“Test Optional” and the SAT/ACT

As part of the academic fallout from COVID-19, several test dates for the ACT and SAT were canceled. This left many students to wait until the fall to take their exams. Some colleges and universities, to help mitigate the situation, announced that they would become “test optional” schools. The headlines emphasized the term “test optional,” but news stories rarely dug into what it means for the SAT and ACT.

What does “test optional” mean?

The true significance of “test optional” schools is that students are able, if they choose, to apply without submitting test scores. However, colleges and universities–even the ones labeling themselves as “test optional”–are still considering ACT and SAT scores for admission, class placement, and merit-based aid. In fact, in a recent survey of college admission departments, over 80% of colleges feel that ACT and SAT scores are important evaluators for prospective students.

The California conundrum

Creating even more confusion was California’s decision to drop the SAT and ACT from their university system’s evaluation process. By 2024 or 2025, the state declared, California would no longer use either test for college admission. Again, headlines touted the decision as groundbreaking and game-changing, but the fine print contained the real story. As California phases out its use of the SAT and ACT, the state will be creating its own standardized test to use for students seeking admission. So they’re simply replacing one test with another of their own creation. This isn’t surprising, considering that the UC faculty recently announced that SAT and ACT scores were far more accurate predictors of college success, even for minority groups, than were students’ GPAs.

Why is a standardized test so important?

One of the major takeaways for students and parents should be a simple one: standardized tests aren’t going anywhere. With the volume of applications that arrive at a competitive school–for example, Stanford receives over 48,000 applications, while UCLA gets over 110,000 annually–colleges and universities need to have ways to work through those applications efficiently.

Student GPAs, while incredibly important, don’t tell a student’s whole story. A 4.0 at one school might not represent the same thing as a 4.0 at another. One school might have been academically rigorous, while the other might not. Test scores provide that objective benchmark schools need to couple with the rest of a student’s academic career. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of applicants, being able to get a quick snapshot is vital.

What does it all mean?

The end result is that preparing for the SAT and ACT is still vitally important, even in the post-COVID world. For juniors, the summer is the absolute best time to begin working to improve your test scores and opening the doors that a good ACT or SAT can provide!


Surveys and Polls on the SAT

2020 has been an interesting year, to say the least. COVID-19, earthquakes, murder hornets, and a rejuvenated civil rights movement have all hit the headlines in the first half of the year. As we enter the summer, however, the drama dial will be turned up to 11 as the next wave of chaos rolls in: the 2020 presidential election. And as part of that process, Americans will be inundated with surveys and polls. Even standardized test takers aren’t immune! Understanding surveys and polls on the SAT is an integral part of success on the math sections.

We’ll take a look at a couple of examples of polling and survey questions on the test and talk you through the strategy behind them.

Question 1: How to create a successful poll

A political scientist wants to predict how the residents of New Jersey will react to a new bill proposed in the state senate. Which of the following study designs is most likely to provide reliable results for the political scientist?

A) Mailing a questionnaire to each of 300 randomly selected residents of New Jersey

B) Surveying a group of 200 randomly selected New Jersey residents

C) Interviewing a group of students randomly selected from a large public university in New Jersey

D) Surveying a group of 1,500 randomly selected US residents

Any ideas? This is a fairly straightforward question that tests students on what makes a survey valid. Students can usually eliminate choices C) and D) because they don’t involve New Jersey residents directly.

But A) and B) can be a little more tricky. A) seems like the right choice at first glance because the survey involves more respondents–if it weren’t for the fact that the success of a questionnaire is dependent on a person returning it. Would all 300 residents return the survey? And, as I often ask my students, who returns a mailed questionnaire? A person who has a more pressing or direct interest in the issue! So while the political scientist may get some data from the questionnaire, a far more reliable method would be to directly survey a random group of state residents.

Question 2: What do the poll results mean?

A city with 120,000 residents is voting on a proposal that would eliminate overnight parking of vehicles on the city’s streets. An independent company randomly surveys 1,200 residents to see whether or not residents would support this proposal. The outcome of the survey shows that 60% of the residents surveyed approve of the proposal with a margin of error of 2%. Which of the following statements is a plausible conclusion from the outcome of the study?

A) Exactly 60% of city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

B) There are 72,000 city residents who approve eliminating overnight parking.

C) About 2% of the city residents do not approve eliminating overnight parking.

D) Between 58% and 62% of the city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

In this question, the survey has already been completed and the results are in: 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking with a margin of error of 2%. This question is focused on just what that result means.

We can eliminate choice A) because of one word: exactly. While a well-done poll can give a predicted result that is very close to reality, it’s still just that–a prediction. Even under the best of conditions, it’s not an exact science. One only needs to look at predictions surrounding recent elections to see how unscientific polls can be.

B) is an attractive choice because it looks like it might require some math. Surely the SAT would want us to calculate something in a math question! And, in fact, 60% of 120,000 is 72,000. The problem, however, comes back to the exactness of that result. A poll is always a prediction. So to say that 72,000 people would approve is far too precise for any poll. If the answer had said, “Around 72,000 city residents will likely approve…”, it would be far closer to the truth.

That leaves us with C) or D), and the choice between the two comes down to an understanding of the term “margin of error.” Because polls are only predictors, polls are often presented with a bit of wiggle room. Our poll said that 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking. That 2% margin of error is just that: a range in which the truth might actually lie. And choice D) reflects that idea. According to the poll results, the correct percentage that approves could be anywhere between 58% and 62%, given the margin of error.


The most important strategy to use with questions about surveys and polls on the SAT is an important strategy for every question on the test: read carefully. The test writers aren’t doing you any favors, and they’ll word things in convoluted ways just to make it tougher on you. If you’re working too quickly, it can be easy to overlook words like “exactly” or “likely,” and those types of words can be incredibly important. So take a breath and read that question carefully.

Practicing on actual SATs is also helpful. Poll and survey questions appear in the no-calculator and/or calculator sections of nearly every SAT, and the more of them you see and work through, the less likely that you’ll be duped by a trick. So putting in the time to practice is essential to be successful on these questions, as well as all the other types you’ll see on a typical SAT.


Choosing the Right School

For most students across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the end of the academic year. Juniors and seniors saw the March, April, May, and June SATs canceled. Those students who would normally receive vital guidance from their school counselors as the year wrapped up were not able to get it. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly important for students and parents to have good resources to help them choose the right school for their financial and academic needs. And choosing the right school can be easier if you know where to look.


Money.com has one of the best ranking sites to help parents and students balance the financial cost of the college decision with the academic achievement and potential future earnings a particular school could provide. The initial web page has Money.com’s rankings based on over 19,000 data points. The rankings take into account such elements as potential student debt, standardized test scores, acceptance rate, and graduation rate.

Some of the schools that rank high on the Money.com list aren’t surprising: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. What is surprising is that the number one value in the country, according to the list, is the University of California-Irvine.

What makes the Money.com list even more valuable to college seekers is that feature that allows a user to rank the colleges based on numerous criteria. For example, if a student wanted to study marine biology at a mid-sized school in the western United States, s/he could enter in those parameters, and the website would show which schools fit the bill. Incidentally, the top school for our future marine biologist would be Sonoma State University.


College Board has their own detailed search for colleges, though it doesn’t have some of the more interesting financial features of the Money.com site. BigFuture is easy to use and can also be a great way of narrowing down school choices. One of the most helpful features of the site, as you might expect, is that it provides the desired SAT and ACT ranges for colleges.

The range of scores is presented with the lower score representing the 25th percentile–meaning 25% of incoming freshmen scored below that number–and the higher value representing the 75th percentile. Students applying to a particular school should be shooting for an SAT or ACT score in the middle or higher to have the best chance of being accepted.

BigFuture also allows students and parents to sort through schools by size, type, location, and other parameters to narrow their focus. And while the Money.com site focuses on the academic and financial aspects, BigFuture also allows students to refine their search by sports and activities, diversity, and other social factors.

Together, both sites can be invaluable resources when choosing the right school for you!


Five Tips for Online Learning During COVID-19

COVID-19, or the Coronavirus, has turned the world upside down, seemingly overnight. The latest change came this week, as Idaho announced that schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year. While this wasn’t a big surprise to some, it does mean that all students will now be doing their learning online, either through school programs or other resources. At Huntington Learning Center East Boise, we’ve had all of our students shifted to remote learning for over two weeks. It’s been a great experience for both our amazing teachers and our fantastic students. To help that process, we’re suggesting five useful tips for online learning during COVID-19 that will hopefully make the transition a positive one for you.

Photo by Mish Vizesi on Unsplash

Relax and enjoy!

Parents and students have been stressing about COVID-19, then toilet paper shortages, then home-bound boredom, and, now, online learning. I’ve taught online extensively before I came to HLC, and it can be a really rewarding experience. Our tutors are the same great teachers you would have in-center, and our digital curriculum is exactly the same as it would be if you were working in-center. Sitting in front of a computer screen with one of our educational experts will bring you the same benefit as if you were sitting at a desk with them. So come ready to work and have fun with the best online instructors around! Whether your student is prepping for the ACT or SAT, AP exams, or just everyday academic work, we can help!

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Have a good headset!

One seemingly minor detail that can make a big difference in the online learning experience is having a good headset or a good set of earbuds with a mic. Most students have these already, and using them for an online session can be incredibly helpful. Being able to hear your instructor makes it easier to focus and process through what’s being taught.

And a good webcam!

Along with a good headset, a well-functioning webcam is crucial. It makes the experience far more personal to have that face-to-face contact with your instructor. And from a teaching perspective, your teachers will be able to anticipate your questions and your focus if they can see your facial expressions and body language.

Pick an ideal study spot!

Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash

When working through an online class or session, location is key! Be sure to pick a spot that’s quiet, that has all of your necessary materials close at hand, and that is far from potential interruptions. Sitting at the kitchen table while dinner is being made–or served!–is not an ideal spot for learning. But if you have a desk in a bedroom or home office, that generally works well.

Use the time wisely!

Finally, this crisis has given everyone a potentially golden opportunity for learning. With students essentially stuck at home, they have the time to make big gains in challenging classes. Set a schedule for the day, even if the school hasn’t done so. Have students spend time on each of their core subjects, and hold them accountable.

So there are five quick tips for your online learning during COVID-19! At HLC East Boise, we would love to partner with you to help you make the most of this time and to come out of it with the knowledge needed to succeed next school year!


ACT Questions of the Month

Tips from the Dec. 2019 official exam

Whenever an official ACT exam is released into the world, it’s an exciting time. At least for exam prep tutors. Recently, the December 2019 ACT was made public, allowing students and tutors to peruse the sections and practice strategies on the newest iteration of the test.

Let’s take a look at a selection of questions from English, Math, Reading, and Science on the December ACT. Play along and see how many you can score correctly!

English Questions on the December ACT

Our English question is #33. Take a look and see if you can come up with the correct answer.

Notice the NOT. The ACT generously highlights when they ask NOT or EXCEPT questions, but those questions still throw students off. Since most of the exam asks students for the correct answers, imagine how tough it is when you’re asked to pick the wrong one!

In this case, we have some very ACT-ish things going on. This particular question tests on punctuation, among other things, so it’s helpful to know what semi-colons, periods, and commas do. Specifically, it’s good to know that, while there is a subtle difference between semi-colons and periods, both of them are used to separate complete sentences. As a result, the ACT treats them as virtual equals. This helps us to eliminate choices C and D, since they are punctuationally identical. (Yes, I may have made up a word.)

Similarly, a comma with a conjunction–a connecting word like and or but–is used to separate two complete sentences, so A would be correct, as well. That leaves us with our choice: B.

Math Questions on the December ACT

For math, we have an oldie and a goodie: a midpoint question. The ACT asks about midpoint on nearly every test. Over my years as a tutor, I’ve seen many students balk at these questions because they don’t remember the Midpoint Formula. The trick is that you don’t really need to have the Midpoint Formula memorized to solve it. Try your hand at this one.

When students are faced with a midpoint question, I usually start by asking them what “midpoint” means. If you have two particular test scores in a class at school–let’s say you scored a 94 and an 80–if you wanted to find the midpoint, the middle point, how would you do it? Many students reply with something like, “I’d average them.” Yes! Midpoint is just another way of saying the average of two values.

So… if we average the x-values, -6 and 2, and the y-values, 9 and 5, what do we get? Averaging two numbers involves adding them together and dividing by 2. So -6 + 2 = -4. And -4/2 = -2. Do you see any answer choices with an x-value of -2? There’s only one! So B is our answer again. If we had to, we could average the y-values to get the 7, but we don’t even need to. Thanks, ACT!

Reading Questions on the December ACT

Because one of the best strategies for ACT reading is finding the main idea of a passage, it’s tough to single out one question to look at without needing to go through an entire essay. However, the ACT does ask some vocabulary-in-context questions, and these can generally be done without knowing the whole story. Check out #10, for example.

One of the best strategies to use for many of the questions on the reading section, vocabulary or otherwise, is to read the question carefully and predict the right answer. In this case, the question is asking us to decide what the word observe most nearly means in line 79. So first, we should read the sentence at line 79: “But her family did not consent: afraid of the Improper, they questioned his intentions, his failure to observe certain formalities, his ancestry, his habits and his character.”

Can you think of a word that could replace observe? Usually, when we refer to observing traditions, we’re talking about abiding by or following those traditions. Once we get that prediction figured, we can look at the answer choices and look for what works and what doesn’t. In this case, the word follow looms large, as it’s exactly what we predicted. So we select G and move on.

Science Questions on the December ACT

The science section of the ACT, as our students learn quickly, is not really about science. It’s much more about reading charts and graphs, identifying patterns, and inferring from data. A good example of this is #17 on the December test. Without even looking at the rest of the passage–and there’s quite a lot more information in the actual passage on the test–we can confidently answer this question.

First off, it asks us to look at Figure 2. I’ve provided that figure here, but if you had the entire passage in front of you, your first task would be to locate the right figure.

Second, we need to decode the question. As you can see, it’s asking us to go from the highest initial O2 level to the lowest initial O2. This is crucial, as two of the four answers will undoubtedly give the materials in reverse order. So if you misread that as “lowest to highest,” you’ll fall for the trap.

Looking at Figure 2, how do we know which material required the highest initial O2 level? Looking at the labels of the graph, we see that the bottom label is Initial O2, and the y-axis, the left side, is time in seconds. Without getting bogged down into all of the info–and, again, without even reading through the passage–we can deduce that the highest initial O2 would be the pine wood, represented by the circle. It’s furthest along the Initial O2 line, indicating it’s the highest. This eliminates A and B.

Notice, then, that the only difference between C and D is the order of the middle two materials. So which is the second-highest? This is a bit trickier, as two of the symbols overlap. However, if you look at the lines, you can see that the material that starts at the next highest value is the candle. The dry paper, represented by the star, actually starts at 14, even though it also hits at 15. Remember, we’re looking for the initial point. So our answer must be C.

In sum…

So how did you do with these questions from the December ACT? While students usually view the ACT as a challenging test–and taken as a whole, it can be–when you gain experience with the proven strategies that you can learn from the seasoned tutors at Huntington, it’s a challenge that can be overcome.