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Silverturtle's Guide to SAT and Admissions Success


Replies to: Silverturtle's Guide to SAT and Admissions Success

  • silverturtlesilverturtle Registered User Posts: 12,496 Senior Member

    To calculate your raw score on one of the three sections, assign one point to correct answers and deduct a quarter of a point for each incorrect answer to a multiple choice question (that is, this deduction does not apply to free-response Math questions). Omitted questions do not directly affect your raw score, though the opportunity cost is still one point. The deduction for incorrect, as opposed to omitted, questions is designed to compensate for random guessing.

    Once you have completed that tallying, round your score to the nearest integer value; .5 rounds up (which is in your favor). So incorrectly answering two questions is essentially the same as omitting two questions, but a third missed question can cause a significant drop. I explained some of the implications of this in my earlier discussion of when deciding whether to guess or omit.

    The raw score can then be converted to the scaled score (out of 800). It is in this conversion that the curve of the test comes into play. This curve is not, as some people believe, an artificial adjustment of the average that is applied occasionally if students' performance on the test was below average. Instead, the curve is inherent in the conversion; there is no predetermined, "normal" scaled score to which a given raw score converts. The College Board employs a multifaceted approach to determining the appropriate curve, including consideration of a sample group's performance on the test prior to the regular administration and the test-taking group's performance on the unscored, experimental sections. Rest assured: variations in difficulty among the tests are compensated for. This means that it does not really matter which month you take the test as long as you are well-prepared.

    See here for selected historical curves. Note, though, that the curves as of late have in general been slightly less forgiving than they used to be, most notably on the Math section. The reason for this is not clear.

    The PSAT

    The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is offered each October. The test is most commonly taken by juniors, but some high schools encourage sophomores and freshmen to take it as well. Unlike the SAT, which is scored out of 2400, the PSAT is scored out of 240; each section is still worth one-third of the total composite score, however. Beyond the PSAT's being shorter (just over two hours) and its not having an essay component, the test is very similar to the SAT in content and style of questioning.

    Some people have reported that they found the PSAT to be easier. However, I did not find this to be case. Also, the PSAT Math section supposedly covers even more basic concepts than the SAT Math section does, but again I noticed no difference. In any case the tests are very similar. For this reason preparing for either test will benefit you on the other. So preparing for the PSAT as you would the SAT (a process that I explained earlier) is probably your best bet. Just make sure to try at least one PSAT practice test so that you are familiar with the format.

    The determination of raw scores and scaled scores works on the PSAT as it does on the SAT. The only difference is that the PSAT, as a result of its having fewer questions, tends to have even less-forgiving curves.

    Luckily, however, having an ultra-high PSAT score is not important. The primary reason that students take the PSAT (aside from being occasionally forced to by their schools) is to qualify for some sort of honor from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Only students' junior-year scores can qualify them for these honors, which I explain below:
    • Around April of a student's junior year, he or she may be notified of having a PSAT score that puts him or her among the top 50,000 high-school juniors who took the PSAT. This is approximately the 96.5th percentile.
    • In early senior year, those 50,000 students are notified about whether they are Semifinalists (the top 16,000) or Commended (the next 34,000). Students' scores determine which they qualify for, and neither Semifinalist nor Commended status confers a monetary value in itself. (Some schools do, however, give scholarships that are dependent on these honors.)
    • Semifinalists are asked to produce additional application materials, such as an SAT score, a high-school transcript, and an essay. The SAT score must be high enough to affirm, in the eyes of National Merit, a student's PSAT score. The minimum acceptable SAT score is rumored to be around 1900-2000. As long as a student sends in these materials and meets the SAT-score threshold, he or she will be become a Finalist. About 15,000 students become Finalists.
    • Based on an assessment of the additional materials sent in (the PSAT score is now irrelevant), 8,000 National Merit Scholars are chosen. These students each receive $2,500 (significantly more if the colleges that they attend give scholarships for this honor).
    The Commended score cutoff is a national threshold; it applies similarly to all students. It typically hovers between 201 and 205. The Semifinalist score cutoffs, on the other hand, vary from state to state. Here are the most recent cutoffs:
    Alabama 208
    Alaska 211
    Arizona 210
    Arkansas 203
    California 218
    Colorado 215
    Connecticut 218
    Delaware 219
    District of Columbia 221
    Florida 211
    Georgia 214
    Hawaii 214
    Idaho 209
    Illinois 214
    Indiana 211
    Iowa 209
    Kansas 211
    Kentucky 209
    Louisiana 207
    Maine 213
    Maryland 221
    Massachusetts 221
    Michigan 209
    Minnesota 215
    Mississippi 203
    Missouri 211
    Montana 204
    Nebraska 207
    Nevada 202
    New Hampshire 213
    New Jersey 221
    New Mexico 208
    New York 218
    North Carolina 214
    North Dakota 202
    Ohio 211
    Oklahoma 207
    Oregon 213
    Pennsylvania 214
    Rhode Island 217
    South Carolina 211
    South Dakota 205
    Tennessee 213
    Texas 216
    Utah 206
    Vermont 213
    Virginia 218
    Washington 217
    West Virginia 203
    Wisconsin 207
    Wyoming 201
    New England/Mid Atlantic Boarding Schools 221

    If your parents work for a participating company, you could receive significant scholarship money at lower thresholds. Additionally, there are other distinction programs that National Merit runs. National Hispanic Recognition Program recognizes 5,000 Hispanic students year. Specifically (from here):
    To qualify for this program, you must be at least one-quarter Hispanic/Latino. Hispanic/Latino is an ethnic category, not a racial category, and you may be of any race. For purposes of the NHRP, you must be from a family whose ancestors came from at least one of these countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, or Venezuela.

    Here are the most recent qualifying scores:
    Region 1 - New England - 184
    Region 2 - Mid Atlantic - 184
    Region 3 - South - 193
    Region 4 - Southwest - 182
    Region 5 - Midwest - 193
    Region 6 - West - 184

    A 3.5 GPA (on a 4-point scale) is also required; this can be weighted or unweighted. There is no directly associated monetary award, but, again, some colleges will award scholarships to qualifiers.

    National Merit offers a program for African-American students as well, called the National Achievement Scholarship Program. Approximately 700 students are chosen to receive $2,500 scholarships.

    When National Merit Semifinalists are chosen, they are given an opportunity to select two "first-choice" schools, which will be notified of this selection. In doing so, it is best to pick schools that award scholarships based on the honor or that consider demonstrated interest in making admissions decisions (the latter fact can be found by searching a school's Common Data Set). Don't just select a top school because you think that it will make you stand out; a significant number of top schools' applicants are Semifinalists.

    SAT Subject Tests

    SAT Subject Tests (formerly called the SAT II) test your knowledge and skills in specific subjects. There are twenty different Subject Tests that are offered. Here is some commentary about each of them.

    Literature: Poses interpretation questions based on passages and poetry from various eras. In some ways, it is a more difficult version of the Critical Reading section of the SAT. Some basic knowledge of literature terms is required. Getting a score of 800 is very difficult. Because of the number of practice tests that it contains, this book is a good preparatory resource. (800 is the 99th percentile; 790 is the 99th percentile. Around 59/61 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    United States History: Supposed to be slightly more detail-oriented than the AP US History exam. The curve is rather generous, however. Though designed for the AP test, this book is an excellent resource for the Subject Test and has sufficient but well-presented detail. (800 is the 98th percentile; 790 is the 97th percentile. Around 79/90 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    World History: The test's difficulty is largely mitigated by its very generous curve. (800 is the 97th percentile; 790 is the 96th percentile. Around 78/95 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    Math Level 1: Although this test does not go in-depth as Math Level 2 does, the questions require slightly more problem-solving skills. Moreover, the curve is very unforgiving. I recommend against taking this test unless you have not taken pre-calculus yet. Note as well that some schools do not accept this test (such as the University of California system). (800 is the 99th percentile; 790 is the 99th percentile. Around 49/50 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    Math Level 2: The test covers some pre-calculus topics, but the questions are fairly straightforward. If you are looking for very rigorous practice tests, check out Barron's. For more realistic and efficient preparation, Princeton Review has accurate tests. Sparknotes also has some decent practice tests; plus, they're free (they have some for a few other subjects as well). (800 is the 89th percentile; 790 is the 86th percentile. Around 43-44/50 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    Biology: There are two versions of this test: Ecological and Molecular. All Biology test-takers will take the same first sixty questions, but the next twenty will focus on one of those two areas. The test is known to be somewhat difficult and has a relatively unforgiving curve. Princeton Review is generally considered to be a solid book for this test. (800 is around 98th percentile; 790 is around 96th percentile. Around 77/80 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    Chemistry: This test goes beyond the material of the typical introductory chemistry class but does not get as in-depth as AP Chemistry does. Princeton Review and Barron's have pretty good review sections, although Barron's may cover more than you need for the test. (800 is the 93rd percentile; 790 is the 91st percentile. Around 82/85 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    Physics: Like the Chemistry test, the Physics Subject Test is not as in-depth as its AP counterpart (i.e., AP Physics B). There are a few topics that appear on the Subject Test, however, that are not in the Physics B or C curricula. Therefore, students enrolled in either of those classes should consider flipping through a review book to familiarize themselves with those topics, especially if they are in Physics C without having taken B. Princeton Review is often cited as the best preparatory book. No calculus appears on the exam, and the curve is generous. (800 is around 90th percentile; 790 is around 88th percentile. Around 59/75 (raw score) is required for 800.)

    The remaining Subject Tests are language exams. They tend to have harsh curves, and the percentiles are less meaningful because of the significant self-selection that characterizes their test-taking populations. The offered languages are:

    Chinese (Listening)
    French (Listening or Reading)
    German (Listening or Reading)
    Japanese (Listening)
    Korean (Listening)
    Spanish (Listening or Reading)
    Modern Hebrew (Reading)
    Latin (Reading)
    Italian (Reading)

    The College Board publishes its own book for all the Subject Tests; there is one practice test for each. The College Board also offers a book for their math Subject Tests. That book says that there are four tests—two for each level—but only two of these are different from the test in their general guide. The story is the same for their guide for the history Subject Tests.

    Although it is worth it to pick up any relevant official materials for the practice tests, you will likely have to turn to other preparatory sources (such as those that I mentioned above) for more practice, as well as review of the material. Luckily, though, using official practice tests is not as important with the Subject Tests as it is with the SAT Reasoning Test.

    In order to supplement my rather superficial coverage of the Subject Tests thus far, I have asked CCer christiansoldier to offer his thoughts on the tests. Here is the product of his gracious agreement:
    Math I: Math I is often neglected by top students, and with good
    reason. Math I presumes only that you have successfully completed
    Algebra II. It will test basic trigonometric functions, but you will
    probably remember seeing these in your geometry class. Some people take
    Math I because it requires virtually no preparation. If you have done
    well in your high school math classes and are a solid test-taker, you
    should have no trouble getting a high score in Math I. The trouble is
    that getting an 800 requires precision; you are often permitted to miss
    only one question (or no questions). The curve remains steep, and
    missing only a few questions will be detrimental to your score.
    Furthermore, most top colleges prefer Math II, which has a much more
    forgiving curve and is therefore widely considered the “easier” test.
    In general, taking Math I is not recommended.

    Math II: Whereas Math I is often neglected, the majority of top students
    take Math II. Unlike Math I, Math II has a very generous curve. If it
    were a test in school, getting an A would usually be enough to get an
    800. Students who have done well in high school math through
    pre-calculus and are strong test-takers will find this a manageable
    test. It is especially appealing because it requires relatively little
    preparation. You might have to review some of the finer points
    such as matrices, but there is usually very little - if any - material
    that you haven’t seen before. Of course, you should practice, but you
    probably will not need a lot of review.

    Chemistry: Chemistry is a very popular test among the hordes of
    math/science-inclined top students. Unlike Math II, it is not a
    particularly easy test to score well on. The curve is less forgiving
    than, say, physics. This test’s popularity can best be attributed to
    ambitious sophomores fresh out of AP Chemistry. The material covered in
    SAT II Chemistry is similar to the material covered in AP Chemistry, but
    I recommend you review some even if you are fresh off the AP test. A
    lot of the material you crammed in April/May has probably left you.
    Scoring very high will require not only a solid grasp of the concepts,
    but also knowledge of the details. The true false questions, which are
    unique to chemistry, are especially unforgiving, since all of your usual
    multiple choice reasoning does not apply. Also note that if you have
    prepped for Chemistry Olympiad, this test should be a breeze.

    Biology: Biology comes in two flavors, Ecological and Molecular. The
    difference between Bio-E and Bio-M is the last 20 questions. The first
    60 are the same for both tests. Much of what can be said of SAT II
    Chemistry can also be said of SAT II Biology: the material is similar to
    the AP test, but you should still review because SAT II allows for finer
    differentiation of high scores than the AP tests do. I will therefore
    focus my discussion on whether you should take E or M. Bio-E tends to
    have a slightly easier curve, but the difference is so small that you
    should simply choose which subject you like better. More people tend to
    choose Bio M, simply because most people with a strong enough interest
    in Bio to even take the test are pre-med types and M is more relevant to
    their interests. However, ecology comes late in the Bio curriculum and
    accordingly might be fresher.

    Physics: Physics is fundamentally different from Biology and Chemistry
    because the curve is so much more forgiving. While students strong in
    Chem or Bio are occasionally screwed by esoteric or poorly worded
    questions, students who are strong in Physics succeed consistently. The
    generous curve allows you to miss a few “off” questions, so scoring an
    800 is easier. If you did well on the AP Physics B multiple choice, you
    shouldn’t have much of a problem with SAT II physics. However, if you
    just completed AP Physics C, you should probably review pretty
    thoroughly. You would be surprised how much simple algebra you can
    forget during your calculus-based odyssey in Physics C.

    Literature: Literature, besides a non-native foreign language, is
    appropriately considered the most difficult SAT II. The curve is
    harsh. The questions can be weird. And it can be frustrating for the
    literary-minded to conform their thinking to the demands of a multiple
    choice test. This isn’t SAT I Critical Reading. The passages are far
    more difficult, and the depth of analysis called for is much greater.
    Unlike the other tests, the corresponding AP, AP Literature, is often
    taken senior year - too late to help you unless you are crazy enough to
    take if after college admissions season. Many choose to take Literature
    without preparing at all; they look at it as more of an IQ test than
    anything else, and therefore find it appealing. Indeed, if you have an
    analytical mind well suited to the purpose of divining the College
    Board’s way of thinking, you can do well on this test without any
    additional preparation. If not, you can expect this to be a hard test.
    Fluency in pre-20th century English is a huge asset.

    World History: The history tests present an interesting conundrum.
    While they tend to have more generous curves than the science tests,
    they are longer and it is virtually impossible for any review book to
    contain every possible fact that College Board might decide to test.
    Sometimes the questions can be downright random. I remember distinctly
    that my US History test asked “Which President’s cabinet was popularly
    referred to as Camelot?” King Arthur was not a choice. Anyhow, for
    those of you who get queasy at the sight of numbers not followed by
    “A.D.,” the history test might be your best bet. While AP World History
    tests your knowledge of broad trends and change, SAT II World History
    focuses much more on discrete facts. Preparation is a must. Background
    knowledge acquired outside of the classroom is also helpful. A lot of
    the time, you will find yourself looking at a multiple choice question
    and saying “Well who WOULD do that.” The general characteristics of
    civilizations and time periods you learned in AP will be invaluable in
    your multiple choice reasoning.

    U.S. History: Not much can be said of U.S. History that I have not
    already said of World. AP US History tends to focus more on facts than
    AP World does, so that is helpful. However, SAT II US History questions
    can be more esoteric, so it’s really a wash.

    Languages: College Board faces a dilemma with its language tests. On
    the one hand, it wants to make a test that serves as a meaningful
    indicator of language development for those students who speak a foreign
    language at home. Do they only know how to shoot the bull with family
    and friends, or are they genuinely proficient in the language? Against
    that interest, College Board does not want to make the test impossibly
    difficult for those who picked up the language in school. College Board
    has managed to fail on all counts. The majority of native-speakers get
    800s, while those who learned the language in school usually find the
    test exceedingly difficult. With preparation, you can probably manage
    the verb tenses and be able to get most of the passages enough to answer
    the questions. Unfortunately, unless you have an exceptional high school
    program or have lived abroad for a while, you will run into a fair chunk
    of idioms and vocabulary that you just don’t know. However, a good
    score on a language test is probably the most impressive and meaningful
    as far as colleges are concerned. If your ear is well trained to your
    language (especially if you have lived abroad), it would be to your
    advantage to take the listening test to score some easy points. If your
    school program is not so good and you are responsible for most of your
    own preparation, you would probably do better to take the Reading test.

    AP Tests

    By doing well on AP tests, students may be eligible for credit in the corresponding introductory classes at the college level. For his thoughts on preparatory materials and on many of the tests themselves, I again defer to christiansoldier:
    Which review book should I get?

    As a person who literally owns a closet full of review books, I can tell you that most review books are not very good. Barrons and REA tend to be loaded with extraneous details and riddled with incorrect answers to practice questions. Princeton Review focuses too much on the mumbo jumbo of studying the test rather than the material that is tested (Studying the material IS studying the test!). Kaplan and McGraw Hill are often too simplified and easy, and the independently-published books can be unreliable and few and far in between. You want the secret to review books? Get a lot of them, and read them. In very few cases is there one review book you can study from and guarantee you will be ready for the test (unless you had a good class), but there are even fewer cases where you can study from multiple books and fail to do well. One book's strength will cover another's weaknesses, and you will come out on top for it.

    Moving along,


    World History: I will discuss the generalities of all history APs (World, Euro, and US) here and then discuss the particulars of each one in its given section. The history APs are, by and large, a test of memory. If you keep up on your reading and retain it in at least the mid-term, you will recognize the majority of the material on any given history AP. If you have a lot of background knowledge from outside reading, you will be able to figure out most of the ones you don’t know for sure. The essays do not require incisive analysis; you will usually be able to arrive at a correct response without formulating any ideas of your own. The DBQ, if you have practiced, should be free points. World History in particular tends to focus on trends and general characteristics of civilizations and time periods. Some are intimidated by the test’s breadth, but you shouldn’t be, because you aren’t expected to know more than the most important points of each civilization.

    European History: While World History focuses on the generalities, European History focuses on the particulars. The most important trends - the disintegration of the Middle Ages world order and the emergence of the nation-state and the like - are in there, but you are expected to understand them in greater detail. The DBQ is just like any other history DBQ, but European History allows you a greater choice in which essay you write. You will be given two sets of three prompts, and you must choose one prompt from each set. This is good because, unlike in World History, you can pick a prompt you know a lot about. However, the prompts are very specific, and you will either need a large reserve of background knowledge or excellent historical analysis skills to give a thorough answer.

    United States History: US History strikes a balance between Euro and World, and is accordingly probably the easiest history AP. The questions are not so detail-oriented as Euro’s, but the subject matter is not so broad as World’s. The DBQ is just like the other tests’. You are given three essay prompts, and must choose two of them. This gives you more freedom of movement than World with less specific prompts than Euro’s. A lot of people find this test the easiest simply because they are the most familiar with American history and are therefore able to retain new facts more readily.

    Art History: Like the other history tests, Art History is memory-based. There, the similarities end. I’ve heard people recommend Art History for self-study. Unless you have a phenomenal memory, I would advise against self-studying this test. There is a vast bank of artworks that you simply must memorize. Not only do you have to be able to correctly identify them in multiple choice, but you will also have to be prepared to discuss them on free-response. There are a whole bunch of the free response questions too. Ironically, the long essays where you get to choose whatever artworks you want to discuss are much easier. If you have a ton of time (like you’re a freshman), self-studying is possible. Otherwise, this will be a huge time-investment. The bright side is that it requires virtually no artistic inclination. The students I know who were in it for the history did much better than the students who were in it for the art.

    Human Geography: Human Geography is a weird one. On the one hand, the material covered is pretty straight-forward. There are very few things you will need to read twice. On the other hand, unless you have a penchant for memorizing long lists of statistics, there are going to be oddball questions that you just don’t know. As in the histories, you can often reason out the answer if you have a solid base of geography knowledge. The free response questions are like the Government FRQs, or the Biology/Chemistry FRQs for that matter. Simple regurgitation of knowledge in a point-by-point fashion, sometimes followed by examples.

    U.S. Government: U.S. Government is exactly what it sounds like. You must be familiar with both the institutions of American government and American political history. Background knowledge is helpful, but the history-type questions are very predictable, so you can probably pick them up from your textbook or a review book. FRQs are like Human Geo’s: you simply explain concepts and give examples.

    Comparative Government: It has “Government” in the name, and it is appropriately similar to the American Government test. However, most find Comparative Government a somewhat more difficult test. First of all, most are less familiar with the political institutions of a country like Nigeria than they are with their American counterparts. Furthermore, unlike U.S. Gov, where you only have to remember if something is true, you must remember if a statement is true for a given country. For U.S. Gov, you only need to remember that we have a bicameral legislature. For Comp Gov, you must remember that Mexico has a bicameral legislature while China does not. Luckily, the bulk of Comp Gov assumes that students look at American government as “normal,” and focus on the effects of American-style institutions (or the lack thereof). You essentially see how American institutions in other countries lead to different outcomes, or how the lack of American-style institutions are tailored to each country’s unique characteristics. Comparative Government includes a Short Definition section, which unsurprisingly asks you to define given key terms. Simple stuff.

    Macroeconomics/Macroeconomics: I will discuss both Micro- and Macroeconomics together because, unlike any other two tests (with the exception of the two Physics Cs) there is no effective difference between the two except the obvious one. Macroeconomics tests the economy as a whole; Microeconomics tests the firm. Both tests test theory primarily, with some simple applications that will require a little arithmetic and a few relatively well-known historical examples. However, these are not memory tests like AP US History. Economics wants you to not only be able to regurgitate the theory, but also apply it to new (relatively basic) situations. The FRQs, which work a lot like the US Government ones, are very similar from year to year, so you should be sure to check them out on the CB website.

    Psychology: Psychology is, like the history APs, a memory test. Unlike the history tests, you can study from your textbook and the review books and expect to know just about everything on the test. This is arguably the easiest AP. If you were to self-study one AP, I would say go with either this or Environmental Science. The FRQs are straightforward, much like Human Geo’s.

    English Language: The English Language free response is quite simply a writing test. You have two plain-and-simple essays and one DBQ-like essay. The multiple choice is basically SAT CR on crack. For those with good analytical minds who are naturally gifted at expository writing, this test is a cinch. You can probably 5 it with absolutely no preparation outside of reading the rubric for the DBQ-like essay. For those of you who are not naturally gifted writers, YOU MUST TAKE THIS CLASS. Now I don’t mean you must take this class to pass the AP test. I mean you must take this class, period. It develops your expository writing skills, which are essential. A well taught AP English Lang & Comp class is an enormous asset for those who need to work on their writing.

    English Literature: Finally, those literature analysis skills you have been working on for years come into AP play. AP English Lit’s multiple choice is almost exactly like SAT II Literature. It can be frustrating trying to figure out not what the passages mean to you, but what they mean to the test writers. Luckily for you English-minded people who despise literature interpretation multiple choice, the AP Lit essays give you a chance to shine. You will be given works to analyze for two of the essays and will get to use works of your choice for the final essay. Well, not really works of your choice. Works of literary merit. In some cases, the line of literary merit is clear. The Great Gatsby and Hamlet are works of literary merit. Harry Potter and Cujo are not. There is a gray area in between, but it’s safest to read off the suggested works list in past AP prompts so you have a bank of works that are assuredly of literary merit. This one I advise self-studying against, unless you are an especially gifted analyzer of fiction. You really do need to practice for these essays.

    Chemistry: Unlike Bio or any of the social sciences, Chemistry is a concept-based test in the spirit of Physics, Calc, and English. Yes, I realize it is weird to say Chem has more in common with English or Calc than its fellow sciences Bio and EnviroSci, but it really does. There actually isn’t a lot of information to AP Chemistry. I could probably condense Chem into a glossary of ten pages. I won’t, but I could. However, you have to not only memorize what those concepts are, but also understand how to apply them. You learn what properties make a substance have a lower boiling point and the properties of elements separately. You may well never hear in your class that methane has a lower boiling point than water, but you will learn everything you need to know in order to deduce that. Chem is a manageable test, but I would not recommend self-studying it. I mean, I’m sure you could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It tends to be easier for people to pick up facts on their own than it is to thoroughly understand concepts.

    Biology: As far as AP is concerned, biology is the science of facts. Lots and lots of facts. More than any test with the possible exception of Art History, biology demands an excellent memory (or a very good work ethic and patience for memorization). Besides Punnet Squares, which are laughably easy, you will not have to do anything except regurgitate information you learned in your textbook. For some, this is easy. You don’t even have to think. For others, this sounds like a nightmare. You have to do the opposite of think; you have to study. But since there are no especially difficult concepts, this one should be a relatively simple (if laborious) self-study if that’s what you want to do.

    Environmental Science: Along with AP Psych, AP EnviroSci is considered one of the easiest AP tests. In terms of the types and emphases of questions, it is more like Human Geography and Psychology than it is like any other science. You must understand a healthy mix of facts and concepts, but if the facts were the size of a pool of water and the concepts were the depth, EnviroSci would be both small and shallow. You can easily pick up everything you need to know for the test from reading a couple review books. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you not only don’t need a class, but that unless the class is well-taught by a dynamic teacher, a class is a waste of time.

    Physics B: Physics B, like Chem, is a concept test. With more math. Physics B won’t require anything above algebra and a little basic trigonometry, so most questions won’t be too bad. Unfortunately, the test (especially the Free Response) loves to occasionally string these simple operations together so that it is easy to slip. There are two approaches to Physics B. You can either thoroughly understand the concepts and therefore see how any given problem fits together, or you can practice the hell out of the test until there are very few things you haven’t seen before. A healthy mix of both would, of course, be best. Since it is hard to teach yourself the concepts so thoroughly (the review books are not sufficient for that purpose) and also demanding to practice like crazy, I would recommend against self-studying against this one.

    Physics C: Physics C is a lot like Physics B, only it has calculus. Very insightful of me, huh? Well, most of the questions will be simple plug-and-chug or concept-based. Then there’s those rough ones that want you to put twelve ideas together to get an answer. Total pain. Mathy, thrill-seeking types (conventionally “lame” thrill-seeking, at that) absolutely love this test, even more than they love Calc BC. It is applied calculus! How fun is that? From experience, I can tell you to not self-study this one. The review books available to you are either too simple (PR and McGraw Hill, that means you) or frustratingly complex but off-topic (Barrons).

    Calculus AB: Calculus AB is just math. There really isn’t anything about it to distinguish it from the rest of the classes in your math sequence, except there are fewer adults who have taken it to tell you horror stories about it. The Calc in AB is pretty straightforward. If you understand the concepts and have practiced some, you will find very few curveballs in the AP test. Accordingly, if you must self-study, this isn’t so bad a choice. Chances are you won’t be able to pick up everything just by reading it, but with a little practice, it shouldn’t be extraordinarily difficult.

    Calculus BC: Calculus AB and Calculus BC share both “Calculus” and the B. There’s a lot more in that than you might think. A fair share of the Calculus BC curriculum is really the second half of Calc AB; you even get an AB subscore to see how you did on the AB-based portion. The C stands for curve-ball, because the BC test throws you some weird ones that AB doesn’t. Parametrics aren’t too bad, but polar coordinates require you to adopt a new way of looking at the coordinate plane, which can be tough (especially if you are trying to teach yourself). The C part of the curriculum is decidedly harder than the A part you leave behind, but you’re also older, smarter and more practiced in math. Hence the ultra-high 5 rate. If you have taken AB, self-studying BC should be manageable.

    Statistics: Statistics is math, supposedly. The idea that Stats is the “third math test” is misleading. I would give that title to Physics C, and call AP Stats “AP Reading Carefully, Knowing Rules, Using Your Calculator, and Explaining Yourself.” There is nothing hard about what you learn in AP Stats. You can use calculus, but you don’t need anything past Algebra II. Nonetheless, Stats can be a tremendous pain. You get your TI-89 for the entire test, which is nice (imagine the possibilities…), but you also have to read every question carefully and write. A ton. I had to write so much for my Stats class, my Stats folder was just as thick as my Literature folder. If you are not good at math, you still might be able to do well on this test since it is really about rule-following more than anything else.

    See here for discussion of which books are best.

    An Alternative: The ACT

    Everyone should try both the SAT and ACT—whether you're from Indiana or New Jersey. Well, almost everyone: if you are completely satisfied with your performance on one of these metrics, there is usually no point in taking the other test. (In my situation, for example, I have 36 and 2400 only because taking the ACT was state-mandated.)

    Some people (perhaps most) believe that the ACT is easier than the SAT. They, additionally, consider the ACT to be a better, more straightforward measure of the kinds of skills that are needed in college; in essence, they hold that the SAT seems to be trying to trick them (I find this claim unfounded, however), whereas the ACT is more like the tests that they see in school. This perception is attributable to the natures of the exams: the SAT is foremost an aptitude test, whereas the ACT is primarily an achievement test. What this means in theory is that the SAT tries to test your potential to learn and that the ACT tries to test what you have learned. Understandably, however, these things are significantly positively intercorrelated.

    In any case, despite the fact that SAT scores and ACT scores tend to correlate strongly with each other, some people do better on one test than the other. This is why trying both is a very good idea. Do a couple practice tests with each and see where you are; then focus on the test on which you feel that you have the greatest potential.

    Here are the SAT-ACT score conversions, as estimated by the makers of the ACT:
    36 - 2390
    35 - 2330
    34 - 2250
    33 - 2180
    32 - 2120
    31 - 2060
    30 - 2000
    29 - 1940
    28 - 1880
    27 - 1820
    26 - 1770
    25 - 1710
    24 - 1650
    23 - 1590
    22 - 1530
    21 - 1470
    20 - 1410
    19 - 1350
    18 - 1290
    17 - 1230
    16 - 1170
    15 - 1100
    14 - 1020
    13 - 950
    12 - 870
    11 - 780

    As you likely inferred from the fact that 36 does not quite correspond to 2400, 36's are more common than 2400's (by a bit more than a factor of two). This is most likely a product of the way in which the scores are calculated: the ACT determines the composite score by averaging the four sections' scores, whereas the SAT additively arrives at 2400, thereby reducing the margin for error.

    Here are the four sections of the ACT and some brief thoughts that I had right after I took the ACT (I add a couple clarifying notes now in brackets):
    English: The ACT was far more punctuation-focused than I had expected, and they had more subjective questions about the passage as a whole than I had anticipated.

    Math: I felt much more crunched for time on the ACT, which was mostly a product of my lack of preparation. The questions were certainly different in style from those of the SAT: they were indeed more straightforward application of concepts than the SAT's more reasoning-dependent questions. [It is worth noting that the Math section of the ACT covers more advanced concepts than the SAT Math section does, so in that way it is more similar to the Math Level 2 Subject Test.]

    Reading: The names of these sections [that is, Reading versus Critical Reading] are more appropriate than I realized. The SAT truly does require test-takers to synthesize and interpret much more than does the ACT. To my surprise, there were quite a few questions that were mere paraphrases of the original text. I think that the SAT does a better job of walking the fine line between straight-from-the-text answers and overly subjective and unsupportable answers. The vocabulary section from the SAT wasn't missed much, though.

    Science: I'm not quite sure yet how I feel about whether this section should be on the test. Although I am sure I could improve my efficiency with preparation, seven passages felt like too much for the time allotted.

    I suppose that I am still undecided about the Science section. It does tend to polarize people quite a bit; try it out and see how you do on it.

    Because I did not prepare for the ACT, I cannot comment specifically about any preparatory methods or resources. However, I have heard very positive things about Princeton Review for the ACT (supposedly, official resources are less important for the ACT). You'll want probably the official book, though. I imagine that many of the tips that I offered earlier in this guide (especially the content in the grammar guide) would prove helpful on the ACT as well.
  • silverturtlesilverturtle Registered User Posts: 12,496 Senior Member
    [size=+1]College Admissions[/size]

    At some public universities, there are formulas that prospective applicants can, by inputting their GPAs and test scores, use to calculate whether they will be admitted. The transparency and objectivity of such systems lead to a straightforward route to acceptance at those colleges: if I earn good grades and do decently on that annoying standardized test, I will get in. This is not the case at many colleges, however—especially at the most selective private colleges, on whose admissions practices I will focus.

    Many people believe that intelligent students just end up at top schools, that the best math student in a given high school will inevitably be accepted to MIT, for example. This is false. Also common is the idea that students who score very well on standardized tests are ensured acceptance at top schools. I mean, what top college would deny someone who has a perfect SAT score? The answer: any of them. Some people (including many on College Confidential) support this reality by claiming that there are just too many people who are perfect on paper these days (“If Harvard wanted only people with perfect numbers, they could still fill their class several times over”). This, too, is false; Harvard could accept all the perfect scorers and have plenty of spots left over. Less than .01 percent of those in each graduating high-school class have perfect scores on the SAT, and even fewer have perfect GPAs and Subject Tests as well. Nonetheless, the implication of those posters’ claim is valid: great scores (even perfect scores) do not ensure acceptance to any top college.

    I could go through each of the other factors that are involved in admissions and delineate how none of them alone or collectively will ensure admission, and that would be true. But the most effective way of tersely summarizing the basic nature of competitive college admissions is to explain what colleges mean when they label their admissions with the true but clich
  • markalex1markalex1 Registered User Posts: 439 Member
    Oh. My. That was kind of amazing.

    Seriously, publish this. It would make a KILLER EC :).

    How long have you spent making this?
  • silverturtlesilverturtle Registered User Posts: 12,496 Senior Member
    That was kind of amazing.

    You're a fast reader!
    How long have you spent making this?

    Oh, not too long. :)
  • markalex1markalex1 Registered User Posts: 439 Member
    Oh haha, I didn't read the whole thing, only the first couple posts. I'm not gonna need it for a while, I'm a rising 8th grader :).

    But I bookmarked this thread, and I have a feeling it will make me very very happy once I am a rising junior.
  • markalex1markalex1 Registered User Posts: 439 Member
    Haha nice, this ultrasupermegabeastamazing guide is now a featured discussion :).
  • everaryeverary Registered User Posts: 708 Junior Member
    This pretty much summed up what I've learned in my 3-4 months of exploring CC and more. Thanks. (And what markalex said; seriously consider expanding and publishing this.)
  • Rtgrove123Rtgrove123 Registered User Posts: 1,798 Senior Member
    alritey...well I gotta say this guide is more informative, to the point, and logical than any other college admissions/test prep book I have read (and I have read alot of them). As always, your work is stunning (in a good way =D), silverturtle.

    Good luck on your applications (I'd be completely shocked if u didn't get into all of HYPS),

  • HarambeeHarambee Registered User Posts: 2,604 Senior Member
    Great post. It was very helpful, concise, and informative. Thank you for posting and sharing.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors, silverturtle.
  • onimpulseonimpulse Registered User Posts: 115 Junior Member
    Thank you so much for this!
  • RayquazaRayquaza Registered User Posts: 79 Junior Member
    Wow thanks !!!!
  • Vince011Vince011 Registered User Posts: 820 Member
    Very helpful, good work.
  • ZosiloZosilo Registered User Posts: 188 Junior Member
    thanks silverturtle for your amazing guide.

    hey guys! anybody have a complete PDF version of this guide?
  • LightSourceLightSource - Posts: 745 Member
    Thank you very much silverturtle! ^And yes, a PDF version would be most useful if anyone happens to have one.
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