Calculator shopping, the night before the SAT

I'm the guest poster on the college blog of the Washington Post today.

Posted at 10:56 AM ET, 02/08/2012

Guest post: Calculator shopping, the night before the SAT

The following is an excerpt from the “ The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions,”a forthcoming book by J.D. Rothman, an Emmy-winning screenwriter and lyricist and recent veteran of two rounds of college admissions with her sons.

Q: What does "SAT" stand for?

A: It used to stand for Scholastic Achievement Test, but in 1947, the name of the exam was changed to Scholastic Aptitude Test. Then the folks at the College Board used their Critical Reasoning skills and came to the conclusion that a coachable exam could not be called an "aptitude" test. So officially, SAT stands for nothing, although at least one college refers to it on its Web site as the Scholastic Assessment Test.

 Q: What time does Staples close, in case your kid can't locate his TI-183 calculator the night before the SAT exam?

A: Luckily, the Staples in our neighborhood closes at 9 p.m., as we discovered the night before our son’s exam. (Our son, who had "just had" his calculator the day before, volunteered to pay for the new one, which should add up to about a week of his summer wages.)

 Q: What are some good snacks for the SATs?

A: A power bar, a peanut butter sandwich, and a banana. We typically procure all of these, but our sons typically leave the power bar at home and the sandwich and banana in the car.

Q: What is the ACT?

A: Another standardized test, which up until twenty minutes ago was popular only in the Midwest. But because there are no trick questions, they allow score cancelling and unpenalized guessing, and offer an early September test date, it is the test du jour . New Yorkers are now obsessed with the ACT, and it is gaining fans in other trendy cities. In fact, for the first time ever, the number of ACT test takers is about the same as the SAT. Poor SAT — it now stands for Sad Anachronistic Test.

Q: What is a superscore?

A: A superscore is achieved by choosing the best subscores from multiple sittings of the same test. (We know, a "sitting" sounds like you're posing for a portrait, but bear with us.) For example, let's assume you have these SAT results from these three sittings:

Sitting 1: 800M, 500CR, 450W 

Sitting 2: 600M, 410CR, 780W

Sitting 3: 510M, 740CR, 530W

Your composite scores would be 1750, 1790, and 1780, but your superscore would be 2320.

Q: Wow! Do colleges superscore the ACT as well?

A: Not many superscore the ACT, because they'd have to work with five separate numbers, including a composite that often has been rounded up or rounded down. That would require advanced math skills, which would be too confusing, even for colleges. Except MIT, of course. They will even cross-superscore the SAT with the ACT...just because they can.

 Q: Do you have to send in all your test scores to Yale, even the ones that suck?

A: No, that's Penn. Yale’s Web site says, "As long as you provide a complete set of score reports from one testing agency (either the College Board or ACT, Inc.), you are not required to report scores from both. You can choose to report either all of your SAT results (both SAT and SAT Subject Tests) or all of your ACT results. If you want us to have any scores from both the College Board and ACT, Inc., you must report all scores from both testing agencies.”

And if you're having trouble understanding this, you probably shouldn't be applying to Yale.

Q: I thought the SAT and the ACT offered Score Choice, so you can send in only your impressive scores.

A: They do, but Yale wants to find out if sitting for standardized exams was your only extracurricular activity. And they promise not to peek at your lousy scores.

 Q: I heard you could cancel your scores so nobody will see them. 

A: The SAT offers you a morning-after pill of sorts: If you were fooling around the night before or felt queasy during the exam, you can cancel before you find out your scores. But the more progressive ACT, which also allows you to guess without penalty, will let you terminate whenever. 

 Q: Do you really believe that Yale doesn't care about SAT Subject Tests if you send in an ACT score?

A: No — so we recommend you submit the results of your APGAR test. That's the score babies get from their doctors right after they are born, on a scale of one to ten. Yale's APGAR average is 9.8.

 Q: What's with the writing section of the SAT? Some fine colleges, like Cornell, say they don't consider the SAT writing, yet if you take the ACT, they want you to take that with writing.

A: You're right. Some things are just not logical—or fair. Even the Neurotic Parent cannot write a decent essay in 25 minutes, especially using a #2 pencil while sitting in a stuffy classroom surrounded by smelly teenagers. But maybe we'd have success if they'd let us write about reality television.

Q: Let's get back to this ACT thing. That sounds awesome — no SAT Subject Tests! But I don't get those wacky science graphs. Where can I find a good ACT tutor in Bethesda?

A: Unfortunately, the ACT is still Because of this, only one-test prep company on the East Coast at this writing claims to have ACT specialists as tutors. And they charge $880 per session. But the always-resourceful Neurotic Parent Institute has located the top ACT tutors in the country. They are all in Evanston, IL, and they charge $40 an hour. So for the price of one $880 session in Bethesda, you can fly to Chicago twice for tutoring and splurge on a Cubs game, a taxi to and from O'Hare, and a deep-dish pizza.

By  |  10:56 AM ET, 02/08/2012

Categories:  Admissions