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How to Improve Your ACT Score or SAT Score

As parents, we want to see our children succeed and it burdens us greatly when they struggle.  One of the most frustrating things for a parent of a high school student is to watch him or her wrestle with the ACT or SAT test.  Some students just naturally ace the tests, destined for top scores.  Other students have dreams of high scores and end up frustrated, wanting to give up after a few disappointing test results.

I am currently living with this frustration.  My middle daughter had very high hopes and has struggled with her ACT score.  She has taken the test several times and has one great subject and four that have varied several points and are lower than she hoped.  She probably has one more shot in September or October and then it’s college application time.  In desperation, I went back to my email to search for contact information for Danh Le of Underground Academy.  He wrote a guest post for me last year, Why SAT and ACT Tutoring Makes Sense, Even for Smart Students.  We exchanged a few emails regarding my daughter’s situation and his advice makes a lot of sense.

Danh Le said that the best way to improve your scores is to understand why you are getting questions wrong and learn how to get them right.  He said it makes sense to retake the same practice test 2 or 3 times until you really understand how to answer questions correctly.

Looking for additional test strategies online, I found PrepScholar.  Dr. Fred Zhang, co-founder of PrepScholar, echoed this same idea as one of his five strategies for improving your score, “For every single question you get wrong, you MUST understand WHY you got it wrong, and you MUST know how to avoid this mistake in the future.”

This will require an investment of study time.  And study time requires motivation.  Fred Zhang talks about students needing internal motivation.  Parents forcing kids to study or developing some type of reward system typically produces less success than kids having the internal motivation to ace the ACT test or SAT test.  Zhang says breaking your goal into small manageable goals is one of the best ways to stay motivated.

Then it’s a matter of committing to enough study time.  According to Zhang, “40 hours spent on the ACT, studying in the right way, will likely boost your score by many points.”  Time alone will not do the trick, so it is important to focus on studying the right things.  This will require finding a focused study program or creating your own using books or online resources.  It will be centered on improving areas that need improving.  Check out my ACT Prep Resources if your student is focused on the ACT test.  This spreadsheet compiles a variety of available ACT test prep resources.

In my case, I have 2-3 months to pep talk my daughter into understanding why she needs to get re-motivated to study and to commit to a plan of action, studying the right things, and understanding the answers she gets wrong.  This is not ideal.  If you can successfully coach your child to work on ACT or SAT score improvement after the first test, you will have a longer time window for improvement and a better chance for a greater score change.

5 Summer College Search Prep Tips

beach-chair-and-umbrella-mdMuch has been written about what high school students should be doing the summer before senior year to prep for the final college search and college application process.  These are my top 5 tips for parents who have a rising high school senior and parents who want to plan ahead for when that time comes.

College Search Prep Tips for Summer Before Senior Year

  1. Find a great college summer camp/program – Colleges all over the country offer summer programs for high school students.  These are usually interest/major focused, like art, architecture, creative writing, engineering, etc.  These programs are often open to younger high school students also, but the summer before senior year, you want to really focus in on the right one.  The right one will most likely be at a school your student hopes to attend.  This gives your student great exposure to the school and the school great exposure to your student.  For a competitive school and/or program, summer program attendance could give your student a “leg up” in the college application process.
  2. Plan college visit road trips – Summer vacation often involves college visits when you have a rising high school senior.  There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you plan in some fun too.  Summer road trips are the easiest way to see schools that are farther than 4 hours from home and it’s often possible to hit a few schools in one trip.
  3. Study for final ACT/SAT tests – Sit down with your student to decide whether or not he or she needs to take a final ACT or SAT test in the fall of senior year.  This usually depends on how satisfied he or she is with current highest scores.  If it would be beneficial to take one final shot at the test, summer can be a great time for focused test prep.  Help your student find the best test prep resources and agree on how much time per week should be devoted to study.
  4. Start college application preparation – Have your student start writing down ideas for college essays and activity lists.  I saw this great post recently from College Essay Guy about brainstorming “everything I want colleges to know about me.”  Your student should start researching the college application process required for colleges he or she wants to apply to.  You should be able to find the applications online (or find out the school uses the Common App) to review the requirements.
  5. Finalize the college list – Talk to your student about how many schools he or she wants to apply to.  Most counselors will recommend a mix of “safety” schools, “match” schools and “reach” schools.  The College Essay Guy recommends applying to 9 schools and breaks them down like this:  3 match (61% chance or greater of admittance), 3 maybe (26-60% chance of admittance), 3 reach (5-25% chance of admittance).  Others often recommend 5-8 schools.  No matter how many your student will apply to, finalizing the list before fall is beneficial so that he or she can jump right into the college application process.

The summer before senior year offers your student an opportunity to do lots of advance preparation for the upcoming college application process.  The more you can narrow the college search and prepare for the steps ahead, the more stress you can avoid during senior year.


What is a Good ACT Score?

Standardized TestParents and students often wonder about what ACT score or SAT score is considered “good.”  The answer is, that depends.  Today, I am going to focus on ACT scores.  The answer to what is a good ACT score will vary based on the measurement you are attempting to make.

What is a good ACT score for my child?

That will depend on your student’s unique abilities.  If your school district uses the Explore test and Plan test, this will give you and your student a projection of the ACT score he or she is on target for.  The Explore test is typically taken in 8th or 9th grade.  It covers the same four subject areas as the ACT – Math, Science, Reading and English.  The Explore test results indicate the Plan test score the student is on target for.  The Plan test, typically taken in 10th grade, also covers the same four ACT subject areas.  The Plan test results indicate the ACT score the student is on target for.

Taking the Explore test and the Plan test can help identify areas that the student needs to study further in order to boost his or her ACT score.  I will cover that topic further later on.

If your school district does not offer the Explore test and the Plan test, you can find practice ACT tests and have your student take those.  This can be done at anytime, even middle school.

So I have told you how you can project your student’s likely ACT score and know what areas to study, but I haven’t told you how to know if those projections are “good.”

In order to know if your child is on target for a “good” ACT score, you will need to know what type of school he or she may want to attend.  A good ACT score for an ivy league school is going to differ a lot from a good ACT score at the closest public university in your state.

What is a good ACT score at the colleges my student is looking at?

Luckily, this information is very easy to find.  It is usually available on college search websites, like CollegeData and Big Future, as well as the college’s own websites.  The sites will provide the middle 50% of ACT scores for admitted freshmen based on a recent admission year.  This means that of all the freshmen admitted that year, 25% had scores below this range, 25% had scores above this range, and the other 50% fell into this range.  If your student’s score falls within or above this range, this will increase his or her chance of being admitted.

In addition, the higher your student’s ACT score falls compared to the middle 50%, the greater your student’s chance of being offered merit scholarships from the school will be.  In fact, some schools even offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for high ACT scores.  Typically, these would be scores in the high 20s and in the 30s.

Check out my Full Scholarship List to see the details on many schools that offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for high ACT scores.  You can even filter for a specific minimum ACT score.

Let’s look at an example.  

Let’s say our example student currently has a 27 ACT score.

Let’s say the student is comparing three schools – Pacific Lutheran University, Stanford University and University of Arizona.

The middle 50% of ACT scores at Pacific Lutheran is 22-29.

The middle 50% of ACT scores at Stanford is 31-34.

The middle 50% of ACT scores at Arizona is 21-27.

Based on the 27 ACT score alone, our example student has a pretty good chance of admittance at Pacific Lutheran and University of Arizona.  The student would not have a good chance at Stanford and should probably cross it off of his or her list.

In addition, the student’s merit aid chances are pretty good at Pacific Lutheran and Arizona, assuming these schools offer merit aid.  If I was the parent of this student, I would check both schools’ websites to see what they offer for merit scholarships.  Stanford does not offer merit scholarships because they do not need to.  They only offer need-based scholarships.

How Can My Student Boost His/Her ACT Score?

The best way to increase the ACT score is through ACT prep.  There are lots of different options for this – private tutors, ACT prep classes, online prep materials and ACT prep books.  The cost varies greatly between the $20-$30 range up to several thousand dollars.  I have not seen any definitive evidence that one method is more successful than another.  The most important thing for the ACT prep to include is full-length sample tests.  It is best when these tests include actual past ACT questions.  My free ACT Prep Resources spreadsheet will give you an idea of what type of prep resources are out there and how much they cost.

Bottom line – What is a good ACT score is going to vary both on your student’s abilities, the types of schools your student is interested in, and your hopes for merit-based aid.  Use Explore, Plan and practice ACT tests to gauge the ACT score your student is on target for and use ACT prep materials to help your student improve his or her score.

Creating Your College List

Creating-College-Lists-Book-Cover-200Some of you who have found my website will be at the very beginning of the college search process.  You will be looking for help on where to start.  I provide articles and resources to help with that, but I don’t expect that you will stop there.  There is so much information out on the web to help.  The problem is, it can get very overwhelming very fast.

I have found a new resource that I would like to recommend for creating your college list (or helping to create your child’s college list).  Michelle Kretzschmar of DIYCollegeRankings has recently published an eBook titled, “Creating College Lists: Your Guide to Using College Websites to Pay Less for a Better Education.”  I read it and found it to be a great guide for the parent and or student new to creating college lists.  As of the writing of this post, the eBook is only $2.99 through Amazon.

Michelle walks you step by step through what information is most valuable on college websites and how to find it.  Having searched hundreds of websites while creating college lists for my own daughters and to find scholarships for my Full Scholarship List, I know how hard it can be to find what you are looking for on college websites.  Following Michelle’s guidance will save you time and frustration.

Michelle encourages looking beyond schools that are ranked highly on college ranking lists and build your own list based on what’s really important to you.  She states, “If you want to get the best possible education at the best possible price, you need to be prepared to set aside some of the preferences that students [traditionally] use to create their college lists that can dramatically affect the number and quality of their choices.”

She talks through two options for creating your college list – having a blank slate and having some schools in mind.  These options require different approaches.  For the student who already has some schools in mind, she provides tips for finding similar schools.

Michelle digs deeper than the articles found on the web with advice on creating your college list.  She will explain things like why you should seek out the college newspaper to help you decide if a college is a good fit.

Creating College Lists: Your Guide to Using College Websites to Pay Less for a Better Education is a very quick read and is filled with links to take you straight to sources for more information.  I highly recommend downloading a copy to kick off your college search.

Full Disclosure: I do not receive any type of compensation for recommending this book or sending you to Amazon to purchase it.  I am not a member of Amazon’s affiliate program and therefore receive no type of payments from Amazon.  I consider Michelle Kretzschmar to be a trusted resource and authority for providing college search advice and I am always happy to recommend her content to my readers.




College Search – A Time for Personal Growth

Since starting my Full Scholarship List, I have been looking forward to using the profits to provide scholarships.  This week, I had the opportunity to present my first My Kid’s College Choice local scholarship to a confident and bright young lady.  

Below is the winning essay written by Beth, who will be attending University of Illinois Urbana Champaign this fall.  The essay prompt was “What I learned about myself during my college search.”

A Time for Personal Growth

I have always believed that high school is a time of personal growth, the time where we learn who we are as people, not just as students.  And while that is true, I never realized how concentrated in college searching our growth is until I experienced it for myself.

Growing up in a small town, it is easy to take on the general identity of the population and accept your surroundings.  As children, we have no say in where we live and what we do.  It is determined by our parents and the area we live in.

This all changes when you are asked to choose the place you will spend the four years [of college] at, though.  Large or small? Urban or rural? State or private? All of a sudden you have choice after choice thrown at you. After living eighteen years with little permanent commitment, it is terribly difficult and daunting to make a decision that will impact your entire life.

It is during this time that we grow as people and learn about ourselves at a rapid pace.  To make the required decisions regarding college, we have to look deep into ourselves to discover what we want.  And as cliche as it may sound, it’s true.

For me personally, I discovered just how multifaceted and conflicting my personality is.  As soon as I think I know what I want, I question the choice and refuse to make up my mind.  I want this and I want that, but it is impossible for me to have them both, leaving me with an annoyingly hard decision.  I learned that the only solution to these conflicts is balance and inflection, and that no one by yourself can make the decision.

I have also learned the significance of taking leaps of faith.  Choosing a college is hard, and with the inexplicable fear of commitment that I have suddenly developed, it has become nearly impossible.  With all the second-guessing I have put myself through, I realize that now is the time to take that leap of faith.  I know that I will be happy no matter where I go, it is just semantics at this point.

My recommendation to everyone searching for his or her perfect college is simply this: keep your mind open.  You got into this search thinking that you know exactly what you want, but you could be completely wrong.  Take it from someone who knows.  I entered my college search with these preconceived notions and ideas.  I thought I knew exactly what my perfect school was, and ignored the schools that failed to meet those ideals.

At the end of my college search, right now, I regret that.  I regret not being open to each and every college I visited, not looking at them with an open mind. Each college has its own advantages, ones that you may never think of until you visit. So do not allow your “perfect college checklist” to cloud your view because sometimes your perfect college is nothing like you imagined.


The Final College List – Preparing for College Applications

My middle daughter has a week left before the end of her Junior year of high school.  She will soon be a “rising senior.”  That means that college applications are only a few months away.  She has recently decided what she wants to major in and this has helped with narrowing the final college list.  However, this isn’t critical.  It’s fine if your student doesn’t know what to major in.  It just means that you want to look at schools that offer lots of options and a path to help him or her figure out a major.

I have helped my daughter work towards a final list of schools she will apply to.  Her list includes 5 schools.  She has her top school figured out and if she could, she would only apply there, but that is not realistic because the program she is interested in only accepts about 30% of applicants.  Our next step is making sure she visits the other 4 schools before college applications are due.

How Parents Can Help in Figuring Out the Final College List and Preparing for College Applications

  1. Make sure you understand your student’s college “wish list” with respect to things like school size, location, potential majors, and other qualities he or she wants in a school.
  2. Help in the search for colleges that meet the “wish list” criteria.
  3. Attempt to schedule at least an initial visit to each school prior to when applications are due in the fall. If your student has a major in mind, be sure to visit that department.
  4. Help your student to include reach schools, target schools and safety schools on the final college list.  You want to make sure there is at least one school that’s a sure thing and a few that are pretty good bets.  It doesn’t hurt to have one or two that are a bit of a stretch.  You can base these determinations on where your student falls compared to the school’s most recent admitted student statistics for GPA and ACT or SAT scores.  This information should be fairly easy to find on the college website.  If you can’t find it, have your student contact the admissions office to obtain this information directly or work with his/her high school guidance counselor to find out.
  5. Keep track of the schools and their application dates on a list.  My college search spreadsheet template can be used for this if you add a column to track application dates.  In addition, make sure you track each school’s application criteria.  this includes whether the school uses the common app or their own customized app and what the student is required to submit (transcript, test scores, recommendations, etc.).
  6. Make sure your student stays in contact with each school to display demonstrated interest.  This should include things like visits, contacting the admissions office with questions, stopping at the school’s booth at college fairs, and meeting with a rep if one comes to your student’s high school.

Planning ahead for the final college list will avoid a lot of stress and scrambling when college applications have looming deadlines.  Plus, it will give your student time to visit and reevaluate if he or she decides not to apply to any of the schools on the list.

Transition Time in the College Search Process

May 1, National Decision Day, has just passed.  That causes a transition time in the college search process.  High school seniors drop out of the process.  They have finished the college search and college selection.  They are on their way to a new phase in their lives and are focused on getting ready for next fall.

For high school juniors, it’s coming down to crunch time.  College applications are just a few months away.  It’s time to figure out where to apply and to take those final steps towards having great college applications.  You should be transitioning from “searching” to “applying.”

High School Junior College Application Prep Steps

  • Sign up for the June ACT or SAT test (if needed)
  • Start building an activity resume/accomplishments document for college applications
  • Ask teachers for recommendation letters (to either complete before the end of the school year or by the start of school next fall)
  • Start finalizing your list of schools to apply to
  • Schedule summer visits at any schools you want to apply to, but haven’t visited yet (summer visits aren’t the best for seeing the campus in action, but you can always do a more in-depth visit senior year)
  • Start looking at college applications on the college websites to see what you need – essays, recommendation letters, portfolios, etc.
  • Check out the Common App if any of the schools you want to apply to accept it

For high school sophomores, it’s time to get serious about the college search process.  Junior year will be the year to figure everything out.

High School Sophomore College Search Prep Steps

  • Start prepping for ACT and/or SAT tests, if you haven’t already
  • Start a college search spreadsheet
  • Schedule summer college visits to start figuring out what type/size of school you want
  • Read a lot about what colleges are looking for in applicants and take action to position yourself for success.
  • Talk as a family about how you will pay for college – need-based aid, merit aid, savings accounts, parent contributions, student contributions, etc.

Parents, your biggest task is to figure out what your family can afford.  Whether your student is a high school junior or sophomore, take the time to plan this out and share it with your student.

Parent Resources

College Search for “B” Students

The college search for “B” students can be different than for “A” students.  As a parent, you need to keep certain things in mind in order to help your “B” student conduct a successful college search.

  1. Strength of schedule/class rigor is most important – A “B” in an honors or AP course is different than a “B” in a standard course.  Most colleges view the strength of a high school students schedule as very important.  Did the student take advantage of all of the more challenging classes that were available to him/her?  A “B” in an honors or AP class can carry more weight to a college admissions rep than an “A” in a standard class because it shows that the student was interested in taking more difficult courses.  This can demonstrate that a student is ready for the rigor of college coursework.
  2. The ACT/SAT score will matter – Most schools still require an ACT or SAT score for admissions, although more and more schools are going “test optional.”  Unless your student is looking at test optional schools, the combination of GPA and ACT/SAT score will still be important.  A “B” average can look better to admissions officers when coupled with a high ACT or SAT score.
  3. Merit aid is going to be less available – The largest amounts of merit aid, like those listed in my Full Scholarship List, are generally saved for “A” students with high ACT/SAT scores.  Your “B” student is more likely to be offered smaller amounts of merit-based aid.  If your family income positions you to not be eligible for need-based aid and you planned to rely on merit aid, you may have to steer your student to look at less competitive colleges.  If your “B” student can show class rigor, great extra-curriculars, and a high ACT/SAT score,  he or she may find some merit scholarship offers that will make college pretty affordable.
  4. State schools are a great option – Public universities, especially in your home state, can be a great option for “B” students.  They tend to be much more affordable than private colleges, unless you qualify for need-based or merit-based aid.  They can also be easier to get into, because they accept a larger percentage of applicants than top-tier private colleges.
  5. A strong college application is important – The college application is not all about grades and test scores.  It is also about great recommendation letters, a well-written essay and a solid activity resume.  “B” students need to focus on painting a picture that they can balance a lot of different things and still maintain respectable grades.

The college search for “B” students should focus on reach, target and safety schools.  Make sure your student sets himself or herself up as being so much more than a grade point average on paper.  He or she needs to show all of the other things that were accomplished while still maintaining a “B” average.

Don’t be discouraged.  Use the tips above to figure out what schools and activities to focus on and make sure your student casts a wide net with college applications.  There are lots of schools out there that are looking for more than just that perfect GPA and 30+ ACT score.  You just may need to dig a little deeper to find them.

College Choice Options for Top Students

A+There are many great college choice options for top students.  Many parents who find my website are those searching for scholarships for high ACT scores or SAT scores, or scholarships for national merit finalists/semi-finalists.  My Full Scholarship List is a great resource for parents and students looking for great scholarships based on their standings at the top of the class.

High school students with high ACT scores or SAT scores and great grades are in a unique position when it comes to college choice.  They have more options available to them.  Which option they choose will have a lot to do with balancing affordability and rigor.

Top Student College Choice Options

  1. Highly Selective Admissions – Top students are positioned to be in the running for ivy league and other highly selective colleges.  However, this pool of colleges often has admission rates below 20% of applicants.  This means that many top students will be turned away.  This option is best for families who don’t need any financial aid or families who will qualify for major financial aid.
  2. Full-Ride and Full-Tuition Merit Scholarships – There are many colleges around the country that will award full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to attract top students.  Let me be clear here though – these are not the colleges with the most selective admissions.  These schools do not need to offer full scholarships to attract top students.  However, there are good colleges, many with honors programs, that will offer the top student a solid education that is fully paid or incredibly affordable.
  3. Medium Merit Scholarship – Dig a little deeper than the schools offering full-ride and full-tuition scholarships for top students and you will find a whole realm of colleges that offer top students decent merit scholarships.  These often cover half tuition or better.  Schools of all sizes offer both automatic and competitive merit scholarship programs.  These are harder to find.  You will probably need to check out the school websites to see what they offer and use the Net Price Calculator or talk to the admissions office to get an idea of what your student may be eligible for.
  4. Honors Programs – I mentioned this briefly above.  An honors program can make a less selective college more attractive to top students.  A student looking for academic rigor in college can find that two ways: 1) Through a highly selective college, or 2) Through an honors program or honors college.  A less selective school with an honors program can be much more affordable than a highly selective college.

As I mentioned above, the college choice options for top students comes down to a balance between affordability and academic rigor.  If cost is not a factor for your family, then highly selective colleges are probably the best way to go.  However, if cost is an option, you will be looking for great merit scholarships or schools that offer great need-based aid.

Highly selective colleges tend not to offer merit scholarships, but they do tend to offer large amounts of financial aid to families who qualify.  Family incomes of $60,000 or less will often pay very little for these schools (can be cheaper than in-state tuition at the state’s universities).  Even family incomes of around $150,000 – $200,000 can receive some financial aid at these schools, but it may not be enough to bring the high sticker price down to an affordable level.

Families in the middle, worried about the cost of college, but with incomes too high to qualify for financial aid, will find the best deals at schools that offer great merit scholarships.

Final College Decision Resources

hourglassSince it is getting down to final college decision time for high school seniors, I thought I’d point out some resources that can help you and your student in the final decision process.

One of the most important parts of the final college decision is evaluating financial aid packages.  Here are some great tools to help with that:

How to Read and Evaluate a Financial Aid Award Letter

FinAid Award Letter Comparison Tool

BigFuture Compare Aid Calculator

Read the school’s scholarship offers closely.  Some require a minimum GPA to keep receiving the scholarship every year.  This adds a level of risk.  A school offering a slightly lower scholarship with no minimum GPA requirement could work out better in the long run.  Even the best high school students often struggle with grades in the first year of college!

Tips for negotiating merit scholarships/financial aid:

How to Ask for More Financial Aid

The Complete Guide to a Better Financial Aid Offer

Appealing for a Better Merit Award

How to make the final college decision:

The Final College Choice – Choosing Between Two Colleges

Making the Final College Choice

Check out student reviews on these sites to see what current students say about their schools:




In the end, the best way to make the final college decision is to compare financial aid packages, have your student attend admitted student visit days, and determine which school offers the greatest overall “value” for your student.  This may or may not equate to the school offering the lowest price to your student.