Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

After my recent post discussing why it’s not a good idea to treat real SATs or ACTs like practice runs, a tutor wrote to ask me to weigh in on the ACT’s score-deletion option and its effect on the test-prep process. In truth, I probably should have covered it in my earlier post, but since I didn’t (mea culpa!), I’m going to discuss it here. 

So first, for those of you who aren’t familiar with ACT scoring policy, the ACT takes the concept of score choice to a level beyond that of the SAT. Most colleges will allow you to select which set(s) of scores you want to send, but a few holdouts — including several Ivy League schools — still require you to send all of your scores. If you take the SAT, you do in fact need to send everything; however, if you take the ACT, there’s still a back door into score choice. 

Basically, the ACT has a policy that allows test-takers to permanently remove a score from their record, provided that it was obtained from a paid registration (that is, not state or district-mandated testing) has not yet been sent to any colleges. All you need to do is submit a written request to the ACT (see here; click on “Scores,” then scroll down to “How do I delete a test-day record?”), and your scores will be permanently expunged. 

Obviously, this policy has some major benefits, most notably the fact that you can actually see your scores before deciding whether to delete them. If you walk out of the test thinking you nailed it and then discover that wasn’t quite the case when you get your score report a few weeks later, you won’t have to worry about colleges ever seeing them. In contrast, if you want to delete your SAT scores, you must do so without knowing what they are. (The College Board gives test-takers until 11:59pm on the Wednesday following the test to decide whether they want to cancel their scores.)

In theory, this sounds like a great deal. Take the test, see how you do, and if you don’t like the results, all you’ve lost is your registration fee.

If you want, you can sign up the next month and do it again.

And if that doesn’t work, you can sign up the following month and do it again.

And again. And again. And again.

Are you starting to see how this could be a problem?

To be clear, I am by no means suggesting that there aren’t situations in which this policy can really come in handy.

For example, if your practice test scores are inconsistent/borderline and you reallyreally want to get the test over with, then yes, you can go ahead and sign up without worrying that taking the risk will ruin you. I’ve had students in that situation who were unsure about whether they should take the test in a particular month or wait until the next administration, but they were close enough that the ACT’s policy made it worth it for them try. In their cases, it paid off.

Likewise, there are students who seriously overestimate their abilities, sign up for the test before they’re ready, and then get a very rude awakening. If these students later buckle down and end up raising their scores significantly, they won’t run the risk of having one bad decision influence their admissions prospects.

Those are best-case scenarios.

The worst-case scenario looks like the first ACT student I ever tutored. She had taken the test seven — yes, seven — times before I started working with her, in the spring of her junior year.

Why had she taken the test seven times? Because, she had been told, she could just keep deleting the scores.

Did I mention she attended one of New York City’s top prep schools and was stuck at around a 21?

As I discussed in my other post a few days back, repeated test-taking is also not a good idea from a psychological perspective. First most students will inevitably start to get discouraged when their scores remain flat from test to test. If they do eventually end up in the hands of a capable tutor, the mental stumbling blocks can pose just as big a problem as the content-based ones.

I speak from experience here: for a number of my “second-round” students, half the game just involved convincing them that yes, they were actually capable of improving. It was some of the most nerve-wracking tutoring I ever did. The kids were on edge, the parents were on edge and begging the kids to give it one more real go, and both of them just wanted the whole thing to be over with already.

There’s also the fact that students who know they can always sit for a test again tend to take each individual administration less seriously than they otherwise would. Why bother, if there’s always another chance? The result is that a process that could be gotten over with quickly ends up taking months longer than necessary. It also reinforces an attitude that is not particularly helpful for college, or life for that matter. College professors and bosses don’t necessarily accept re-takes, even when the stakes are high. It’s generally better to treat things as if they count the first time around.  

Then there’s the unfortunately reality that scores tend to stay more or less stable after the third test.

A couple of months back, I ran across a horrible article in which a supposed test-prep expert talked about how wealthy students were gaming the college admissions process by taking standardized tests over and over again, and getting tutored in between, until they hit their target scores.

The truth, however, is that while students may occasionally hit their goals after, say, test #5, those with the savviest parents (or the savviest tutors) rarely take the test for real more than three times, four at absolute most.

These students still take plenty of tests, but they’re more likely to pay for private proctored practice tests, which allow them to work out the kinks before going in for the real thing. They have people making sure they take the process seriously, and that they try their hardest when it counts.

Part of the reason that realistic adult guidance is important here, especially for lower-scoring students, is that there tends to be a correlation between students’ scores and their capacity to self-evaluate. From what l’ve observed, lower-scoring students are more likely to overestimate their abilities, and to underestimate the amount of work necessary to improve.

They are also more likely to fall prey to the “maybe I’ll luck out and do really well this time” mentality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. For students in this category, total score choice is a curse in disguise; it gives them an excuse not to have to confront their weaknesses and allows them to indulge in wishful thinking. (I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in action as well, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to counteract.)

My other concern about over-relying on score choice is strictly practical. It is very easy to intend to cancel a scores but then never actually get around to doing so. People get busy, they procrastinate, they forget… These things just have a way of happening. If you’re not careful, you could easily end up unintentionally sending a score that you should have asked the ACT to delete months ago. 

So the bottom line is that if you want to take advantage of the ACT’s score choice policy to and try to get the test over with early, that’s certainly fair. 

Under almost no circumstances, however, would I recommend that someone sign up for the real test without taking at least one practice test first. Buy the Red Book (or if you don’t want to buy it, sit with it in the bookstore), block off a couple of hours, and see how you do. If you’re scoring in or close to your target range right off the bat, it’s probably worth a shot, even it’s early in the year; there’s no sense in prolonging things unnecessarily. 

But make no mistake: although ACT-style score choice can be a boon in the right situation, it is not the solution to all your test-prep woes. You still have to put in the time and study, and you still have to take the process seriously. Eventually, “one more time” runs out, and you have to accept where you are. It’s up to you to use the time you have to your own best advantage.

Starting SAT/ACT prep? Ask yourself these three key questions

1) Where am I? 

This does not just mean “what is your score on your first-ever practice test?” It means considering why you’re starting where you’re starting, and what that reveals about your strengths and weaknesses — factors that will in turn affect what type of prep is best for you.

If your overall score isn’t where you want it to be, where are the problem spots? Are your math and verbal score/skills comparable, or do you have a big gap between them? If the latter, a class that devotes equal time to both probably isn’t the best option.

Do you have problems with particular types of questions, or are your mistakes all over the map?

Is timing an issue? And if so, it is actually having a negative impact on your score, or do you just feel a little too rushed?

Do you feel comfortable with the content but aren’t totally sure how to apply it to the test, or do you genuinely need work on some of the fundamentals? A good rule of thumb is that if you score better on untimed than on timed sections, you can probably focus on strategy; if you make the same mistakes regardless of time, there’s probably material you need to learn. 

If you are already scoring well and primarily need strategy work, you might be fine with a class, or even self-study (provided you’re sufficiently diligent and motivated). If you really need to work on some of the basics and are looking for significant improvement, tutoring might be a better option.

You also need to consider your grades and the rigor of your classes. Colleges are very clear that your transcript is the most important factor for them, and if that needs work, high scores will not compensate. It is not a good idea to focus on test prep at the expense of your grades. Yes, I know people who have done this, and no, they were not happy with the results; I’ve also worked with a number of students who were marginal candidates score-wise but who nevertheless made it into their top-choice schools.

2) Where do I want to be? 

I understand that this can be a hard question to answer at the outset, especially if you haven’t seriously looked at any colleges yet, but one of the side-effects of the standardized testing process is that it forces you to consider the bigger picture and think about just what it is you’re working toward. Studying without that anchor can make the test-prep process seem as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, as opposed to something genuinely connected to your future.

Even if you don’t yet have a clear idea of where you want to apply, you should at least begin to consider what type of school you might be interested in, and get a sense of the scores you’ll need to be competitive. (As a general rule, “unhooked” applicants — that is, applicants who are not legacies, recruited athletes, development cases, or under-represented minorities — should aim to score at or above the 50th percentile for a given school in order to be seriously competitive.) You should also spend some time on Naviance seeing what scores correlate with acceptances at a range of college

The other factor to take into account is financial aid. If you are going to be applying for merit scholarships, you need to know various schools’ score requirements.

Likewise, some specialized programs such as engineering and medicine (joint BA/MD) have strict cut-off scores. You should also be aware that some schools will not superscore tests submitted for these purposes.

If you are applying to general B.A. programs, you will have to decide for yourself what constitutes a reasonable goal.

This step might seem like an annoyance, but it brings a degree of clarity and focus to a process that can otherwise seem vague and murky. Even if you fall short, having something to aim for makes it easier to define the necessary steps along the way.

If you’re scoring in the 500s/low 20s across the board, for example, it probably isn’t realistic to aim for a perfect score. But beyond that, you need to decide what’s realistic, given the time you have to have to prepare. 50 points? 100 points? 

It’s also important keep in mind is that improvement often happens in stages; you have to be able to walk before you can run. Your goal might be to raise your Math score by 100 points, but if you’re at 600 now, you’ll need to get to a solid 650 before you can aim for 700. 

3) What do I need to do to get there? 

As a tutor, I lost count of the number of times a student and/or parent looked at me wide-eyed and told me earnestly that they or their child really wanted to do well.

Obviously. I never worked with a student who didn’t want do well.

But wanting to do well and actually taking the steps necessary to do well are two completely different things. Unfortunately, is also very easy to overestimate the amount of time you will actually spend studying; good intentions have a way of getting misplaced in a morass of AP calc and basketball practice.

Here are some practical questions to consider:

How much time do you have before the test, and are you planning to take it multiple times? How long are you willing to commit to test-prep for? A month? Six months months? A year? Your expectations needs to be consistent with your timeframe.

How much of a procrastinator are you? (Or, for parents, how much of a procrastinator is your child?)

If you set a goal of studying, say, an hour at a time three days a week, will you actually follow through, or do you need someone else to stay on top of you?

Will you listen to your parents when they remind you study, or will you roll your eyes and say you’ll do it later?

Are you the type of person who can set a goal and persevere over a long period of time, or do you have a history of starting out strong and then losing interest when the payoff isn’t immediate?

If test prep has the potential to blow up into a major familial issue of contention and you can afford to hire a tutor, it’s something to seriously consider. Having a third party present to issue reminders and oversee the process can go a long way toward defusing tension. The psychological savings can easily balance out the financial expense. 

I’m not denying that all this is a lot to think about, some of it not particularly easy or pleasant. But the more honest  you can be about where things stand relative to where you want to end up, and about what specific steps are necessary to get there, the more smoothly the prep process will ultimately go.

Don’t overlook the ACT

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I’m often a tutor of last resort. That is, people find their way to me after they’ve exhausted other test-prep options (self-study, online program, private tutor) and still find themselves short of their goals. Sometimes very, very far short of their goals. When people come to me very late in the process, e.g. late spring of junior year or the summer before senior year, there’s unfortunately a limited amount that I can do. Most of it is triage at that point: finding and focusing on a handful of areas in which improvement is most likely.

Not coincidentally, many of the students in this situation who find their way to me have been cracking their heads against the SAT for months, sometimes even a year or more. Often, they’re strong math and science students whose reading and writing scores lag significantly behind their math scores, even after very substantial amounts of prep and multiple tests. They’re motivated, diligent workers, but the verbal is absolutely killing them. Basically, they’re fabulous candidates for the ACT.

When I mention the ACT to them, however, they’re usually a little surprised. First, the SAT is the default option — it’s just what high school juniors in their town do, and have always done. No one has even mentioned the ACT to them. And on the off chance that they do know something about it, they’re suspicious that colleges won’t really weigh it the same as they would the SAT. (Usually they start to reconsider when I tell them about my ACT student who was admitted to Harvard.) Second, the SAT has dominated their lives for months. Switching tests at this point seems like giving up, or at least having to start all over again. No one wants to feel like all the work they put in was a waste, even if it didn’t actually get them what they wanted.

Now, to be clear: I am not implying that the ACT is a quick fix, nor am I implying that it is the right test for everyone. I am, however, suggesting that a certain percentage of students (1/3 or so, in my experience) will naturally do better on the ACT than on the current SAT. (Of the rest, about 1/3 will score better on the SAT, and the remaining 1/3 will do about the same on both). That said, I’ve witnessed more than one student struggle with the SAT for months and see only modest improvements, then switch to the ACT and end up with perfect or near-perfect scores in only a few months.

After that happened to me for the third or so time, I started insisting that everyone who didn’t have a clear, compelling reason for taking the SAT start off by taking a full practice SAT and a full practice ACT. If they absolutely can’t stand — or, less frequently, absolutely love — one of the tests, they don’t have to finish it because, well, that’s their answer right there. But if they’re in the middle zone, they can weigh the pros and cons of each and at least know that they’re making an informed decision rather than jumping to look for a quick fix when they hit a wall a few months down the line. (By the way, I’m writing this about the move from SAT to ACT rather than ACT to SAT because, in my experience, people applying to competitive colleges who start out focusing on the ACT tend to have good reasons for doing so.)

So, if you are just starting the test-prep process, or are the parent of a student just starting the test-prep process, please, please do not simply assume that you or your child should automatically take the SAT simply because it’s the default option. It doesn’t matter if the guidance counselor has never mentioned the ACT. It doesn’t matter if everyone in your town/school is taking the SAT. It doesn’t even matter if your tutor hasn’t suggested it — tutors tend to recommend what they feel most comfortable tutoring, and tutors who know the SAT better than the ACT tend to recommend the SAT. Unless you are absolutely rocking the SAT, print out an ACT and see how you do.

And yes, it stinks to have to take not one but two diagnostic tests, but the payoff can be huge, in terms of time, stress, and results.

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you going back to the passage after you get down to those two answers? If so, are you looking for key transitions/punctuation marks/ explanations, etc. or are you just aimlessly rereading without a clear idea of what you’re looking for?
  • Do you ever start/stop reading halfway through a sentence? If so, make sure you back up to the beginning of the sentence or keep reading until the end; otherwise, you’re likely to miss important info.
  • Do you confine yourself to the lines you’re given in the question, or do you read a little before/after as well? Or, conversely, do you read too far ahead and lose sight of the what the lines referenced actually say. Function questions often require information in the sentence or two before the line reference; other question types can usually be answered from the lines given.
  • Do you consider whether the answer you’re choosing makes logical sense in the real world? (e.g. an answer stating that no scientific advances have recently been made is simply at odds with reality).
  • Do you work from the more specific answer and check whether it is directly supported by the passage?
  • Does one of the answer choices contain a synonym or synonyms for a key word in the passage? It’s probably right. Correct answer rephrase the passage. If an answer uses words verbatim from the passage, it’s probably wrong.
  • Do you ever pick answers that are too extreme, or that are beyond the scope of what can be determined from the passage? (e.g. the passage talks about one painter and the passage refers to painters in general.)
  • Pay careful attention to the topic of the passage — the correct answer will often refer to it, either by name or rephrased in a more general fashion (e.g. Frederick Douglass = an individual). Incorrect answers often refer to things that the passage mentions but that are not its main focus.
  • Do you try to answer questions in your own words before you look at the answers, or do you rely only on the answer choices? This technique is not about trying to get ETS’s exact wording — it’s about anticipating what sort of information will be present in the correct answer so that you don’t get distracted by plausible-sounding wrong answers.
  • If you are answering questions in your own words, keep in mind that you’re looking for the idea you’ve come up with. The actual phrasing might be very, very different from what you’re expecting, and may be written in a form you don’t immediately connect to what you’ve said. Part of what makes the SAT so challenging is the fact that you can’t always anticipate the angle that a correct answer will come from. Some questions can be answered correctly in multiple ways, but the correct answer that appears on the test will not always be the most obvious correct answer.
  • Do you read too far into the questions and start to impose an interpretation or make assumptions that the passage does not directly suggest? You need to read literally, not speculate about what the author could be saying.
  • Do you avoid choosing answers simply because they’re confusing? Whether an answer makes sense to you has no effect on whether it’s right or wrong.

The devil is in the details

I usually try to avoid clichés. Really, I do. I honestly don’t recall whether I ever had a penchant for them, but any tendency toward employing them in my writing was thoroughly beaten out of my by my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Gutmann (who unfortunately, it must be said, failed to make much of an impression on me otherwise).

That said, there are times when nothing but a cliché sums up a particular idea just right, the title of this post being a prime example. (I also happen to like the alliteration). It’s a phrase I find myself uttering repeatedly when I tutor. It’s important for people working at pretty much any score level, but it’s especially relevant to those in the higher range — assuming that you know how to do all, or nearly all, of the problems you’ll encounter, the details might be the only thing standing between you and your dream score.

Let me emphasize this: it does not matter whether you are capable of answering a question correctly if you do not actually answer that question correctly when you sit down the take the test. The scores that actually end up in front of admissions officers are what counts. They will not stop to think that hey, maybe that 680 should really be a 720 because that kid two rows over who wouldn’t stop kicking his feet against the chair kept distracting you. Admissions officers are not responsible for that type of speculation.

I am not saying this to scare you (ok, maybe I am, just a little) but rather to attempt to convey to you that you cannot take anything for granted when you take a test for real. It does not matter how many practice tests you’ve taken. I’ve worked with kids who took 30 or more and still managed to screw up on the real thing. It does not matter whether you’ve scored an 800 on every single one. When you get complacent and start taking things for granted, you get sloppy. And when you get sloppy, you make careless errors. And when that happens, soon enough you’re right back at 690. Or a 29. Or wherever it was you started from.

Or, conversely, if you have a tendency to get anxious, you must resist the tendency to either rush through questions or overthink them to the point where you can choose an answer choice that blatantly contradicts common sense without noticing that there’s anything odd about it.

And then there are my real cautionary tales: every year, I inevitably have one student who incorrectly bubbles anywhere from a couple of questions to an entire section, and ends up with score that they really don’t deserve.

Hence the point of this post.

Now, when I point out how s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully I work through questions, usually my students just roll their eyes and/or tune me out (and then they wonder why they didn’t do as well as they were expecting). But for what it’s worth, if you’re taking the SAT or the ACT anytime soon, here’s a quick list of things to pay extra close attention to:

  • Put your finger or pencil on the page when you read the passages AND the questions. Misreading a key word can cost you easy points. NB: if you use your pencil, put the eraser side on your page — otherwise you will underline the entire passage, making your actual underlinings hard to distinguish.
  • Do not jump to eliminate an answer before you’re clear on what it’s saying. If you can’t figure out what an answer is saying, don’t eliminate it just because it confuses you!
  • When you do eliminate an answer, put a line through the entire thing, including the letter. Otherwise, you will get distracted by irrelevant information.
  • When you work by process of elimination, double-check that the answer you’re left with makes sense.
  • On SAT Writing/ACT English, make sure you plug your answer back into the sentence. Answers that make sense independently can be clearly wrong in context.
  • When a question is presented in a complicated manner, take a moment and rephrase it in simpler words so that you know exactly what that question is asking you to do. Otherwise, you may inadvertently answer something other than the question in front of you.
  • Pay attention to your notes. If you’ve circled/underlined important info in a passage, don’t overlook it when you go back to answer a question. The answer is probably right where you marked it.
  • Do not rely excessively on the answer choices — they are there to confuse you, not help you. If you are a strong enough reader to get an idea of what information will be included in the correct answer, take a few moments and figure out what you’re looking for. Most of my students who couldn’t get past the low 700s have been stuck on the idea that because they could recognize the correct answer most of the time, they could learn to recognize it all of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how the SAT works.
  • When you answer a question in your own words, write down what you come up with to keep you focused. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone answer a question correctly on their own, then get confused when they looked at the answer choices.
  • Don’t take a wild guess when you can take an educated guess with just a little more work. If you’re down to two answers, see if there’s a specific feature of one of them that you can use to improve your chances. Just hoping you’ll get lucky doesn’t usually work.

And finally…

  • As you go to fill in your answer, confirm that you’re bubbling in the correct question number. Just take a split second and do it. You’ll be grateful when you walk out of the test and don’t have to decide whether to tell your mom to call and cancel your scores because you think you might have accidentally mis-bubbled a whole section.

A random list of things my students refuse to do (maybe you’ll actually try them)

Just needed to do some venting. After I find myself saying the same things repeatedly, I start to think that perhaps I should just make a recording and just hit the “play” button whenever someone neglects to do one of these things…for the fiftieth time.

1) When you get down to two answers on Critical Reading, GO BACK TO THE FRIGGIN’ PASSAGE AND CHECK TO SEE WHICH ONE IT DIRECTLY SUPPORTS. Pick the most concrete, specific aspect of one answer choice, and check to see whether the passage explicitly addresses it. If it doesn’t, it’s not the answer. If one of the answers contains extreme language, start by assuming it’s wrong and focus extra-hard on connecting the other answer to the passage.

2) Don’t make wild guesses. Just don’t.

3) If you’re going to skip questions on the real thing, skip them when you’re practicing. Don’t answer them just for the heck of it. You’re a lot less likely to do everything you intended to do on the actual test if you’ve never done it before. Besides, most questions you should skip fall into the category of questions you had no idea of the answer to. See #2 for my thoughts on that.

4) If you know there’s a particular mistake you tend to make or a particular rule you always forget, take a pencil and physically write yourself a note IN CAPITAL LETTERS at the top of your page to look out for it. Otherwise, you’ll forget and just keep doing the same thing. Yes, actually write it down.

5) If you see the word “NOT” or “EXCEPT” in a question, put a huge circle around it so that you don’t accidentally answer the opposite.

6) Write down each step of Critical Reading questions *as you do them.* Sum up, write, sum up, write… You can write fast. And honestly, what you write isn’t that important. It’s more the fact that the act of writing forces you to clarify your thoughts at each step. I find it virtually impossible to work through a question without doing this, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who tried it willingly (and didn’t make the “ew, she’s not serious, that’s way too much work, I don’t really need to do that to get the answer” face). Yes, it’s a lot more work than most people are used to, but if done consistently, it keeps you from making those last few mistakes.

7) Think about whether the answer makes sense in the real world. Yes, the answer must be supported by the passage, but if it doesn’t make sense period, it’s probably not right.

8) If you see any sort of comparison in a Writing question, especially at the end of a sentence, pay attention to it; chances are it’s a faulty comparison. If you have a tendency to miss these, see #4.

9) Physically cross out answers as you eliminate them. Put a line through them completely. Don’t get lazy and stop after one or two. Your goal is to look at the smallest amount of information possible at any given time. Don’t give yourself more things to get distracted by.

10) Playing process of elimination does not absolve you of the responsibility to think. When you’re done eliminating answers, make sure that whatever you’re left with actually works. If it very clearly doesn’t, go back and reevaluate.