Standardized Tests

This is the second in a series of posts about how a homeschooling student can put together a persuasive college application.  In this series, I talk about

• Standardized Tests
• Outside Letter of Reference
• Letter of Reference from a Parent
• Transcripts
• Student essay
• Some general things to keep in mind

And to begin with, the standardized tests.  A savvy admissions committee knows that the ACT or SAT scores are not the last word on a student’s ability.  Low scores can be misleading, because the applicant may have had a headache that day, or may have been in the middle of a family crisis, or may tend to freeze up in testing situations:  false negatives are a reality with standardized tests.  But it is well-nigh impossible to get a false positive:  nobody can fake a great score on the ACT or SAT.  So while low scores don’t necessarily sink an application, high scores are a great asset to the applicant.

They are a great asset to the admissions committee as well, for a couple of reasons.  First, home schooled students often don’t have any outside evaluation of their academic achievements.  The person who graded the student—mom or dad—is the same person who stands to benefit if the student gets into college, so an admissions committee often wants to see some kind of testimony from outside the home.  For many home schooled students, this will be the standardized test.

Second, the standardized tests are—well, standardized.  The exact same test is taken by lots and lots of people each year, so the scores allow a committee to compare this applicant with a very large pool of peers.  This is why the most important numbers in your student’s SAT or ACT results are the percentile rankings:  a 1200 as compared to a 1250 may not mean much in itself, but the fact that your student out-performed 70 percent of the people who took this exact test says a lot.

So don’t be afraid of the standardized test, but take it seriously.  Most especially, don’t take it cold.  The fact is that there are tips and tricks to taking these standardized tests, and the score you get reflects not only your mathematical or language ability but also your ability to take these tests.  Get one of the many books or computer programs that help a student prepare, and make sure it comes with practice tests.  Even just a few days of preparation will make a big difference.  The other people taking the test are using these prep tools, so you need to level the playing field.

If your test results are still not all wonderful, don’t worry:  subscores matter.  Maybe you are trying to gain admission to a literature program but your math scores are dragging down your composite SAT score; remember that the admissions committee is going to pay more attention to your language scores than your math scores.  On the other hand, if your math scores are high but your language scores are low, the committee is not going to be impressed by your good composite score.  They want to see that you have the specific strengths their program demands.

But even if your subscores are low in key areas, don’t despair.  Compensate with another part of the application.  For example, you can ask the person who writes your academic letter of reference to speak directly about that low test score.  Our program at Wyoming Catholic College is reading intensive, and I recall reviewing an application from a student whose critical reading score on the standardized test was abysmal.  But he had taken classes through the Mother of Divine Grace program, and his teacher wrote this in a letter of reference:

“The critical reading section of his test was very low, yet I have a multitude of papers from Joe, written by Joe without any assistance, that show he is comprehending what he reads for class.”

That was a powerful testimony for the admissions committee, and we ended up believing his teacher over the test.  I want to pick up this very point in my next post, when I will talk about the letter of reference.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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