Don’t Break the Budget on ACT and SAT Prep Resources

Standardized TestACT and SAT prep resources can help your student be better prepared to take the tests and achieve higher scores.  Some of these resources run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.  Does spending that much really result in a score increase that justifies the cost?  I have not seen any data that supports this.  I would argue that with enough time and discipline, your student can benefit just as much from low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources.

I have listed some great low-cost and free test prep resources below that I would encourage you to check out.  You can also see the full range of ACT resources out there in my spreadsheet, ACT Prep Resources.

Low-Cost ACT Prep Resources

  1. Books – There are some great guides available through Amazon or your local bookstore including The Real ACT Prep Guide, Barron’s ACT 36 and Cracking the ACT.
  2. Official ACT Online Prep Program – $24.95 for a year of access
  3. YouTube – Type “ACT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on ACT topics
  4. Free Online ACT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  5. Free Online ACT Prep Course through

Low-Cost SAT Prep Resources

  1. Books – Some of the best ones include The Official SAT Study Guide, Cracking the SAT, and Kaplan SAT.
  2. YouTube – Type “SAT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on SAT topics
  3. Free Online SAT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  4. Free Online SAT Prep Course through

Are there others you have found?  If so, please leave a comment with the details so that other parents can benefit from these great low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources!

ACT/SAT Tests ,

Getting the Most Out of College Fairs

College fairs are great for students and parents just starting to think about the college search.  They give you the opportunity to learn about many different colleges at the same time.  However, college fairs can get really overwhelming if you go in expecting too much.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of College Fairs:

  1. Don’t expect to talk to people at each booth – If you stop to talk at each booth, you are going to have information overload before you even make it all the way down one aisle.  Stop and talk only at colleges you or your child already has interest in, not those you have never heard of.
  2. Gathering information to take home should be your main goal – Pick up lots of brochures, take them home, and sort them into piles like “interested,” “not interested,” and “maybe.”  These can help you get to the next step in the college search and decide which schools to investigate further.  Put the “interested” and “maybe” schools on a college search spreadsheet.
  3. Focus on the basics – For booths you stop and talk at, focus on the basic questions like “how many years of science are required for admission?”, “what’s the typical ACT score range for admitted students?”, and “when are your scheduled visit days?”  While all of this information can be found on the college website with some digging, the reps are there to provide fast answers.  If you have more complex questions, get contact information for the admissions rep and call or email.
  4. Think “demonstrated interest” – If there is a school your student is definitely interested in, have him or her stop at the booth, talk to the rep, and share his/her contact information.
  5. Selectively pick the right college fairs – Some fairs attract colleges all over the country while others only attract regional schools.  Pick the right college fair according to how far your student wants to travel from home.  The big national college fairs are great if your student wants to keep their options wide open.  Students who only want to go a few hours from home will be better served through college fairs that offer a large selection of regional schools.

Again, college fairs can be a great first step in the college search and can get your student excited about looking at schools.  Just be sure to maximize the opportunity by not getting into too much detail at this point.

College Search

Don’t Focus on College Acceptance Rates!

Today, I’d like to share a very interesting graphic from that emphasizes the reason that college-bound kids and their parents should not focus on college acceptance rates.  When you look at the shear numbers, it is actually easier to get into college now than it was around 30 years ago.  Pay special attention to the tips at the bottom!
The Reality of College Admissions
Brought to you by: Noodle

Applying to Colleges ,

College Applications and Extracurricular Activities

A common question high school students ask is, “What do colleges want to see for extracurricular activities?”  The answer is, they want to see depth, not breadth.

  • If your child is in a sport, he or she should try to become a captain by junior or senior year of high school.
  • If your child is in a club, he or she should try to get elected to a leadership position by junior or senior year.
  • Community service is pretty much expected these days.  Encourage your student to focus his or her service activity into something that is of great interest.  For example, this could be working with kids, working with the elderly, working outdoors, volunteering at a local museum, church or community center.
  • Your student should try to focus on activities outside of school that match his or her passions – this might be art, music, theater, sports, or computers, just to name a few.
  • Jobs and summer programs in your student’s main area of interest are always looked upon favorably.

Encourage your student to narrow down to just a few activities by junior and year to allow enough time to focus on grades, ACT/SAT tests, college visits, and then the college application process during senior year.


Applying to Colleges

3 Reasons Your Junior Should Take the PSAT

Standardized TestThe PSAT/NMSQT test is offered by high schools around the country in October.  It is an important test for college-bound high school juniors.  If your junior is not already signed up, understand why this test is beneficial and get them signed up soon.

Why Your Junior Should Take the PSAT

  1. Test Prep – The PSAT format is the same as the SAT test.  If your student is planning to take the SAT, the PSAT will serve as an initial practice test.  With the scores, your student will receive feedback on how to prepare for the SAT.  Even if your student is planning to take the ACT instead of the SAT, the experience will be helpful to prepare for a multi-hour test.  It will also help in determining which test your student is better suited for.  Since the ACT and SAT currently are set up differently, to test somewhat different skill sets, some students will do better on one test vs. the other.  As the Princeton Review indicates, it’s all about getting a high score, so a student should stick with the test that gives them the potential to achieve the highest score.  Most colleges will accept both tests.  For students looking to get into very competitive schools that take either test, I recommend having a high school junior take the PSAT in October, followed by the ACT in either October or December (if your student hasn’t taken it previously).  Then analyze the results from both tests to see which one makes more sense to focus on going forward.
  2. Scholarships – The NMSQT component of the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.  The test is used to select candidates for the National Merit Scholarship Program.  It is a very competitive program and is based on the highest PSAT scores state by state.  That means each state has its own cutoff score for eligibility.  You can read more about the National Merit Scholarship Program here: National Merit Scholarship Program.  There is also the National Achievement Scholarship Program to recognize outstanding African American students and the National Hispanic Recognition Program.  Through the National Merit Scholarship Program, students may be eligible for scholarships directly from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, scholarships sponsored by colleges and universities, and scholarships sponsored by corporations.  The student guide for the National Merit Scholarship Program lists out all corporations and colleges currently offering scholarships through the program.  However, it does not indicate scholarship amounts for each.  My Full Scholarship List includes schools that offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for finalists and semi-finalists in the national merit programs.
  3. Information – Taking the PSAT will open up several avenues of information for your student.  With the test results, your student will receive feedback on strengths and weaknesses and ways to prepare for college.  Your student will also receive feedback on suitable majors and careers and a list of colleges to consider.  Taking the test puts your student into a data bank that will make them accessible to schools around the country – meaning your student will get information from lots of colleges!  This used to mean stacks of college brochures in the mail, but has now turned into tons of emails in your students inbox.

To find out all the details on the PSAT test, visit the College Board’s official PSAT site.  Even if your student’s school is not offering the test, the site will help you find a nearby school that is.  The test is typically offered both during the school day and on a Saturday, so you should be able to find one that is doable.  And finally, the test costs only $14 so it is definitely worth the price for all of the benefits.

ACT/SAT Tests, Scholarships ,

College Search – Finding the Right “Fit”

ChecklistHigh school students in the college search process are encouraged to find the college that is the best “fit.”  This is definitely important, but I believe “fit” is not a single concept.  There are many different types of “fit” that must be considered.

As a parent going through the college search process with your college-bound kid, encourage your student to consider all of the following types of fit.

Academic Fit

  • Does the school have academic programs that will challenge your student and cover what he/she wants to study?
  • Is an honors program or honors college something that would be a good fit for your student, keeping in mind that many classes will be taken with a wider non-honors student base?
  • Would your student be better suited for a very highly selective school where all classes are more like an “honors” curriculum?
  • If your student is undecided on a major, does the school have a good program to help students explore different content areas and ultimately select the right major for them?
  • Look at the mid-range GPA and ACT or SAT scores for the students.  Where does your student fit compared to that range?  Is he/she comfortable with that position (lowest 25%, mid 50% or highest 25%)?

Social Fit

  • How will your student fit in with the other students on campus?
  • Is the school large enough that there are different groupings of like-minded students and the school seems to have something for everyone?
  • If it is a small school, is the predominant “feel” including culture, attitude, and political leaning a good match for your student?
  • Consider the socioeconomic background of the student body.  Will your student fit in or feel out of place?
  • Are there clubs and activities that your student is interested in or would he/she be giving up some of his/her favorites to attend there?

Spiritual Fit

  • Does the school have a particular religious leaning?  If so, is that a good match for your student?
  • Are there opportunities available on campus for your student to worship or join groups that fit his/her spiritual needs (or not feel pressured if he/she doesn’t want this aspect)?

Physical Fit

  • Is the campus physically appealing to your student?
  • Is the surrounding neighborhood appealing or does it feel unsafe?
  • Is your student comfortable with the campus size or does it seem too small or too large?
  • What about the dorms?  Do they seem livable?
  • How long are students required to live on campus and does that meet with your expectations?
  • Do the classrooms seem conducive to learning or are they old and outdated?
  • Are there good places on campus to hang out, to study, to work out, etc?
  • Does it seem like the school has spent too much money trying to visually attract students with the most modern high-tech facilities?  Sometimes that can be a sign that “show” is more important to the school than “substance?”

Emotional Fit

  • How does your student feel about the school – it may take an overnight visit to gauge this.
  • Does it feel like a place he or she belongs?
  • Can your student picture himself/herself living there for four years?

Financial Fit

  • Parents, this is where you really get to weigh in – Is the school a good financial fit for your family?
  • If the sticker price is not affordable, is your student eligible for some great merit scholarships to bring down the cost?
  • What about need-based aid?  Are you relying on a school to provide this?  If so, have you estimated how much the school may offer?

When you are assessing college fit during the college search process, make sure you are considering all of the different kinds of fit and not just whether your student “feels” good about a school.  There are so many other pieces to consider in order to make sure it is the right place to spend the next four years.

College Search

The Second Year of College and Selecting a Major

This past week, we took our oldest daughter back for her second year of college.  It was a good drop off.  I was glad to have the first year separation over and done as the second year drop off was much easier emotionally.  We had survived one year apart, we were ready to do it again.  It did scare me that after this year, there are only two more years (potentially) before she is out of school and off on her own.  It’s hard to imagine her living and working on her own.  I can’t picture what she will be doing, mostly because she has no idea what she wants to do.

Our daughter has not decided what to study yet and she is very stressed out about this as she starts her second year of college.  As with most schools, her college requires her to declare a major by the end of her sophomore year.  She is worried that she won’t pick a major that will lead her into a good career field – one that pays well and is also something she enjoys.

I read an interesting article this week that questions the value of a student’s field of study, grades, and school selection for potential employers, The Thing Employers Look For When Hiring Recent Graduates.  According to the article, even the college major takes a backseat to internships and employment during college.  Unfortunately, that will be of little comfort to a student like my daughter who is looking for a “sign” to point her to the right field of study.  She has great aptitude and interest in Art History, but is worried that this will not lead her to a successful career.

So what advice do you give to a kid who is afraid of selecting a major and making the wrong choice?

According to Carmen Varejcka-McGee, an academic adviser at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, in a US News article, “”The tough idea for students today to grasp is that they can choose to study something that they are passionate about, an academic area that they love, without knowing what vocational path that might lead to.”   She also says, “Many students get stuck on the idea that they have to have a clear vocational goal in order to choose a major.”

I think this is the key point to get across to your child.  Many of the jobs of the future don’t even exist today.  Just because a field they are interested in doesn’t look like it will result in a “dream job” doesn’t mean there isn’t one just waiting to be invented.  It is often about combining the right mix of skills and experience into something someone never would have thought of doing.  Or it’s about using your skills and experience in a position where it wasn’t obvious these skills would even apply.

The best advice you can give the child struggling with selecting a major includes the following:

  • Major in something you really enjoy
  • Don’t worry about how much money you will make
  • Apply for internships early in your college career
  • Meet with professors who teach a class you really love to get their thoughts
  • Go for supplementary areas that will give you a well-rounded skill base (second majors and/or minors)
  • Get a job during college that will also round out your base of skills (especially “soft skills“)
  • Look for other opportunities that will help shape your future – off-campus/study abroad programs, volunteering, summer jobs, on campus leadership, etc.

I am confident that the classes my daughter is taking this year will help her in her final decision.  She is taking classes with two professors she really clicked with last year and they sounded more than willing to help her mold her course of study.  Selecting a college major isn’t the only key to your student’s future.  It’s really important to look for opportunities to build a great skill base that goes beyond just the major field of study. 

After the College Choice

Is Your Child’s Dream School a Financial Nightmare?

Today’s post is a guest post from Shanice Miller of  She wants to make sure parents understand the financial differences between the three major types of colleges: private colleges, public colleges and community colleges.

If you have a child that is a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior in high school, you’re probably starting to think about college and how you’re going to afford it. While some parents have started 529 plans and saved $40,000 or more to put towards their child’s college education, that number might not be enough to cover the child’s college costs. With some colleges costing as much as $60,000 for only a single year, your child’s dream school can quickly turn into a financial nightmare unless the child has a full-ride scholarship.

So how do you prevent your child’s dream school from becoming a financial nightmare and breaking your checking, savings, and retirement accounts? The first step is to understand exactly how much your child’s dream school will cost. You can easily do this by knowing what category your child’s dream school will fall into.

There are 3 different categories of colleges: Private colleges, public colleges, and community colleges.

Private Colleges

Private colleges are the most expensive of the 3 types of colleges. However, don’t rule these out just yet. Some private colleges can offer a lot of merit scholarships. Merit scholarships are based solely on the student’s academic achievements like their GPA (grade point averages), SAT scores, and athletic abilities. These scholarships can provide your child with tens of thousands of dollars to attend, which might make the college affordable and the price tag not as steep as you once thought.

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a private college is about $41,000 per year— this includes room and board costs. Harvard University, Howard University, and Boston College are all examples of private colleges. Let’s look at their total college costs. Harvard University and Boston College cost about $60,000 per year to attend while Howard University costs about $40,000 per year. This means if your child’s dream school is a private school, make sure that you have approximately $164,000 in your budget for all 4 years.

Public Colleges

Public colleges are less expensive than private colleges. However, there are two types of public colleges— in-state public colleges and out-of-state public colleges. In-state public colleges are colleges in your state of residence while out-of-state public colleges are colleges that are in any other state besides the state that you reside in.

The College Board averages the cost of in-state public colleges at $18,000 per year and out-of-state public colleges at about $32,000 per year. The University of Houston and the University of California Los Angeles are both public colleges. Let’s look at their total college costs as an in-state resident in comparison to an out-of-state resident. For in-state residents, the University of Houston costs about $18,500 each year while an out-of-state resident would have to pay $27,000. For UCLA (University of California Los Angeles), in-state residents have to pay $28,700 per year while out-of-state residents have to pay $51,600. This means if your child’s dream school is a public in-state college, make sure that you have approximately $72,000 for all four years, but if the child’s dream college is an out-of-state public college, be prepared to pay $128,000.

Community College

Community colleges are the least expensive of the three types of colleges; however, tuition costs for community colleges will increase if your child wants to attend a community college that is not in your county of residence or in your state of residence. The College Board estimates community colleges costing $3,264 per year. Part of the reason that community colleges are so affordable is because they do not offer housing options and meal plans. Also, community college programs typically are two year programs where your child can receive an associate’s degree or switch to a 4-year institution where your child can continue his last two years of studies and receive a bachelor’s degree.

Some examples of community colleges are Anne Arundel Community College and Baltimore City Community College. Anne Arundel Community College costs $6,990 while Baltimore City Community College costs $2,460 each year. So if your child’s dream school is a community college, have an average of $6,528 in your budget for her associate’s degree or first two years of college.

As you can see, not all colleges are the same when it comes to the price. Knowing the cost of your child’s dream college can really prevent surprises in your budget and lifestyle.

Shanice Miller is the author of “How to Graduate College Debt-Free with Money in the Bank” and a personal scholarship coach. Learn more about her at

College Search

College Search Math: “Hard” vs. “Soft” Factors

Today’s post is a guest post from Steve Palley, CEO and co-founder of ApplyMap, a new website that helps high school students decide where to apply to college. He is also an academic and educator at UCLA.

Although most professionals working in the space would never describe it this way, I think that college admissions is the world’s most important numbers game. By and large, admissions officers truly care about the students they evaluate, and if they had unlimited resources they would get to know every applicant personally.

But the bottom line is that admissions offices are bureaucracies that have to process huge amounts of data quickly, reliably, and consistently. That means boiling real people down to a set of numbers.

As a statistician who studies the college admissions process, parents are always asking me how this works. How is it possible to take a complex, multifaceted young person and summarize them so decisively? It all starts with two numbers in particular, high school GPA and standardized test scores–the “hard factors” in a student’s application.

Why are grades and test scores called “hard factors”? One common explanation is that they are somehow more objective than the other parts of the application simply because they’re numerical. But that’s not really true, because context is everything. If you think about it, no two 4.0 GPAs or 2150 SATs are really the same, either within or between schools. They are themselves composite measurements of many different factors.

Furthermore, the “soft factors”–essays, extracurriculars, recommendations, and so on–get numbers too, applicants just don’t know what they are. For instance, admissions officers usually sort personal statements into scored categories based on a rubric, just like SAT essay readers do. The difference is that in the latter case, we know that roughly 1 out of 20 SAT-takers will receive a 780 or greater on the Writing section of the exam. The numbers for the soft factors are every bit as real, but they are hidden behind the walls of the admissions office.

Another difference between “hard” and “soft” factors has to do with the relative importance of each to the admissions decision. Admissions data from the 1600 schools in our database tell us that hard and soft factors weigh about equally into any individual admissions decision in 2014, with a slight edge going to hard factors overall.

But a closer look reveals more complex patterns. Hard factors start to lose their meaning as we move from lower-ranked to higher-ranked schools, because of the self-selecting nature of the students applying to top schools. So many of them have perfect grades and great test scores that the only way to really distinguish one from another is to do a deep dive into the soft factors. There’s a reason why application fees at the top schools have been increasing so rapidly in recent years!

A similar principle comes into play at schools that get enormous numbers of applicants, whether they are prestigious or not. In these cases, the hard factors often are used in a first pass across tens thousands of applicants in order to winnow the pool down to a more manageable number. Once the applicant pool is small enough, the more labor-intensive soft factors can come into play.

The opposite can also be true. In some cases, if a student’s hard factors are good enough, soft factors don’t matter at all. For example, the University of Texas automatically accepts the top 10% of that state’s high school students by class rank, and admission to most California State Universities is governed by a computer program called the eligibility index.

Most parents don’t like the idea of their teens being quantified by admissions professionals because numbers will never be able to capture the full reality of who they are as a person. But I think that admissions offices generally do a good job of making tough decisions based on limited information. With that in mind, the best thing to do as a parent is to embrace the uncertainty of the process as much as you can. Make sure your son or daughter is applying to a balanced list of 8-12 schools, and also be sure to remind them–and yourself!–to relax, joke, and smile. A sense of humor goes a long way during college season.

College Search

Accelerate Your College Search Now!

Are you the parent of a rising high school junior or senior who feels “behind the game” in the college search process? 

Are you overwhelmed with college options, college costs and terminology? 

Do you need to a quick way to find schools you can afford?

If so, I have a recommendation.  My friend in the college advice business, Michelle Kretzschmar, is offering a new online class starting August 14th that will help you build a list of “best fit” and affordable colleges fast!  You can even take the introductory lessons for free.  hasilyhahzifkphgzzgppqgvl_usermedia

Check out this class on Michelle’s DIY College Rankings website.

Michelle has created an Excel spreadsheet that contains data on over 1,500 colleges.  It is a real time saver in the college search process.  Instead of going to a college search website and plugging in criteria to build a list of schools that may be good for your child, Michelle starts with everything and lets you filter and sort as you narrow down what your child needs in a school.  The DIY College Rankings spreadsheet is filled with reliable data you can use to find the best college deals.

You can purchase the DIY College Rankings spreadsheet for $42 and I believe it will be a tremendous time saver in your college search process.  For just an additional $57 ($99 total cost with coupon code WENDY50), you can take Michelle’s online class for four weeks along with the spreadsheet.  You will learn the following, and more:

  • How to calculate your Expected Family Contribution
  • What types of financial aid are offered to help you afford college
  • What schools will offer the most need-based aid
  • Where to find merit aid
  • How to determine schools that are the best fit for your student
  • How to use the DIY College Rankings spreadsheet effectively

Michelle is offering you this special price for her class starting August 14, 2014 when you sign up using the coupon code WENDY50 I don’t get paid for promoting her class, I just believe in her materials and extensive knowledge on how to find the best college deals.

College Search