SAT just as a final tune-up.