If you have a high school student, it is time to start thinking about college entrance exams: the SAT and ACT, or the CLT. My goal is to provide you with basic information about the tests to get you started. There is so much available online that I recommend you and your student invest plenty of time researching the free information. Your child’s high school transcript together with the college entrance exam scores determine their college admittance and scholarship awards. Therefore understanding when to take the tests and what kind of scores colleges are looking for is very important.
SAT or ACT
Are you wondering whether your child should take the SAT or ACT? Either test is a good choice. I used to think there were regional differences in which test schools preferred but that is not true. All schools will accept either test score for admission, and no schools require both. The costs of the tests are similar, right around $50.
You may hear that some students will naturally do better on one test over the other based on their strengths. Possibly. After researching online I found a number of different opinions. We had our college-age children take both the SAT and ACT and their scores were comparable, so we chose the test with convenient testing locations. Have your child try both if you think they might do better on one than the other.
In the end, you can pick either the SAT or ACT. But you should pick one as your child’s focus, and have them invest time studying specifically for that test.
SAT and ACT and the Common Core
Both the SAT and ACT content are guided by common core. Here’s an interesting article on How is the Common Core Affecting the SAT/ACT. (This is a site offering paid tutoring services. I am NOT an affiliate, and I am not recommending them.) In my opinion, your well-educated student should be able to earn a high score even if you haven’t used Common Core aligned curriculum. If you feel that’s a big deal, have your child take the new Classic Learning Test or CLT (see below).
When should my child take the SAT and ACT?
Most high school students first take the SAT and ACT in the Spring of their junior year. By that point, your child should have had all the classes they need for the test.
Then your child will be able to take the test three times: spring of junior year, fall of senior year, and spring of senior year (if they need another shot at it). They can use the summer between junior and senior year to intensively study and hopefully in the fall of senior year they’ll earn a score they’re happy with. Some schools are awarding scholarships by January or February of your child’s senior year, so try to be done before then if you’re competing for those.
Retaking the SAT and ACT
Plan on having your child take the SAT and ACT a couple of times. Often a student’s test score will go up if they take the test again. Our son took the tests three times and didn’t want to put in any more work to improve again. Since he was already receiving the highest amount of academic aid at the school he had chosen, I didn’t push it. Our daughter took the ACT twice and got the exact same score. She was putting a lot of pressure on herself. She had done very well, so we called it good enough. We knew a homeschooler who took the ACT, got a 32 his first time, and was satisfied with that score. He never took it again.
Of course, maybe your child is trying to raise their score high enough to be admitted to college. Have them study and take it until they earn that minimum score.
But here’s an important point: the test score will only go up if your child actually studies. If they refuse to put in the study time, you’re just wasting your money.
Know your child, understand the test scores, and talk to the colleges you’re considering about levels of academic aid. Then make an individual decision about how many times to have your child re-take the test.
What’s a good SAT or ACT score?
In this section, I am only going to use ACT scores, for simplicity’s sake. ACT scores are smaller numbers – easy to understand. To compare them to SAT scores use the 2018 SAT/ACT Concordance on the College Board site, or try this easy to use concordance widget.
The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. According to act.org the average score in 2018 was 20.9. Of course, that doesn’t really tell you very much. The real question is: what kind of scores are colleges looking for?
The answer is a little different for each school. Ivy League schools are looking for perfect scores. When I tell you a minimum score for admittance is 18 there is no way on earth your child is going to an Ivy League school with that score. But an 18 might get them into the local state school.
The numbers will vary at each school. Do an internet search of “school name minimum act score” to find out what each school requires. I recommend you look at several schools.
A very basic score breakdown
Basically, here’s what to expect:
- 17 or under – your child will struggle to get admitted to a college. Study and retake the test.
- 18-20 – your child may be admitted but could be required to take remedial classes that do NOT count toward graduation. That’s extra credit hours you will have to pay for. I would have my child study and try to raise that score.
- 21-26 – this is the level at which students start receiving academic scholarships. Not big scholarships, only two to four thousand dollars.
- 27-30 – mid-range academic scholarships available
- 28 – 36 – the highest level of academic awards. Some schools will award the scholarships outright. Others may have a competitive weekend of essays, interviews, or small group discussions. In that instance, every student is guaranteed a minimum award. The student with the highest test score may not receive the full ride scholarship.
I have seen schools with six levels of academic awards and schools with three levels. Once again, check the school’s website or talk to an admissions counselor. Every school sets its own numbers.
Also, there are schools that award aid based entirely on need, determined by your family income. They offer financial aid not academic scholarships. These are often Ivy League schools. All your child has to do is get in. Of course even with free tuition the cost – spiritually – may be too high.
Whether or not your child takes the PSAT is entirely up to you. A PSAT score is not necessary for college admission. However, there are two good reasons you should consider signing your child up for the PSAT.
First, it’s excellent practice at a low price. The PSAT is administered at high schools in October every year and costs under $20. For less than half the price you can get a good gauge of how well your student will perform on the SAT and ACT. Going into a school and testing with a room full of strangers is, in and of itself, good practice before the real thing.
Second, National Merit Scholars are selected based on PSAT scores. It’s important to understand there are two levels of awards within the National Merit program. If your child qualifies to be a state finalist they are awarded a $2500 scholarship. National Merit Scholars are chosen from among the finalists and they may receive full ride scholarships. But even as a finalist, in addition to the $2500 award, your student will be offered hefty financial packages from schools competing for the top kids coming out of high school. So if you think you have a serious scholar on your hands, it’s worth a shot. The PSAT taken during the fall of the junior year is the only score that counts toward the National Merit Program.
SAT and Khan Academy
Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to provide free practice for the SAT. You can link your college board account to Khan Academy to have your PSAT score sent directly to Khan Academy. The website will then customize a study plan based on the areas your child needs additional practice. There are also free online practice tests there. Since Khan Academy is free this is a great resource to take advantage of. By doing a little additional online research, you can use Khan Academy’s SAT prep to help you study for the ACT. Or use ACT Academy, which is their attempt to keep up with the SAT and Khan Academy.
Study like it’s your job
The summer is the perfect time to fit in hours of test prep. Talk to your child about studying for the test like it is a job. Maybe your child’s score will qualify them for a $2000 scholarship. Remember, that’s not just $2000. That’s $2000 a year for four years – $8000. Now imagine that by studying a little harder your child could bump up into the $4000 scholarship range, and multiply by four. That’s a pretty good summer job for a high school student.
Keep these numbers in mind when you are deciding what to spend on test prep. We have never spent more than the cost of a study guide on Amazon. But you may want to spend more on test prep if your child is right on the borderline for a scholarship or applying to highly competitive school.
CLT and CLT10
The CLT (Classic Learning Test) is the newest college entrance exam. The CLT was introduced in 2015, and is growing in popularity and acceptance. Here’s an article about it in National Review. I honestly don’t know a lot about it, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Because the CLT is new there are few colleges that accept it as a college entrance exam. Check to see if the college you are considering accepts the score before you spend money on the test.
- Testing locations are limited. Your child can take the CLT10 online at home, but must take the CLT at a test site. And you may have to bring your own laptop.
- Study materials are only available through the CLT test site. The $45 you’ll pay for a guide is a little more than what you’ll pay for SAT/ACT study guides on Amazon.
- The CLT10 is comparable to the PSAT. There are some scholarships available based on scores.
My hesitation regarding the CLT
The CLT is not a test specifically for homeschool students. It is a test for classically educated and homeschool students. Their website states the “C” stands for classic not classical. But my big question is, does the CLT give classically educated students an advantage? On the FAQ page they state, “Any student raised with a perspective on ethics would be familiar with the concepts presented on the exam.” I don’t know about you, but that’s not very clear to me. I hope that the CLT will statistically track how well homeschooled students who were NOT classically educated perform compared to classically educated students, and make that information public.
We are not “classical educators.” Next fall, when my daughter takes the ACT and CLT (if we have a test site available), I can compare her scores, and we’ll see how she does on one versus the other. If your child took both the SAT/ACT and CLT, please leave a comment and let me know if the scores are comparable (and whether or not you classically educate). I’d love to hear what you think!
The CLT is a mixed bag. On one hand, I am excited somebody has come up with an alternative to the SAT and ACT. I hope the CLT continues to gain traction. On the other hand, the test still has a long way to go before it is a good choice for all homeschool students. And I would not want to support a test designed to give an advantage to classically educated students.
Don’t stress about college entrance exams
Focus on giving your high school students an excellent home education, then there is no need to stress about the SAT and ACT. Students should study before the exam to learn tips, testing strategies, and get used to the types of questions being asked. But do not be afraid. An excellent home education prepares students to study well and test well.
Do your research, choose a test, help your child figure out how to study, then give them lots of encouragement to try their hardest.