FAQ: Picking a Test, Planning a Campus Visit, Moving on a Major, and Prepping at Christmas

College Prep Parents ask lots of great questions…

We plan to post some “Frequently Asked Questions” (or questions folks should be asking!) every once in a while. And if you’re wondering about a topic, submit a question!


1. Should my kid take the ACT, the SAT, or both?

My answer to this frequently asked question is usually to encourage taking both tests once, to see if your kid has a preference. If one of the tests is clearly better suited to the student, they should take that one again.

SAT and ACT test scores are primarily used in two ways: to gain admission to your school of choice, and to qualify for scholarship consideration. So your college-bound kid’s task is normally to try to make the highest score possible before the deadlines. The test makers themselves say that it makes sense to take a test again if there’s reason to believe that things have changed. But that could come from any number of things – taking more math in class, practicing reading skills, or simply becoming more confident after experiencing the test the first time.

Like I said, that is my usual answer. There are some states – and some schools – that offer free testing. That would probably help a College Prep Parent decide on a preferred test. If your kid goes to a school that has a test prep program, they may be on schedule to take one of the tests (often early in the junior year), followed by a prep class and ultimately taking the same test again. I have been involved with this approach, and it works well.

There are several different paths that schools and test prep companies take in regards to the ACT and SAT. But if everything else is equal, I would still encourage coaching your kid to try them both.

2. We’re hoping to take some campus visits over the next few months. Which schools should we visit first?

Because there are different types of campus visits, the order may not be very significant if you’re just taking a casual drive-by or walk through campus.

On the other hand, if the visits are planned with appointments and tours, then it is important that your student approach each visit with the same kind of energy. (Remember, the school is learning about your student too!) That may mean that some students should see the schools they suspect will be their “favorites” early, if they’re likely to get weary of the shopping process. Other students will maintain a full head of steam throughout the investigation, so order matters less.

Personally, I would probably want to compare schools to one that I know my kid might very likely attend. So we’d first visit a college that is entirely possible – one that seems affordable and would likely admit my child. Again, this is just me, but if I was comparing schools, I would tend to think in terms of each new school either adding to what I “already have” in the “sure thing” school, or subtracting from it. In other words, this approach would give me a starting place.

3. How important is it for my kid to narrow down her major before she gets on campus?

It can be very important, depending on the major.

For many majors a student might choose, there is usually some room to take general, or “core,” classes in early semesters. Choosing or changing a major in some fields can often be done in the first few semesters without much wasted academic effort. Colleges are not worried about their “undecided” students – as long as they are looking for a place to “land.”

There are some important exceptions, and those depend on specific requirements at certain colleges. Within some universities, a student may need to choose their “school” from the beginning – the Business School or Engineering School or School of Communications (for example). Majors in some fields like these may have a specific sequence to the courses that are required to complete a degree, starting the first semester. Prolonging the choice of major can add to the length, and therefore the cost, of the degree.

Because of the variables involved (and downside if your kid misses something important), it is of the utmost importance to get counseling from the college about majors and degree plans, and not to assume anything!

4. How can my son use the week or two around Christmas for college prep?

The weeks surrounding Christmas can be useful in a few ways… and some might even be fun!

For instance, that’s a great time for college shoppers to track down alumni from their high school who are in their own Christmas break from college. Asking a new college freshman about their first months at college can be really helpful. Talking to college students that are a few years older can be even better. What is their college really like once the new wears off and it has become “home”? The current students of a college can give insight that a website and viewbook can’t.

Many colleges have guided tours planned for when high school students are available during breaks. (Be sure and check the enrollment services website to be sure.) In addition, some colleges even offer“mini-mesters” or “winter terms” that might start early enough in January to fit your student’s break. If a college shopper visits one of their target campuses during one of these sessions, they can get a sense of the academic routine.

Volunteer service opportunities help enhance a resume… and they seem to pop up everywhere right before Christmas. Helping with food delivery, distributing toys, and caroling at shopping malls and rest homes are ways that I have seen students really get into the “Christmas spirit.” This offers one more chance to show on their college application that they take time for others, as well. Hopefully your church knows of some good ways to serve in the community; if not, check with some of the great non-profits near you.

Finally, a really motivated kid can tackle test prep over the Christmas break – and do it for free, if they want to use the materials available on the ACT and SAT websites. The free practice tests and test-taking tips may make more sense when a student can spend time with them and think about them (rather than cramming the night before a test).


That’s it for this week. Wondering about something else? Submit a college prep question!

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