Answering Questions about Test Prep with Audrey Hazzard from Get Smarter Prep
Audrey Hazzard has worked in test prep for more than a decade, focusing primarily on the ACT, SAT, and LSAT. She's the Director of Curriculum and New Initiatives as well as a Premier-Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.
When should students prepare for the PSAT? (or should they prepare at all?)
We only recommend that a very small number of students prepare for the PSAT. For the overwhelming majority of students, the test doesn't impact their college admissions process. Only students scoring in the top 3% are Commended, and only in the top 1% for their state receive Semifinalist status. So even if a student studies, prepares, and does very well on the exam - scoring in the 85th or 90th percentile, for example - their test won't impact their college applications directly unless they hit that top 3%. Also, unlike other standardized tests, there is no opportunity to retake the PSAT. Preparing for the PSAT is a significant investment of time and resources, geared towards only one chance to take a test with an incredibly selective cutoff, below which the scores won't impact their applications. Students consider the PSAT important for scholarships, but SAT and ACT scores can also provide a good path to scholarships.
For those reasons, we don't recommend PSAT prep for students unless they are already scoring very well on the SAT. We recommend PSAT prep for students already scoring in the 95th percentile (1430) or above on the SAT. If a student does plan to prepare for the PSAT, we'd suggest doing so in the weeks leading up to the test, starting in August or September. In addition, if a student is preparing during that time, we suggest taking an SAT in October or November, since the content of the exams is similar. Taking the October or November SAT could mean their whole testing requirement is done pretty early in Junior year.
Do you recommend students take both the ACT and SAT?
There's no reason to spend time preparing for both! Any school in the US (if they accept scores at all) will accept either test. If students are considering which test to focus on, they should take a practice version of both tests before they begin to prepare for either. They can use those results to choose between the two exams. If a student doesn't want to take a practice version of both, the ACT is more often a better fit for our students, so we would default to ACT.
Now that we're coming out of the pandemic and schools are adjusting to test optional vs. requiring test scores, what trends are you seeing from colleges regarding test scores?
The biggest trends we've noticed are that requirements are less consistent, changes are announced later, and schools are less transparent about who is getting admitted than they were before the pandemic. The last few years have created a lot of instability in admissions, and that's understandable with all of the disruptions that have occurred. At the same time, it can be tricky to keep track of requirements when they are changing more frequently. Also, it's hard to know how important test scores are at some of the test-optional schools. Even where class profiles for admitted students are published (and not all schools are making them available), schools aren't disclosing how many students are applying or being admitted without submitting test scores. We maintain that test scores are an important part of applications for most students, especially because grade inflation in recent years means that a great GPA does not differentiate a student from their peers the way it might have years ago.
If someone is reading this and they are taking a standardized test in the next two weeks, what's your biggest piece of advice for them about test prep?
It's hard to pick just one thing! First, if they are currently not sleeping as much as they should, or if they are feeling burned out or tired, they should try to cut back on obligations to get caught up on sleep before the test. Second, if they are not ready for their scheduled test, and don't think they will be, they should defer to a later test date. Finally, remember that accuracy matters more than completing every question! Slowing down is counter-intuitive, but it is very beneficial for scores.