Have college applications on the brain? Some tips for navigating financing, test changes

Changes will be made to ACT starting in September

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College is usually on the minds of high school students who are in or about to enter their upperclassmen years -- no matter what time of year it is.

But March seems like an especially important month, both for seniors who are about to graduate and need to get their college financing in order, or non-seniors who not only are about to start the scholarship process, but are on the verge of registering for tests required to get into certain institutions.

Ibrahim Firat, a Houston-based author and founder/chief academic officer of Firat Education, an education consulting firm, offered some advice on four important topics regarding college financing and testing.

What scholarships are available?

The two most common types of scholarships are need-based and merit-based.

Need-based scholarships are those given based on the financial needs of a student or a family.

“If there’s a financial need, most colleges will try and match as much as possible what the numbers will show,” Firat said.

Merit-based scholarships are given based on a student’s achievements, such as grade-point average and test scores.

No matter what type of scholarship is pursued, students need to familiarize themselves with the term “FAFSA.”

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and is a form filled out by students to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

Even if students and their families don’t suspect they’ll qualify for financial aid, Firat said to fill out the form anyway.

“We still recommend that you fill out the FAFSA, because you never know,” he said.

What changes have been made to the ACT?

Last October, there were three changes made by ACT officials after a trend of seeing the SAT gain more popularity.

  • Starting this September, the ACT will allow students to retake individual portions of the test to improve their test score, rather than forcing them to retake the entire test. The four individual portions of the test are English, Math, Reading and Science. However, Firat said that a lot of colleges aren’t on board with this concept quite yet, and still might require students to retake an entire ACT if they choose that option. “They tend to want to receive entire results rather than one section at a time,” he said.
  • The ACT will also allow students take tests online, rather than solely in person. This will aid in the process of getting back results, which often can take two weeks when taking the exam in person. Taking an online test could mean getting results back in as few as two days.
  • Superscoring will now be an option for ACT test-takers. For those who take the test multiple times, students will be able to submit a recalculated score that shows the highest possible composite score across multiple tests. Firat said for example, two tests that result in final scores of 26 and 25, respectively, could be recalculated to a 27 based on composite results of both tests.

How do you know if you should take the ACT or SAT?

Firat said some colleges are going to test optional or test flexible options for admittance, meaning in some cases that an ACT or SAT test isn’t required at all, or certain institutions prefer to have one test but not the other.

Students who aren’t required to take a test can still do so as simply a bonus to maximize their chances of being qualified for merit-aid.

Firat said there are two big differences between the ACT and SAT, which might help a student decipher which one is better to take.

The ACT is more about basic fundamentals and answers to questions, while SAT questions feature more analytical answers that require more in-depth thought and time.

“It comes down to what kind of a student and a test-taker you are,” Firat said. “If you are a speed test taker or if you are a good test taker, you tend to do better on the ACT because it allows you to navigate the questions with speed and finesse.”

How do you prepare for standardized tests?

This is a pretty simple concept: Practice makes perfect.

Firat said to best prepare for ACT or SAT tests, students should take four to six full-length practice tests between the middle of their sophomore and junior years.

“(It’s) so they get the speed down, they get the content down and move around the questions,” Firat said. “They’ll get good enough to recognize what kind of questions each individual test is testing.”

Firat said he doesn’t recommend taking a test until after the fall of a student’s junior year, given at that point, they are often still taking the level of math classes that the ACT and SAT will base questions on.

He said an ACT or SAT should be taken no later than May 1 of a student’s junior year, but the practice tests can help not only get familiar with the tests, but better identify whether the ACT or SAT is best to take.

“An SAT of 1,200 is approximately a 25 on the ACT,” Firat said. “If the student comes and takes a practice (SAT) test for 3 1/2 hours and gets a 1,200, and then comes back and takes an ACT in another week and gets a 26 or 27, then the family knows that student is a better fit for the ACT.”

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