Answering Parents' College Planning Questions

Get advice on how to help your kids prepare for college.

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Periodically, I respond directly to questions about college planning that might be of interest to others as they engage in the process. This week's column features some of those exchanges with parents. If there are questions or concerns you would like me to address, please direct them to me at TheAdmissionsInsider@usnews.com.

Our daughter heard that she needs to submit the results from all of the SAT and ACT tests she has taken with her college applications. I was under the impression that applicants only need to submit scores from one of the tests—is this correct?

According to the rules of "score choice" offered by the respective test makers, applicants are the owners of their scores and can determine which of their test results are to be sent to each school. Theoretically, they can submit any or all of their test results from multiple sittings for the ACT or SAT, or both if they so choose, in support of their applications.

I say "theoretically" because a small number of highly selective schools do not recognize the "score choice" option and insist that applicants submit the results of all tests taken. Please note: Students cannot mix and match sub-scores to create their own "superscore."

Because most, if not all, colleges and universities in the country now accept/use the ACT and SAT results interchangeably, students are well advised to try each test. If your daughter is more comfortable with one of the tests (ACT or SAT), then she should focus on that test only.

[Browse the U.S. News college test prep guide.]

In planning summer activities, does it help if my son takes a program at the university he desires most?

Summer programs are great if pursued as personal enrichment within the context of the student's natural learning path and curiosity regarding the subject in question. They are not, however, automatic leveraging points for applicants.

Admissions officers are looking for a sense of purpose and authenticity in a student's activities. When it is clear that your son's participation is a natural extension of his developing interests, rather than a résumé-building tactic, they [admissions officers] are more likely to credit him for his involvement.

My daughter is a student at an arts magnet high school in our city. Because the magnet school is pretty small, the advanced track will only yield her seven AP class credits. By contrast, her neighborhood school is three times the size. It offers some art classes as well as more than 50 advanced track classes. An advantage my daughter has at the magnet school is that she is able to play varsity field hockey, but she would not make the team at the neighborhood school.

We are trying to convince one of my daughter's friends to switch to the magnet school as its academic track will be well-received by top-tier universities even if she does not major in the arts. Will one program be viewed more highly than the other?

While the arts magnet track will be highly regarded by colleges, it should only be chosen if it makes sense to the student who is considering the option. If your daughter's friend needs to be convinced, it is probably best not to push too hard. In the abstract, the magnet program is sure to offer many advantages.

Your daughter's friend, however, might legitimately find advantages for her in the neighborhood school. The option that works for your daughter—for reasons that are particular to her—might not represent the most beneficial option to her friend.

[Follow 3 steps for choosing the right high school classes.]

My son has taken the SAT twice. Last December's scores were Math 610, Reading 710, and Writing 770. This March, the scores are Math 700, Reading 740, and Writing 710. He is an honor student with lots of APs, a varsity athlete, a school leader, and grade school tutor. From what we can tell, his top scores from the two tests are in the ballpark for the highly selective schools in which he is interested. Our question is, "Should he take the SATs again?"

Your son has established quite a record—and, you are correct, his SAT "superscore" and academic record will put him on the "competitive playing field" at the most selective schools. That simply means he has hope as an applicant.

Competing successfully, however, hinges on his ability to demonstrate to a given institution that he possesses a talent, interest, or perspective that it values. His scores are fine. They won't keep him out as they are—and further improvement is not a guarantee that he will get in. The bottom line: If he feels uncomfortable with his scores as they are, it won't hurt to take the SAT again.


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