January College Guy Rants for Juniors - What your PSAT scores mean - and what they don't mean

Hey there members of the Class of '16 (and their parents),
 
Greetings from Gary the College Guy!
 
Here's my first of what will be several rants during this and next school year for your elucidation - this one going out for you to groove on as you attain warp speed in this your junior year. As always I'll drop some 
suggestions, reminders, and some references to articles I think you'll find interesting. If you take the time to read these things I'll wager you'll be wiser and better prepared for the journey that lies ahead.
If my writings get you excited or intrigued about the college selection, application and financial aid (yes parents, I'll write about that as well) processes, that's good - that's my intention. If they make you angry and resentful and more aware that when it comes to selective college admissions, "The Emperor Has No Clothes", that's even better, cause that's my mission as well. When it comes to admissions at the 150 or so selective colleges (out of the 2,400 accredited United States four year Universities and Colleges), I'll wager that most everything you think you know....is wrong!
 
If you would like to email or phone me (see my signature way down below) with questions or comments or concerns I promise a speedy reply! There's no charge for email or phone conversations - talk is cheap!
 
If along the way you want to find out more about my services which people actually pay me for, well don't be bashful - go ahead and ask. 
 
One last thing before I get on to the topic of the PSAT. If you find these emails useful, I would appreciate it if you would forward them on to your friends and acquaintances whom you think might also want to read them. I try to make these things chock full of information and advice as well as fun to read, and they're the primary way (next to word of mouth) that I get the word out about my services.
 
Let's get going, shall we?
 
*****
 
LEARNING FROM THE PSAT, AND TAKING THE SAT THIS SPRING
 
All of you should have received your PSAT score reports from your guidance office by now, including information about accessing QUICKSTART, which is a free service brought to you by your friends at the College Board which will allow you to organize your college research, practice for the SAT and do all kinds of other good things. It's worth checking out. As for those scores, don't toss 'em away too hastily - they contain a lot of good information about how you're likely to do on the SAT, and can help a guidance counselor and/or an advisor like me suggest ways for you to best prepare.
 
So what about those scores? What do they represent? Not much, to tell you the truth. They don't count for anything unless you hit the PSAT out of the park (see below), in which case you may be a candidate for something called the National Merit Scholarship, which is a pretty big deal but which only a small percentage of your classmates will get. BUT...your scores do serve a very useful function. Read on. 
 
Ignore the percentages and look instead at the three two-digit 'raw' scores at the top in the bubbles: one for critical reading, one for math, and one for writing skills. Add a zero to each one (a 46 becomes a 460; a 58 is a 580; a 62 is a 620 - get it?). Add those three numbers up. SNAP - that's what you're likely to get on the SAT when you take it if you don't do any preparation between now and the spring.
 
So here's what you need to know. Each of the three sections is scored from a low of 200 (which you'd get if you turned in a blank answer sheet) to a high score of 800 (which you get with a perfect score or just one or two answers omitted or wrong). An average score per section is a 500 - so a 1500 overall score is average, which will do you just fine for all but around 130 extremely selective colleges. That means there are 2,270 colleges who will like your scores just fine if you can hit the average mark.
 
So whatever your scores are, you should plan on trying to raise them on the SAT, which is the one that counts in the admissions and financial aid game. Do this by undertaking some sort of preparation before the spring tests. Mainers will take the SAT on April 15th, and those of you who don't live in Vacationland should plan on taking it on May 2nd. I'll write more about this in a future rant - if you've got questions that can't wait give me a holler and I'll set you straight. 
 
How can you prepare? Three ways: use a tutor, take a course, or do the self-prep system I recommend.
 
Now I've got nothing against tutors and courses - there are good ones out there which are worth the money you'll pay (I'll be glad to make recommendations for the ones I like if anyone cares to ask me). However I think most folks can prepare on their own just as well, for the price of this book I suggest you get now:
 
http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/official-sat-study-guide
 
And no, I'm not a shill for the collegeboard - far from it in fact - but this is the book you want. If you've already purchased one from another company (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barrons) return it and get the big blue one from the Collegeboard. Cost you $21.95.
 
As I said I'll be writing shortly to give you my take on "how to prep for the SAT" - you need 8 weeks to do it so Mainers should plan to have the book and begin the week of February 16th (8 weeks before the April 15 date); and the rest of you non-Mainers should begin the week of March 9th (8 weeks before the May 2nd test date)
 
I'll not talk here about SAT subject tests and the ACTs, two additional tests which you may need to know about, but be assured that you'll get a future rant or two from me on those specific subjects. For now, the word on the SATs is "chill" - no sense getting all worked up earlier than you have to. I'll send you my self-prep system a bit later this month.
 
For the handful of you who scored extremely high on the PSATs: average 68 or higher on each of the three sections so that you have a composite score (AKA a 'selection index') of 205 or higher (that's a 2050 SAT score - Katy bar the door you're smokin'!) you may be in the running for National Merit Scholarship consideration. Congratulations - you're in the top 3% of test takers nationwide and at your school. Ask your guidance counselor or call me to find out what it all means.
 
Well no College Guy Rant on the SATs (or the ACT) would be complete without my telling you a single, eternal and unarguable truth about these tests:
 
THEY'RE TERRIBLE!!! 
 
Psychometrically speaking they lack both RELIABILITY (results do not replicate well when the same test is administered twice over a period of time) and VALIDITY (they don't accurately measure what they purport to measure: your readiness for college and likelihood for success once you get there). 
 
So why are they important, and (except for a few enlightened schools who have the guts to make them optional) so heavily used by most colleges to determine whom they admit and who gets the most money (make no mistake, the higher your test score, the more money you're likely to receive)?
 
Because the college admissions process at the selective schools is heavily flawed and subjective, and they need some sort of uniform measuring rod with which to compare qualified students. 
 
So the moral of the story is that the SAT (ditto on the ACT) is a bad test BUT it is a NECESSARY EVIL. 
 
As such I want you to take them seriously, but keep it mellow. By all means plan to 'play the testing game', and if you read my rants carefully you'll learn a lot about:
 
(a) how to raise your scores, whatever they are to begin with, and
 
(b) how to make your college applications cry out "PICK ME" effectively, even if your SAT scores are a bit on the lame side, and
 
(c) why there are hundreds of excellent colleges out there who don't give a rat's derriere about what your SAT scores are - your grades and course selection are far more important.
 
By the way, don't trust just me on all this. Check out what my man Robert Schaeffer from fairtest.org has to say about the validity and reliability of these fershlugginer tests:
 
http://fairtest.org/fact%20sheets/university
 
You can also find a list of the over 800 schools which don't require standardized tests at the Fairtest.org web site. Go ahead - use the 'sort by state' option and feast your eyes.
 
And when you're ready to start putting together a list of schools to meet your academic interests, your activity proclivities, and your budget, give me a shout out. I'm the College Guy!
 
'Nuff said on that subject.
 
SECOND SEMESTER CLASSES
 
As you approach the mid-year break, it's worth thinking about making sure your spring schedule is as full and as rigorous as you want it to be. Colleges are just as influenced by the degree of rigor in your schedule as they are by your grades - in some cases even more so - and this is not the time for slacking. If you're laughing your way to an A in a nonchallenging CP Math or Science or English class, guess what? The joke may be on you. Think about stepping it up a notch to the Honors level.
 
Can't find the right course to challenge you, or can't fit the one you want in to your schedule? Consider a semester course at a nearby college. Nothing's stopping you from doing that - most high schools will award credit and put it on your transcript, but even if yours won't, who cares? You're liable to get a great experience and there's no truer measure of your ability to do college work than to be successful in a college course. Which is to say, colleges you apply to next year will look kindly upon such an endeavor.
 
I should also add that if you're taking an onerous (good SAT word there - look it up!) schedule and getting your butt kicked in an AP or Honors level course and you're not seeing it getting any better, sometime the best thing to do is to drop down a notch to an easier level. The idea here is to challenge - not destroy - yourself. Only you can be the judge of where to draw the line, and when to ease off the throttle some.
 
That's enough for now, don't you agree? Best of luck to all, let me remind you to feel free to forward this email around to friends and relations whom you think would take the time to read it, and if you've got questions, concerns, or just wanna get some things off your chest about this stuff, give me a holler. That's why I'm here.
 
From your PSAT preceptor, your collegiate chaperone, your admissions Avatar, your garrulous guru...
 
Gary
 
P.S. Go Pats!
 
-- 
Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711 
www.collegeplacementservices.org
 
College Placement Services provides high school students and their families assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process.