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Should My Student Take SAT Subject Tests?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Come spring, standardized testing begins to take on even bigger proportions than usual.  Junior year is wrapping up, and some students are considering re-testing for the SAT or ACT for a second — or even third time.  AP exams are popping up everywhere on the student calendar, and there there are those SAT Subject Tests (until recently known as SAT IIs) to consider.   Of the all these college-related exams, which take precedence?  Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” standard in college admissions, it all depends…

What Are SAT Subject Tests?

Parents may recall that “back in the day,” strong students typically sat for academically-focused Achievement Tests designed to assess a student’s command of academic knowledge.  The College Board, owner and publisher of the SAT, years back retired the Achievement Tests and re-introduced these knowledge-based exams that are known today as SAT Subject Tests.

Similar to the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests are one-hour, multiple choice exams that are designed to test student knowledge and analytical skill in a variety of academic areas, including math, science, literature, history and foreign language.

The overall trend in recent years has seen many colleges shifting away from requiring the SAT Subject Tests.  Instead, colleges are focusing their application reviews on admissions factors that they consider to be more strongly indicative of student potential for college success, primarily high school course rigorgrades earned in these classes; and SAT and/or ACT scores.  As result, only about 35 colleges require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, while a number of others consider the results. Keep in mind, however, that even if a college’s overall policy is to not require Subject Tests, certain programs within the college, especially in STEM fields, may.

Why Should My Student Consider Taking SAT Subject Tests?

If few schools require these tests, why still plan to take them? For the student who wants to showcase a particular academic strength, preparing for and taking a Subject Test may provide an opportunity to highlight his application relative to others in the pool of applicants.  This approach is even more applicable if the student is unenrolled in AP level courses but still wishes to demonstrate depth of knowledge.

Homeschooled students often elect to take Subject Tests in order to demonstrate the strength of their chosen curriculum as well as provide additional data points to Admissions. One very academically-focused homeschooler I worked with years back had his eye on several highly selective colleges.  As he worked through his challenging, home-based course work, Subject Tests were never far in the background.

For students planning college work in a technical field, such as engineering or biomedical science for example, even if the college does not specifically require submission of Subject Tests, a strong Math II or science score may potentially help set the applicant apart from others coming in with similarly strong high school math and science curriculum and grades.

When Should My Student Take a Subject Test?

Once a student has completed the highest level subject area coursework she is likely to pursue in high school, then it is time to consider sitting for Subject Tests while the material is still feels fresh.  In contrast, if the student will be later learning essential material through a higher sequence course, then it is best to wait until the student has more fully acquired the material before approaching the exam.  Since high school class content is unlikely to fully encompass all that is covered in the Subject Test, students should take the time to review gaps in their knowledge and fill in accordingly.

TIP! The College Board offers FREE review material posted online.

For the sake of sanity, remember to keep the focus and make a great testing plan.  In other words, students cannot take SAT Subject Tests on the same day as the SAT (truly, that would require an inhumane number of hours in a testing center!)  There are only so many hours in high schooler’s day: Should time constraints come down to one testing choice or the other, it would probably be more important to focus on posting a solid SAT or ACT score rather than hyper-focusing on Subject Tests.


Note that the Subject Tests are scaled and “curved” by individual subject, meaning that score percentiles for Spanish vs. Math II vs. even the SAT itself are very different.  In the case of a disappointing score, a student may have the option to hold back scores through the College Board’s Score Choice option and not release them to colleges. Students, however, need to verify individual college's policies around use of Score Choice.

To Test or Not to Test

Deciding whether or not to prepare for Subject Tests should be based on several factors.   Students should consider their interest in the topic; command of the material as evidenced through class grades as well as a sample SAT Subject Test; and the time and motivation to study the material that may fall into the gap between what the high school class provides and what the test requires.

At many colleges, the ACT may (but not always) stand in as a single substitute for the SAT plus two Subject Tests - but it is essential to consult each college’s specific testing requirements.

Even if a student prefers to take the ACT instead of the SAT, he may still desire to showcase his subject knowledge by scoring high on a Subject Test.

A Final Word

I advise my students to have a go with Subject Test(s) if they have:

* a strong command of material in an academic area and 

* the time and energy necessary to shore up any missing subject knowledge such that prepping will not siphon away time from other important student commitments. 

Throughout the college process, when you have something worthwhile to share then don't hold back.  While it’s great to shoot for high Subject Test scores, these won’t trump doing one's best by posting strong SAT or ACT results and achieving good grades in solid courses.

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

Start Writing With This Good Advice

Monday, April 03, 2017

A good college essay can help you to favorably stand out in the applicant pool. When applying to selective schools, standing out in a positive light can make the difference between admission, deferral or deny.

No matter which essay prompt you choose, consider: “What do I want the college admissions office to know about me beyond my grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?”

Before sitting down to write, consider that you are not necessarily or literally answering a question. Instead, let the prompt guide the story you tell.

A college essay is actually closer to a personal statement and:

  • Features YOU as the subject; the topic is somewhat secondary.
  • Communicates a meaningful story that is focused, not overly broad.

    Examining one smaller feature/concept/event allows the writer to go into more depth.

  • Communicates what you learned from your experiences, not just what you accomplished.
  • May demonstrate elements of character
  • Sounds like you – an insightful high school student ready for college.

Consider These Helpful Tips:

  • Incorporate your values or what is important to you.
  • Communicate how you deal with challenges or set backs.
  • Provide insight into your personal growth or development.
  • Reflect on how you think or elements of your character.
  • Become a proxy for an interview. The essay should enable the reader to gain a sense of you almost as if you were in the room with them.
  • Be personal. You are in some way the subject of the essay, so it is totally appropriate to use the first person “I” — different from a high school 5-paragraph essay or research paper.

Caution: The essay should not be TOO personal! If there is anything that could be embarrassing to you or to the reader, then it’s TMI and should be left aside. Project your grandmother or uncle reading the essay. If they would be ok with what you are sharing, then your content likely is appropriate.

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

High School Junior Applying to College? Start the Ball Rolling Here

Thursday, March 02, 2017

All things come to those who wait, but when they come they’re out of date.” ~ Anonymous

Midyear grades have only just appeared. Super Bowl has only just faded to the rear view; Cupid has barely made his mid-winter mark; and March Madness is still weeks away.

High school juniors: No matter how you frame your winter calendar, now is the time to set your wheels in motion around several key components of the college application process.

Even if it feels like there is a lot of road left to travel during junior year, it’s not at all too early for students to work up a personal plan and:

Get out in front of and be realistic about college affordability.

Devote time and energy to educate themselves about colleges.

Acknowledge their learning and social needs and search out appropriate educational environments.

Take the time to reflect on a potential college major (with the understanding that one's choice may change).

Put thought into an appropriate standardized testing plan.

Think about reaching out to influencers who will further support their applications, including teacher, counselor or employer recommenders.

Bottom line: There are plenty of pieces to organize along the way as students aim to assemble solid college applications that connect their strengths, goals, needs and resources.

If students are looking for a starting line, now is the time to pull out the calendar and jump on these action steps:

  1. Register for standardized testing.
    Chances are that the student will be required to take either the SAT or the ACT as a condition of application to at least one of their intended colleges. Some students align with and focus exclusively on one of these exams, while others try out both to see which one best fits their testing style. At the very least, the SAT and ACT websites offer sampling of the style and variety of questions students may encounter on either test.

    Prepping in some way for the SAT or ACT is a smart decision that will depend on student motivation, time and other resources. Test prep assistance ranges broadly from free, web-based supports such as Khan Academy or Number2 to fee-based private services that offer individualized tutoring.

    Most students will aim to begin testing during the winter of junior year, if not sooner.

  2. Order the official test scores you want your colleges to receive.
    Although students have the option of including their standardized test scores on their applications, many colleges still require official score reports to be sent from the appropriate testing agency. Scores are not automatically sent to colleges unless the student requests their submission — and pays the required fee.

    Note, however, that students have the option to request free score reports for up to four colleges at the time of test registration. (Visit SAT or ACT websites for details.) A potential downside is that students who choose to submit scores in advance forego the option to review their results prior to submission.

    If students intend to submit official score reports to colleges, they need to order these well before application deadlines since forwarding of scores from the testing companies is not instantaneous.

  3. Schedule campus visits.
    It takes more than a little planning to organize family calendars in order to make campus visits a priority. With busy weekends full of homework, projects, athletic and family obligations, campus visits may easily slide onto the back burner. Before you can say "summer’s here,” senior year has already arrived with its own set of priorities that may tighten up student schedules even more. Besides, it’s best to visit schools during the normal ebb and flow of the academic year rather than during summer break when there are typically few students in attendance.

    Prospective applicants need to view campus life in action, in part, to determine a good college fit.

  4. Ask teachers for college recommendations... 
    ...and thank them! Writing a thoughtful college rec requires precious time and focus to reflect on and express who you are as a student as well as a member of your school community. Asking early, before the end of junior year rather than up against a last-minute deadline, demonstrates maturity as well as a proper appreciation of the writer’s time and effort. It is courteous to make recommendation requests in person, whenever possible. One may follow up or thank a recommender in person, via email or — as an even more personal gesture — through a handwritten note.

  5. Start making summer plans.
    Work, play, travel, research, write, think, volunteer, create, study, learn, experiment. The list can go on and on, but it's your summer so plan on making it a good one.

  6. Consider fin aid options and...
    Apply for financial aid well before deadlines.

    Exploring the net price calculators published by individual colleges can give families a head start in estimating need-based aid at those institutions. NPCs vary by college, but exploring these can provide insight on financing estimates for incoming freshmen.

    Financial aid timelines — and deadlines — have been recently pushed to earlier in the admissions cycle. Families can now submit completed tax returns according to what is known as the Prior-Prior Year schedule, pointing to the family financial scenario two years prior to the student’s year of college matriculation. Still, there is more to consider in this earlier timeframe: Students applying for financial aid via the FAFSA and possibly the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE will note that these applications are now available for completion beginning October of the senior year.

    The primary intention behind establishing earlier timelines is to allow colleges to better expedite financial aid application reviews and award decisions, thereby allowing students and parents more time to evaluate and respond to aid offers. In reality, aid funds are finite therefore remember to monitor deadlines so you can be the early bird — and much more likely to catch the worm.

    Juniors and soon-to-be rising seniors: Embrace the fundamental steps of the college process. Becoming organized now avoids a longer to-do list later on!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

Have a Positive, Relaxing Admissions Interview that Works to Your Advantage

Thursday, February 02, 2017

College interviews can provide the opportunity to add extra dimension to your application. If the whole prospect of a face-to-face meeting gives you the jitters, you can relax! In contrast to many an applicant’s worst fears, the interviewer is unlikely to try to trip you up or ask you questions out of left field. Instead, the interviewer’s main purpose is to learn more about you than the story revealed through grades, recommendations, test scores and essays. Give yourself the advantage: Prepare your thoughts ahead of time, and bring along enthusiasm as well as an active curiosity about the school you are applying to.

The following tips are sure to help set an applicant off on the right foot:

When possible, interview with your “likely” schools first in order to buff up your comfort level before meeting with target or stretch choices.

Dress for success, which means arrive neatly dressed and comfortable. No need for suit and tie or pearls, but avoid sloppy tee shirts, jeans and flip flops.

Be punctual. Arrive early to campus to leave sufficient time for parking and locating the assigned building. Time for a short walk around campus before your meeting can help to relax you. If you have a phone or Skype meeting, call in at the exact appointed time. If phoning, do so via a landline for the best sound quality and make sure there is no distracting background noise.

Learn your interviewer’s name and become familiar with it. At in-person meetings, ask for a business card and refer to it when you write the follow-up “thank you” note. Be sure to express your appreciation for the interviewer’s time as well as your enthusiasm for the school.

Express why the school is attractive for you. Be able to do the same with regard to the program of studies you are applying to, tying into your involvements and accomplishments in high school. Bringing along a resume may be helpful but is usually unnecessary.

Provide a picture of how the school would benefit by having you as a citizen of the community. Schools are interested in attracting a class of students who will enhance one another’s experience, so come ready to talk about your interests and involvements to paint a picture of how you may add to academic and campus life.

Be honest about your strengths as well as areas of challenge. What inspires you? What excites you? What do you need to succeed? If someone were to ask you how you have dealt with your challenges, what would you say?

Prepare a few questions covering things you want to know about the school or program, but always ask beyond the basics covered in the school viewbook or website.

Familiarize yourself a bit about extracurricular offerings on or off campus and be able to talk about these.

Be ready to talk about yourself through the eyes of others. What would your teachers say about you? What about your friends or parents?

Don’t expect any interview, whether one-on-one or a group format, to be a passive experience. Come ready to express yourself and ask questions! The goal of a successful college interview, like the goal of a good education, is all about sharing and learning.

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and application process. She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

The Role of Demonstrated Interest

Monday, January 02, 2017

During the college process, sometimes showing a little love can go a long way.

Colleges and universities care greatly about their yield rate, that is, the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission and join the freshman class. As a result, schools aim to welcome engaged applicants who appear predisposed to accept a potential offer of admission. Consider this: If you were throwing a party and had room for a limited number of guests, wouldn't it make good sense to invite those who would enthusiastically respond with, "Yes, I'll be there!" Would you invest time asking those who would likely put you off with, "Um, I''ll have to check…” or who have long seemed lukewarm about hanging out with you?

How schools gauge interest will depend on each institution's priorities. For super-selective schools, such as Ivies and the like, or public colleges that rely mostly on an applicant’s statistics, demonstrated enthusiasm on its own is not going to propel one very far. For many schools, however, demonstrating interest matters and simply starts with “showing up.”

Have you taken the time to contact the Admissions Office with questions to voice curiosity about the school? How about a campus tour? For colleges that value this expression of interest, visiting is an important demonstration of an applicant's intention to grasp more about the school and potentially enroll. If an applicant lives within a 3-4 hour drive, the college may expect the student to head on over for a look.

Not everyone, however, has the time and funds to trek out to distant college campuses. Costs for transportation, hotels, and meals add up quickly, and admissions offices understand this. If a campus visit is not realistic, there are other ways to reach out to a school to let them know that they are on your radar.

Try emailing or phoning the admissions office to request that pertinent information be forwarded to you – or ask where to locate it on the school website. Find out if college representatives will be attending college fairs close to where you live. Admissions reps commonly field student questions about majors and requirements; interviewing possibilities; high school visits; merit award potential. Because campus extracurricular life is central to a vibrant college experience, specific questions about activities; ways to become involved; or research prospects are also welcome questions for admissions representatives.

At the very least, simply find your spot on the school mailing list. If a college contacts you with information or inquires about what matters to you in your education, do respond and investigate further.

Taking the time to express sincere interest in a school and how it’s offerings fit your goals can end up supporting your best interest!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

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