Our Advice

 CollegeSmiths' Basic but Timely Advice for YOUR College Process

The Competitive* College Checklist for Juniors (Class of 21) 
effective September 2019

     *Any college to which you are not an obvious admit

  1. IDENTIFY YOUR COLLEGES as a JUNIOR:  It’s as easy to do this early as it is later and a lot less stressful.  It takes research (get online early and often) and effort on your part.  AT LEAST decide the kind of colleges you want and, hopefully, the specific colleges.  It’s especially important to know how selective your schools are, so you know what you will have to do to be competitive.  Avoid the myths from well meaning but misguided “advice givers,” and have someone knowledgeable (like your counselors) help you assess your chances.  Make sure you understand the odds, and can handle rejection.
  2. KNOW the REAL ODDS & HAVE a PLAN B:  Make sure there is at least one college where you are sure of being accepted and happy if nothing else works out. Consider the advantages of being the “big fish in the smaller pond” as well as “the small fish in the deep, challenging pond." Understand that the odds are stacked heavily against you (even much more so than the published #'s) at the most selective schools, but still pursue them if you want them.  However, have a list of schools of varying selectivity. Check out the college matching program on or Naviance.
  3. ANALYZE YOURSELF LIKE A COLLEGE WILL:  Get a handle on the kind of courses, grades, test scores and extracurricular accomplishments you will need.  If they are greater than the record you have so far, get busy building a stronger one OR be prepared to settle for other colleges and programs. Know which “pool” you will be in and where you stand; colleges select top people from different pools, not necessarily the top ones overall. Again, know the odds and be prepared for rejection. 
  4. NO SENIORITIS (or JUNIORITIS):  Most colleges want to see good grades IN strong courses (not either/or.)  Colleges know what those courses are in your (any) school.  Take the hard ones in which you can earn at least a B if you work hard.  Then, work hard enough to get the better grade!  Obviously, factor in the rest of the things going on in your life.  Don’t completely overload yourself, but don’t “whimp out” either. Your junior grades are the most important.  Your senior schedule and your first semester grades are also important, but you can’t really slack off then, either, because colleges can rescind acceptances.
  5. KNOW WHAT KIND of TEST TAKER YOU ARE:  Some students do better on class work than on tests.  Which is the truer indicator of your academic ability?  Some colleges have many qualified candidates and still look seriously at test scores; if yours are lower than expected, you will need to either choose schools that put less emphasis on scores or improve the scores.  Like any skill, test taking can be improved with knowledge and practice.  Some students can “do-it-yourself” with free or inexpensive test prep materials and a lot of effort.  Others need knowledgeable preparation direction and a lot of practice.  There are many prep options available at a wide range of costs (both time and money.)  Choose one that matches what you need and what you are realistically willing to do. 
  6. PLAN YOUR TESTING SCHEDULE AROUND YOUR LIFE:  Hopefully, you have taken the PSAT in October.  Get started on both the ACT and SAT by mid-junior year.  Get busy NOW and plan a schedule around your life (busy times of year for you, vacations, etc.)  Get very familiar with and and take BOTH tests at least once.  Re-take at least one of them a couple more times by fall.  Mid-junior year, late junior year and early senior year are good times for many students.  Know the best test sites, the test dates and the registration deadlines.  Also consider the ACT’s TIR and the SAT’s QAS, which give you copies of your test and answers (at extra cost and only available on certain test dates: ACT - Dec, Apr, June;  SAT - Oct, Jan, May) to aid your preparation for future tests.  SAT's SAS is not worth doing but the QAS is.
  7. SAT SUBJECT TESTS: Study the policy on SAT Subject Tests at every school of interest, including whether they are required, recommended (means required if you want to be accepted) or optional and the number and specific subject requirements.  Policies vary widely.  Some now say “required if submitting an SAT score,” but you do not yet know whether you will submit ACT or SAT.  If taking Subject Tests, do so ASAP after you have studied that subject and factor those dates into your SAT schedule, as they use the same test dates
  8. “TEST OPTIONAL” can mean different things at different colleges: e.g. they’re only required for scholarships or that you can submit different types of tests instead of ACT/SAT (e.g. AP/IB/Subject Tests).
  9. ATTEND COLLEGE FAIRS, COLLEGE REP. VISITS to your HS and SPECIAL PROGRAMS:  One factor in how much a college wants you is how much the college thinks you want them.  All of your contacts with them are an indication of this.  Be sure they know your name each time.  Don’t hesitate to call or email with GOOD questions, but don’t overdo this.
  10. VISIT COLLEGES:  If at all possible, visit your schools of interest to show your interest and to test your interest.  You can accomplish a lot IF you plan ahead to make the visits productive. 
  11. DEVELOP AN “UN-COMMON” APPLICATION PACKAGE:  The junior/senior summer is “prime time” for doing this.  Be sure your resume, essay and recommendations present you in the best way possible for demonstrating that YOU are a good “FIT” for that specific college or that scholarship. 
  12. UNDERSTAND THE COMMON APPLICATION:  Know its strengths and especially its weaknesses and how to make it work FOR you.  Use every opportunity to present "YOU" in the way that describes you best.  Pay special attention to the Common Essay, Activities List and colleges' Supplemental Essays.  Answer the questions thoroughly. Some schools use the Common App exclusively, but some provide an option of their own application or the common app.
  13. APPLY EARLY in the SENIOR YEAR:  Improve your chances, get your answers earlier, reduce stress and focus on scholarships.  Especially consider Early Action where it is an option.  Early Decision is fine IF you are ready to commit.  Just plain old applying early to “rolling admissions” schools is also a great idea.  Know the rules for each kind of application.  Line up the recommendations from teachers, counselors, etc. you need early and strategically.


    © to be reprinted/distributed only with the permission 
    of CollegeSmiths


De-mystifying the ACT / SAT –
Which, When, Why & How?

        What every high school Junior should know

Our Basic Advice:  Take both tests in first semester of your junior year.  Compare scores and take at least one, at least one more time, usually before Dec. of the senior year.  We prefer students take one or both 3 times, but usually not more than 4.   Find the best test center for you using the specific city name.  “Know the rules and pack your tools.”  Read the test companies' FREE booklets on preparing.  They are also on their websites.

Prep will help significantly with the NEW SAT. 

FACT:  A few colleges have made tests optional for admissions, but nearly all use them for scholarship consideration. Most consider them a part (but not the most significant part) of your application package.  Challenging courses taken and grades in them (NOT GPA alone) are always more important.  However, test scores are still important at many/most colleges, especially more selective ones. 

FACT:  Virtually every college will accept either test (and either version of SAT) equally and your best score for either test on any one date.  It is a myth that East/West Coast colleges use only SAT and Midwestern colleges use ACT. 
“Superscoring” is the practice of recalculating your score using the best section scores from various test dates.  Colleges are not required to “superscore” but many do, with more doing so for the SAT (but not between OLD/NEW SAT's).

Does test prep help?  Test-taking is a skill.  We learn most skills best with some coaching and a lot of practice or at least some study and a lot of practice.  There are many different test prep options from free, do-it-yourself books or online activities to very extensive (and expensive) classes with multiple sessions.  We suggest you choose the option which best matches the amount of time, effort and money you are willing to devote.  More expensive does NOT mean better.

Extra Services Can Help Your Test Prep: ACT’s TIR (Test Information Service) and SAT’s QAS (Question and Answer Service) provide copies of the test you took, your answers and the correct answers, which are very helpful in preparing for later tests.  Each costs about $19 additional (paid with registration or separately for a few months after the test) and are only available for certain test dates (ACT’s in Dec., April and June, SAT’s in Oct., Jan., and May.)  The materials are sent out a few weeks after your score reports.

Important Additional Information:  1. Students eligible for free/reduced lunch are also eligible for ACT/SAT fee waivers (AND college application fee waivers).  2. Students eligible for special services in school may be allowed such services on the tests (e.g. extra time.)  See your counselor for either situation.

Our OPINION of the Differences and our TIPS: 

·      ACT Science (really a data analysis test) is the biggest content difference, as it exists only on ACT.  Have a strategy for attacking the questions. 
The NEW SAT Reading section still has word-in-context questions with unusual ("SAT") words.  Be sure you know how to handle the "Best Evidence" questions on Reading.

·       SAT answers, especially in Reading and later questions in other sections, are somewhat more obscure (tricky.) Have a strategy.  Reading and “Grid-in” sections are not in order of difficulty.  Avoid "attractive nuisance" answers.

·       SAT timing, with more minutes per question, is less intense.  Also, sections are divided into shorter, timed sessions. ACT Reading and Science especially require practice on time management strategies.  We teach a VERY different approach to these sections called "find the clues, find the answers," which has been VERY successful for our students.

·       Math content is pretty similar on the tests, with only minor differences for each test.  Know the concepts.  The NEW SAT Math format is different from the OLD SAT and the ACT.  One section is NON-Calculator and is heavy on equations.  The other is somewhat similar to ACT but does have a few more advanced math questions.

·       SAT Student Produced Response Math (“Grid-in”) section causes some test-takers to panic (unnecessarily because the content is NOT more difficult.)  You just need to adjust to not having multiple choices and to recording the answers differently (and correctly.)  There is no longer a penalty for guessing on the SAT, so answer every question!

·       ACT English and the Writing part of the NEW SAT Reading section are nearly identical.  Know the grammar concepts.

·      Writing samples are no longer similar except both are now optional (but not really for many colleges).  NEW SAT allows 50 min. and ACT 40.  The NEW SAT Essay is a VERY different approach (NOT an persuasive essay like ACT and the OLD SAT).  It requires you to analyze the writing in very specific ways and will expect certain points to be made  Be sure to read about ACT writing, so you will respond to the directions that tell you to compare your opinion with the 3 perspectives they give you. Know the tips for improving your writing sample (legibility, staying on topic, writing enough) for either test.


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 Watch for updated details about the NEW PSAT/SAT later.

ACT (    NEW SAT (





the average of 4 sections, rounded up

e.g. 21.5 - 22.25 = 22

            Combined scoring:   Combined Scores

“1600 score” (Reading and Math only but Reading has a "writing/language" section)

English  (Grammar, usage, punctuation)

5 passages of 15 Q ea. = 75 Q / 45 min.

Study the concepts.

ACT only

Note: SAT Writing multiple choice section is VERY similar to ACT English only shorter.  The main difference is the lack of punctuation.


60 Q / 60 minutes
all multiple choice Q

Most formulas are not given, unlike the SAT, so know the ones the SAT gives.
Study the concepts.

Similar concepts on the 2 tests with only a few minor differences

Math (half of the 1600 score)

divided into 2 timed sections one with and one without calculator.  The non-calculator section is heavy with equation problems of various kinds

Study the common concepts.  Fewer geometry problems.  Some advanced math.


4 same-length (long) passages with 10 Q’s each = 40 Q / 35 min.  The most time-intensive section for most students.  Develop/practice YOUR strategy for finding the clues to finding the answers.

 ACT - reading passages only

SAT - reading passages and
vocabulary Q 
(half of the 1600 score)

divided into 2 sections, one of reading passages and one of "writing" (grammar) questions similar to ACT English

The 5 reading passages are very different from one another and from ACT or old SAT, with large percentages of certain types of questions which require prep..

It is really a “data analysis” test.

6-7 passages of 5-7 Q = 40 Q / 35 minutes

Develop/practice YOUR strategy.

ACT only


Note: No SAT section similar to ACT Science

Writing 2-12 scale

Optional on ACT, but expected by most colleges even though many use it only minimally (a score of    7 or 8 or above on a 12 point scale is fine at most schools. No Q’s, only a 40 minute writing sample.

ACT - writing sample is 

SAT -became optional on the NEW SAT

ESSAY (Writing Sample)
Optional.  More complex than ACT's.

Answer every Q even if guessing randomly, but try to “get to every Q.” 

Guessing Advice

Answer every Q.  There is no longer a guessing penalty on SAT.


Interpreting Your Scores:  Your score is just a number until you understand the percentile (the percentage of college-bound students you scored better than.)  Here are the approximate scores which correspond to the 50th , 75th  and 95th  percentiles on each test:

Percentile    ACT Composite *      

50th                                 20                                         

75th                                 24                                         

95th                       30                                    

*Note: ACT section scores may be slightly higher or lower than these numbers.


© To be reprinted or distributed only with permission of CollegeSmiths
614-519-0678 or

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