Taking Charge of Your Test Scores

What's the best way to handle sending scores?

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Heeding the calls for more flexibility and less stress in the testing process, the SAT and subject tests now give you the option of choosing which scores you send to colleges. But don't rejoice just yet: Some special rules and complexities mean you need to think this out.

So what's different? Here's the lowdown: It used to be that every college to which you sent your SAT scores got every single one of them. The SAT II worked under a slightly different policy until 2002, but since then, the same rules have applied for the subject tests. Now, however, you may elect to send your SAT scores from a single testing date (meaning you can't mix verbal from one and math from another), along with your choice of individual subject test scores, and hide the rest. "This is a positive move," says Marjorie Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. "Students feel more at ease taking the test with the idea in mind that they would never release the scores."

What's the catch? Unfortunately, not all colleges are honoring the College Board's new "score choice" policy. Some, like Auburn, will consider your highest SAT scores from a single test date, but they still encourage you to submit all your scores. Others, such as Boston College and Fairfield University, will take into account your highest section scores across all SAT test dates and therefore want to see them all. A good resource to consult is the SAT Score-Use Practices guide from the College Board, which breaks down many schools' specific policies. But be sure to confirm the information with any college or university you're interested in. Jacobs recommends that students make a chart that refers to each college's rules so they completely understand each school's requirements.

Why can't I just send my best scores? This is where it gets tricky, and there is considerable debate over the right road to take. In deciding whether to send a score that's not as strong as the rest—even though it may be "required"—students may be torn between their own best interests and integrity. "Nothing but good scores does look better than a mix of strong scores and weaker scores," admits Ned Johnson of PrepMatters, a Maryland-based test-preparatory and educational counseling firm.

Johnson's advice to students is to treat the whole process as though there were no score choice and to take the test—whether it's the SAT, subject tests, or the ACT—when they feel prepared. "If you take the test and you don't get the score that you want, take it again. But don't go and take the test just to see how it goes," he says. That's the purpose of the PSAT, study guides, and free testing tools available online, such as the College Board's SAT Skills Insight, which identifies skills that are needed for the test and poses sample questions.

Other counselors are advising students to use the score-choice option as it is presented by the College Board and report only the best scores, regardless of what a college recommends. "Even though a college 'recommends' that you send all, it may not be well advised to send all," says Jacobs.

Then there are those who say students should simply be honest and follow the school's recommendations. "I don't think students have anything to lose by sending all their scores," says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at the Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga., "and I don't believe that sending a score that's a little bit lower than the rest is going to be detrimental." So which is the best way to go, really? In the end, it may boil down to what you're most comfortable with.

Any advice on test-optional schools? Some schools leave it up to you whether to send them your SATs or ACTs at all. Check the school's range of test scores to help you decide which is best. "A score below the 25th percentile will weaken rather than strengthen the application," says Kristin Tichenor, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

What about the ACT? The ACT, which is more closely aligned to the high school curriculum, is being taken by more students each year as an alternative to the SAT (about 1.4 million last year versus 1.5 million for the SAT). If a curriculum-based test sounds better than a reasoning-based or critical thinking skills test, then the ACT may be for you. Says educational consultant Shirley Bloomquist: "Kids feel the ACT questions are clear and direct." The ACT has four sections—English, reading, math, and science, along with an optional writing section—and it has always allowed students to exercise choice when sending their scores to schools. So, you can send the best and hide the rest. That's one thing you don't have to spend countless hours debating.