When should my student take his/her first ACT (or SAT)?

Determining when to take a first ACT (or SAT) will likely depend on two key factors: scheduling and preparing.  Because many students prep for the test during the summer before their junior year, I typically recommend that those students take their first ACT in September or October of junior year.  The reason for that is simple: test prep has a shelf life, and so if a student is to invest his or her time and energy to do some prep, and if a parent is to make the investment to support the student, then the student should put that prep to work and take the September or October test.

The goal of summer prep is to give the student a thorough introduction to the ACT (or SAT) and to give them plenty of practice dealing with the frequently tested concepts, critical test-taking techniques and time management strategies essential to success.  By taking advantage of Breakaway’s weekend practice tests, students and parents can measure the progress a student makes and get very accurate indications of how the student will score on a real ACT.  By the end of the summer, having completed a rigorous program of prep, the student should be in a much stronger position to take his or her first test and realize an improvement over their initial practice test score.

Scores from the ACT (and SAT) are delivered amazingly quickly these days.  For example, students who took the June 10th ACT just a couple of weeks ago, have already begun to receive their scores just 10 days later.  Thus, students who take the September 9 ACT will likely be in receipt of their scores 10-14 days after completing the exam.  A good next step in the process would be to circle back with one of Breakaway’s directors or with me to discuss the student’s results, the improvement that he or she realized, and to prepare a plan, as needed, for subsequent testing throughout the student’s junior year.

Please note that the ACT will debut a summer test date in 2018.  For the first time, students will be able to take an ACT in July, which is something students and parents have clamored for over the years.  The SAT is debuting a summer test in August of this year.

Also, please note that all Minnesota public high schools now require their students to complete a real ACT test, typically either at the end of February (Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools) or in the middle of April (suburban high schools).  As such, if your student attends a public high school, he or she will take the test again on one of those dates.

Here are a few helpful hints about when to test and how to prepare for the ACT (or SAT):

  • Your student will have lots of options to prepare for the tests: books, classes, tutoring, or various online programs
  • Like with any test, we believe that preparation helps.  If you and your student plan to do preparation, you should consider the student’s schedule (athletics or extracurriculars during the school year; an intense academic load during the all-important junior year; flexibility and availability during the summer) and plan accordingly
  • Always start with a practice test.  Breakaway offers practice tests nearly every weekend of the year, and your student is welcome to attend any of them.
  • Think twice about sending your student into a real ACT cold, i.e., without preparation.  You probably wouldn’t send your student into a Calculus test cold, so why should you with a high-stakes test like the ACT?  Know that a practice test with Breakaway will give you the same information and subject your student to the same testing conditions as a real ACT, but the scores are only reported to you and your student.
  • It is important that the student be ready to commit to the work that needs to be done.  A prep program with Breakaway is intensive and rigorous because the ACT (and SAT) is a college-level, challenging exam.  A typical program of private instruction during the summer is 6-8 weeks long, and we typically assign two hours of homework per lesson.  We also recommend monthly practice tests while prepping with us.  All in, the commitment a student needs to make when doing private instruction is between 50-60 hours of work.
  • Over the course of junior year and early senior year, most students will take the test three times.  I always recommend that when a student does summer prep, that he or she takes one of the fall tests.  Once results come back, we can discuss if and when additional testing is necessary.  Taking a late winter (February) or spring (April or June) ACT along with the September ACT in the student’s senior year is a typical testing path.
  • When planning to do a second (or third) ACT, it is important to prepare for that exam as well.  While a student can record an improvement by simply taking the test again, it is far more likely that with some additional, focused prep and a practice test or two, a student can be in a strong position to drive another improvement.
  • That said, every student is unique, and what works for one student may not for another.
  • Though summer is a popular time to prep, most students will and should do some work during the school year to prepare for subsequent administrations of their test.
  • As a family, you should discuss the tests, the timing of the tests and how to prepare.  You should also include your college counselor to get their input on the timing and frequency of testing.
  • This is a highly individualized process, and each student will have a different path forward.

To learn more about ACT vs. SAT for your student, please click here.

How a good ACT score can help your student secure a merit award and other insights into the college application process

Over the past few weeks, I have had the good fortune of attending several college planning seminars, including a terrific one that Breakaway hosted two weeks ago with Julie Ekkers.  As the parent of a current high school junior and a college freshman, I have taken in the information as eagerly as the fellow parents in attendance.  All of us are trying to identify ways of helping our students not only gain admission to a college that is a good fit, but also to make college as affordable as possible.

As we approach the summer, with many rising juniors and seniors anticipating the fall tests, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on how a good test score can not only improve your chances of getting into a great college, but also help significantly drive down the cost.

As you may know, aside from purely need-based financial aid, many colleges award scholarships based on merit.  Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on academic achievement, which is often closely tied to GPA and ACT scores.  At this time with most of our students – rising juniors and seniors – while one’s GPA can be difficult to improve within a short time frame, one’s ACT score can certainly be improved in the short term.  Because many colleges use ACT scores as a driver for identifying scholarship recipients, ACT (or SAT) prep can be an effective component of a strategy to pursue merit scholarships.

To be clear, many of the nation’s most selective schools only award aid to students who they believe can’t afford tuition, since they say that all of their students are exemplary.  However, many outstanding colleges and universities do award merit scholarships, and many extend such scholarships to a surprising percentage of their students. Below, you can find a list of 24 well-known colleges and universities that extend merit awards to at least 30% of their student body.

Anecdotally, over the years, I have heard from a number of parents that their students’ test scores really mattered not only in terms of admission to a particular college, but also in terms of securing merit scholarships.  For example, one student we worked with came to us with a 26.  The student completed 10 lessons with us and moved his score to a 30.  The four-point difference in his score earned him a $20,000 merit scholarship at the University of St. Thomas, about a 17-fold return on their investment in prep.  Another parent told me that his daughter earned a merit scholarship to Colorado College, based in large part on her five-point improvement to a 33 on her ACT.  He believed the return on his test prep investment was 20-fold.  While every student and his or her situation is unique, you can see that improvements in test scores can yield handsome returns on an investment in test prep.

Below are some examples of colleges and universities that offer merit awards and the percentage of students at the college receiving non-need based aid:

  1. Cooper Union, NY, 59%
  2. Olin College of Engineering, MA, 55%
  3. Rhodes College, TN, 53%
  4. Trinity University, TX, 51%
  5. University of Puget Sound, WA, 48%
  6. Denison University, OH, 45%
  7. DePauw University, IN, 42%
  8. Gonzaga University, WA, 42%
  9. University of Miami, FL, 42%
  10. Furman University, SC, 41%
  11. College of Wooster, OH, 40%
  12. Marquette University, WI, 40%
  13. University of Denver, CO, 39%
  14. Creighton University, NE, 37%
  15. Oberlin College, OH, 37%
  16. Lawrence University, WI, 36%
  17. Tulane University, LA, 36%
  18. SMU, TX, 35%
  19. Drake University, IA, 34%
  20. Iowa State University, IA, 33%
  21. St. Louis University, MO, 33%
  22. Butler University, IN, 31%
  23. University of Vermont, VT, 31%
  24. Whitman College, WA, 30%

As you can see, there are some pretty impressive colleges on that list, with a sizable share of each student body enjoying access to non need-based scholarships.

Here are a few more insights into the process of pursuing merit scholarships:

  1. Spending time finding the right college, particularly colleges that offer merit awards, is likely (much) more beneficial than spending time applying for scholarships.  The colleges themselves typically offer about 35% of the money available for students.
  2. Not all colleges offer merit scholarships.  In order to qualify for merit scholarships, you need to make sure that the schools to which your student is applying offer merit aid.
  3. Your student’s candidacy for merit aid can depend greatly on his/her grades and test scores being in the top 25%-33% of the incoming class.  While GPA is not that maneuverable in the short term, ACT scores are.  One to two more points on the ACT can mean thousands of extra dollars in scholarships.  A modest investment in test prep can lead to scholarships that are 10-20 times the cost of test prep.
  4. Living out of state can actually help you save money.  Many schools like to promote the fact that they have students from every state in the country, so a Minnesota student might be especially attractive to a school in South Carolina, New Hampshire or Oklahoma.  One estimate suggests that students who live out of state can get between $2,000-$15,000 in scholarship money.
  5. You should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.com), even if you don’t believe you will qualify for need-based aid.  Families with incomes deemed to be above the need threshold can be attractive targets for fundraising; to get your personal financial information, schools have actually reduced the fee for tuition by as much as $1,800 for families who complete the FAFSA.  Completing the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, a College Board financial aid form that allows you to simultaneously apply for financial aid and scholarships at nearly 400 colleges and universities, can yield additional tuition discounts of up to $2,500.
  6. Finally, I thought I would bring your attention to an article that appeared in this past weekend’s NY Times.  The somewhat provocatively titled article, “How Colleges Know What You Can Afford (and the Limits of That Tactic)“, addresses the use of price discrimination by a number of private colleges, and how that tactic might be hurting such colleges in the longer run.
My colleague, Julie Ekkers, an independent college counselor, can help you and your student make sense of this daunting process and find a college that is a great fit.  From developing college lists, to developing essays and supplements, to helping get ready for an admissions interview, Julie can be a terrific resource.  For rising seniors, Julie is offering a special summer boost package for $650 that includes four one-hour consultations to develop, review, edit—and finish!—the Common Application essay as well as one of any of the following three items: developing, reviewing, and editing a supplemental application question response; creating a catalog of extracurricular and summer activities and employment; admissions interview preparation and practice. Feel free to reach out to Julie at [email protected].

Planning for the ACT, SAT and subject tests this spring and summer

The (temporary?) change in weather is a good reminder that spring and summer are just around the corner, and having a plan to help get your sophomore or junior ready for the standardized tests is essential.

Here are some thoughts for the Class of 2018:

  • For current juniors in Minnesota public high schools, you have up to three more opportunities to take the ACT this school year.  Most have a mandatory, in-school administration coming up EITHER February 28 or April 18.  We recommend that students also take advantage of the national test on April 8.  You also have a final opportunity this school year to take the ACT on June 10.
  • For current juniors in independent schools, you have two more opportunities to take the ACT this school year, on April 8 and June 10.
  • Both the April 8 and June 10 tests are “test release” months, meaning that for an extra $20, you can order a copy of the test booklet, your answers and the answer key.  When ordered, those materials will be delivered to your home approximately 6-8 weeks after the administration of the test.
  • Unlike the in-school test, the results of which can take weeks to arrive, results for the national test dates start to arrive just 11 days after the test.
  • There are three administrations of the SAT remaining this school year: March 11, May 6 and June 3.
  • Heading into the next school year, rising seniors will have a new, earlier opportunity to take the SAT, as the College Board will debut a new summer test date on August 26.  There will also be an SAT on Saturday, October 7.
  • The ACT will be offered on Saturday, September 9.  There is also a late October test on October 28; neither that test date nor the SAT on October 7 is recommended for students who will apply early action, early decision or to the University of Minnesota, which has a priority deadline of November 1st.
  • For students planning to apply to competitive and highly competitive universities, you may also want to consider taking two SAT subject tests this spring.  The subject tests are single subject tests, such as math (two levels), physics, chemistry, biology, U.S. history, world history, literature and a range of foreign languages, and students are permitted to take up to three such tests on a given test date.  The tests are offered on May 6 and on June 3. If you plan to take a subject test, you should plan now to capitalize on the work you’re doing in relevant classes like AP US History, chemistry, physics and/or AP US Literature.  You can register at the College Board website.
  • If you are planning to take any of the upcoming ACTs or SATs, make sure you’re prepared to do your best.  Taking a full-length practice test coupled with a series of lessons to help you brush up on unfamiliar concepts and important test-taking strategies is one of the most effective ways to prepare for a standardized test. Summer also offers rising seniors an excellent time to prepare for the standardized tests, as it is outside of the frenzy of the academic year.  Breakaway offers a wide variety of test prep options in the summer. Next week, I will send out a comprehensive summary of the options available to your student. In the meantime, you can click here to register for a practice test. Or you can click here to learn more about Breakaway’s summer prep options.
  • You should also think about using the summer to do college visits, work on your college application essays and, if necessary, complete your Common App.  If you need help with your essays, the application process or the Common App, Breakaway has resources that can help you with those important tasks.  Please feel free to contact Ron Michalak at [email protected] to learn more.

Here are some thoughts for the Class of 2019:

  • Current sophomores should plan to take a practice ACT (or SAT) sometime this spring. The practice test will give you good exposure to the test as well as provide you with an indication of your relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Take advantage of the summer to do some test prep.  Doing prep in the summer enables the student to offload at least some of the prep he or she may need to do during junior year.  Because junior year is so hectic, removing some of that work to the summer can help make the year more manageable.  Breakaway offers a wide variety of test prep opportunities all summer long; I’ll send out information on Breakaway’s summer prep options next week! Or you can click here to learn more about our summer prep options.
  • For students planning to apply to competitive and highly competitive universities, you may also want to consider taking an SAT subject test this spring.  The subject tests are single subject tests, such as math (two levels), physics, chemistry, biology, U.S. history, world history, literature and a range of foreign languages.  The tests are offered on May 6 and on June 3. If you plan to take a subject test, you should plan now to capitalize on the work you’re doing in relevant classes like AP US History, chemistry, physics and/or AP US Literature.  You can register at the College Board website.

Breakaway is coming to you! New offices to open in Eden Prairie, St. Paul and Wayzata

Breakaway Test Prep, Minnesota’s leading provider of ACT and SAT test preparation services, is pleased to announce the opening of three new offices to better serve the families with whom we work.  Beginning in January 2017, in addition to our St. Louis Park location, Breakaway will begin offering tutoring services in convenient locations in Eden Prairie, St. Paul and Wayzata.  Veteran instructors Matt McManus, John Kingsbury and Lori Wormald, who together have provided more than 2,000 hours of instruction to Breakaway students over the past several years, will become the respective directors at these offices.  Here is a brief look at each director:

If you would like more information on getting test prep services in any of our locations, please click here to complete our inquiry form, and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!