The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar


What is “National Merit” and how do I enter?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) in cooperation with the College Board to recognize high achieving high school seniors. Entry into the competition is based on junior-year (only) PSAT/NMSQT scores. The NMSC awards approximately $50 million in scholarships each year, and some colleges provide additional scholarships to recognized students, multiplying the net impact of National Merit many times.  For example, Texas A&M offers over $40,000 per student in scholarships, and UT Dallas offers scholarships that cover all tuition, fees, and up to $50,000 of other expenses!

To enter, you must take the PSAT/NMSQT as a high school junior and either attend high school in the United States or U.S. Territories or be a U.S. student studying abroad. Entry into the program is based on your Selection Index; you can find your selection index on your PSAT score report.  To calculate it, take the sum of your reading + writing + math section scores (two-digit numbers) and multiply by two.

Note to Current Sophomores on the New Digital Adaptive PSAT

Current sophomores (class of 2025) will be taking their PSAT on paper in the fall. However, in the Fall of 2023, the new Digital Adaptive PSAT only will be offered, meaning that the usual “warm up” for junior year won’t be the same for this year’s sophomores.   College Board has indicated that they will release four SAT practice tests in mid-October in the new testing platform.  One has already been released! In the meantime, focus on core skills (the skills tested on the digital PSAT will remain the same as those on the current paper test), and then prep for the digital PSAT during summer 2023.

The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

If you’re interested in becoming a National Merit Scholar,  let’s look at the timeline on how to make this dream a reality. Also check out our upcoming National Merit Scholar Seminar!

(Junior Year)
The road officially begins your junior year in October, when millions of students take their PSAT and are entered into the National Merit Scholarship Program.
(Junior Year)
NMSC will ask high school principals to identify any errors or changes in the reported eligibility of students whose scores will qualify them for recognition in the fall of 2023. At this point, the Commended cutoff score becomes widely, although unofficially, known.
(Senior Year)
Semifinalists are recognized in early September.  Semifinalists are allocated proportionally by state, i.e. the more graduating students a state has, the more Semifinalists that state will have. Therefore, some states have higher cutoffs for their scores than others. Traditionally, students in Texas need to have a Selection Index score between 218 and 221. The Texas Semifinalist cutoff for the class of 2023 is 219.  Semifinalists advance in the competition.  Commended students are recognized in late September.  While Commended students don’t advance in the competition, it looks great on college applications and some colleges even award scholarships based on Commended status.  The cutoff for the class of 2023 is 207.
(Senior Year)
National Merit Semifinalists must complete an application, which includes submitting an essay and a recommendation from your school. The application also allows you to choose your “first choice” school, which is an important step: whatever school you choose is the only school you can receive scholarships from. You can always change your choice later. Semifinalists must also have a “confirming score:” an SAT or ACT score that confirms your PSAT performance.  This score must be completed by December.
(Senior Year)
Finalists are notified. Approximately 95% of Semi-Finalists are named National Merit Finalists.
(Senior Year)
Scholarships based on the school you listed as “first choice” on your application begin to be awarded. Many schools offer a National Merit scholarship of $500-$2500 per year. 

So What Should I Do?

Current Juniors

The time for test prep begins during the summer between your sophomore and junior year. If you think you have what it takes to be a National Merit Scholar, sign up for our Goal 1600 class during the summer or one-on-one tutoring.  All our classes provide individualized attention, tailored assignments, and focused feedback in a small group setting.  They  are both fun and effective, helping students achieve their testing goals. Our Goal 1600 class is specifically designed for students aiming for National Merit Semifinalist scores. This class goes quickly through the regular content and focuses then on strategy and practice for the hard questions. In order to help ensure students are in a class that best suits them, students must meet a minimum SAT score (or equivalent PSAT score) of 1300 to be admitted to the class. To check out our current classes, click here.

If you would prefer to work one-on-one with one of our expert tutors, we offer private tutoring in your home that covers all the material and meets students where they are. To sign up for one-on-one tutoring, click here.

Current Sophomores and Younger

Focus on your core skills of reading comprehension, grammar and rhetorical techniques, and math competence.  Use the results from the PSAT as a guide to what areas need attention.  One specific suggestion is to dramatically increase the amount of challenging non-fiction reading.  The vast majority of the test (even the math section!)  is based on non-fiction reading and most students don’t get enough opportunities.  We’ve developed a great list of free, online resources to work on non-fiction reading comprehension.

Our Difference

Woodlands Test Prep has helped 25 students become National Merit Semifinalists in the last 5 years. We have specialized in the SAT, PSAT, and ACT for 11 years.  We are the experts on these tests. Every one of our tutors has the heart of a teacher and loves what they do. Check out our website at to find out more information about our tutoring services and classes, or give us a call at 713-205-1807 to get a free consultation today.

The Digital SAT: A Brave, New Frontier

The Digital SAT: A Brave, New Frontier

From the Author News Tests

Revised September 27, 2022

The College Board announced that the SAT will be going digital in March 2024, and the PSAT will be going digital in October 2023.  As if *that* isn’t big enough news, they are also changing the format substantively to be more student-friendly.

Update: The first widely available practice test is available! Click here to download the app and check out the new format!

So What’s Changing?


  • Same scoring format, equal to current scores
  • Shorter overall test time – approximately 2 hours instead of 3.25 hours
  • Adaptive scoring – performance on the first section of topic affects the difficulty of the second section
  • Much more time per question
  • No more long reading passages
  • Built in graphing calculator for ALL math questions


  • Moving to an all-digital format – bring your own device or use one of the College Board’s
  • Students will install the testing app prior to testing day
  • Digital PSAT will be the same as the Digital SAT in structure
  • Much faster score receipt – in days rather than weeks
  • Accommodations will be handled in the digital environment
  • National test dates will remain unchanged; more choices for School Day dates

Overall, the changes are good for students!

When Is All This Happening?

What Does That Mean For My High School Student?

What Questions Are Still Out There About All This?

  • Will the College Board stick to their announced timeline?  We think yes.  In insider presentations, they’ve had a lot of opportunity to plan and test and are very confident, and they are continuing to deliver on their announced deadlines.
  • Will digital SAT scores be equal to current SAT scores (and the concorded ACT scores)?  The College Board says yes.  We shall see how colleges view it and whether colleges will allow super scoring between paper and digital versions.
The Truth About ‘Test Optional’

The Truth About ‘Test Optional’

From the Author

Test Optional: Does that mean I can skip taking the SAT or ACT?

Nope.  While it may be easier to apply, it is NOT easier to get in – at all.

Let’s break down this topic into some manageable chunks.

What does a “test optional” policy mean?  It means that schools don’t require test scores for a complete application.  This is in contrast to a “test blind” application policy such as that used by the University of California system and California State University system. These schools will specifically not consider your test scores even if you send them. 

During the pandemic, most colleges announced a change in their application policies for the class of 2021 to a test optional policy because most students had no access to testing opportunities.  Many colleges extended that policy to the class of 2022. However, the University of Tennessee system, Auburn, MIT, and Georgetown have announced that future classes will need to submit scores with their applications, and many other colleges (in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in particular) have already returned to (or never stopped) requiring scores so be prepared for more colleges to follow suit.  You can check the policy of the colleges you’re interested in here.

What happens when a college goes test optional?  Colleges experience at least two changes when they go test optional: average test scores rise and admission rates decrease.  Average test scores rise because students who are lower-scoring do not report their scores, so the overall average rises for the incoming class.  Admission rates fall because students (incorrectly) perceive that it is easier to be accepted and more students apply while the number admitted stays the same. 

These effects were seen again during the 2022 application cycle.  The most selective colleges in the U.S. saw enormous (sometimes even double!) increases in applications from pre-pandemic levels. 

Both of these changes benefit the college, NOT the student.  In some cases, students also benefit from these policies, although that isn’t clear overall.  While test optional does create a new avenue for students who truly struggle with standardized testing; schools clearly value test scores as a validation of grades and transcripts.  Grade inflation is real. According to the College Board, over 60% of college applicants in the class of 2021 obtained a 4.0 or better. According to ACT, Inc., grade point averages have risen over the last several years while ACT scores have fallen slightly. Bottom line: while it may be easier to apply, it is not easier to be admitted – at all.  

Should I send my test score?  Briefly, if your scores are additive to your application, you should send them.  If you’re not sure whether your scores are additive, you should probably still send them. Because of the increase in average test scores over the last couple of years, when comparing your score to a prospective university’s range, be sure to look at their ranges pre-pandemic.

According to data from the most recent admissions cycle, students applying with test scores were admitted up to 2.7 times as frequently as students who applied test optional! That’s a clear preference for applications for scores.

While students in the (pandemic) class of 2021 had significantly fewer testing opportunities, students in the class of 2023 have normal opportunities to test.  Selective colleges will expect and receive scores from most applicants.  Like many other “optional” pieces of a college application, the most competitive students will be submitting all the optional pieces, including test scores.

What does the future hold? I don’t have a crystal ball, but if Auburn, MIT, the University of Tennessee system, and Georgetown’s recent decisions are any indication, many test optional policies will continue to revert to test required. According to MIT, test scores help them more accurately assess a student’s readiness for their program.

MIT’s Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill said, “We are reinstating our requirement, rather than adopting a more flexible policy, to be transparent and equitable in our expectations. Our concern is that, without the compelling clarity of a requirement, some well-prepared applicants won’t take the tests, and we won’t have enough information to be confident in their academic readiness⁠ when they apply. We believe it will be more equitable⁠ if we require all applicants who take the tests to disclose their scores.”

In other words, top-tier colleges care about your test scores. They adopted test-optional policies so students who did not have the chance to take the exam due to Covid-19 could still apply. Data coming out (like from here) proves that test scores matter, and it’s possible that other schools will soon follow MIT’s lead in transparency and drop their test-optional policies. In fact, according to a survey by Ernst & Young and the Parthenon Group conducted in 2021, 20-30% of universities surveyed claimed they would likely move back to test-required policies within 3-5 years. Selective schools including Stanford have openly discussed their intent to once again require a college entrance exam score, and Yale has echoed MIT’s sentiments about the importance of test scores when making admissions decisions. 

Other schools, including University of Texas at Austin, University of North Carolina, and certain schools within the University System of Georgia announced a return to requiring college entrance exams and then shortly reversed their decisions. Remember, test-optional policies benefit the school, not often the student, and schools might be slow to relinquish their boost in ratings due to increased selectivity and average test scores. However, as universities continue to follow the path of MIT, it seems likely that more schools, especially those considered selective, will join this game of follow-the-leader.

So what to do? Due to uneven transcripts with uneven high school experiences and very real grade inflation, most college admissions staff view test scores as a known quantity that can validate your application.  A solid strategy is to work toward getting the best score you can but don’t send your scores right away.  Once you are ready to apply, you can decide if your scores help your application if you’re applying to a test-optional school.

As always, Woodlands Test Prep is here to help you through this process. Call us at 713-205-1807 for your free consultation, and we can discuss if test prep tutoring would help your student on their college journey. Remember, we teach; you relax!

Woodlands Test Prep celebrates 10 years of helping students achieve their test best

Woodlands Test Prep celebrates 10 years of helping students achieve their test best


Woodlands Test Prep is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2022!  Growing from a solo tutoring practice to a full-service educational services company, Woodlands Test Prep has carefully put together a full set of tutoring services, including test prep for the SAT, PSAT, and ACT and academic and AP tutoring for math, science, history, language arts, and foreign language subjects.  

We sat down with Susan to talk about her ten years in business: how her company was created and how it has impacted The Woodlands community.  What originally began as a small side hustle has ended up becoming one of the most influential tutoring services in The Woodlands.  

Meet the Founder

Susan started tutoring in 1995 as a hobby. When asked what drew her to tutoring, she said: 

“I’ve always loved standardized tests. I just think they’re fun. Even as a kid, I thought they were fun. So I’ve obviously always been a little bit weird ha ha!”

Indeed! This “weird” love for tests made Susan an engaging tutor, which she found was exactly what students needed to succeed. After taking a break from teaching SAT and GMAT classes in order to raise children, she was ready for a side hustle and realized that what had been her fun hobby could become her business. Susan said:

I asked myself, what do I like doing? And I thought, okay, I like tests.  Then I started Woodlands Test Prep, and it honestly grew far beyond any expectations I ever had. Pretty soon I had a number of tutors working for me and was doing practice tests for the library and for schools here in the area. It’s been a joy from the beginning.”

It’s obvious that she and her team of tutors not only have fun teaching students how to succeed on their college entrance exams but are experts in the field of test prep as well. Over the past several years, Susan’s average scores have been a 1580 on the SAT and a 35 on the ACT, and she only hires tutors who show a similar affinity for these tests. With a love for tests and tutoring and Susan’s honed curriculum, she and her team of expert tutors are ready to help any student succeed. 

To stay up-to-date, Susan is an active member of the NTPA (National Test Prep Association), where she collaborates with other test prep professionals.  She also was featured on the podcast Tests and the Rest on episode 231. All this professional development is passed on to her tutors and also shared via her blog on Woodlands Test Prep’s website. You can read expert information along with Susan’s professional thoughts and opinions on everything from the new digital SAT to what test optional really means for your student.

About Woodlands Test Prep and Its Services

Woodlands Test Prep is experienced in helping every student meet their greatest potential.  Taking the SAT, ACT, or PSAT is a skill that can be learned and polished. Whether your student needs help with math, science, language arts, or social studies, they can help.  No matter where your student is starting, focused test preparation and academic tutoring helps not only improve a student’s score or grades, but also their confidence.  Susan commented: 

“Our team of tutors is really without peer.  I feel so lucky to have each and every person on the team.  Only tutors with both heart and serious academic chops make the cut to join our team.  Each tutor is genuinely an expert in the topic or skills he or she is teaching, besides just being a ton of fun to be around.”

They provide customized test preparation several ways: one-on-one in-home tutoring, small class format, and proctored practice tests. Working this way allows them to uniquely target your student’s needs.  They provide proven, successful strategies and skills. Plus, they identify and polish any test content areas that need attention.

For high-achieving students, they offer a “Goal 1600 Class” each summer designed to push them even further. In the last five years, 25 of their students went on to become National Merit Semi-Finalists!

Test prep tutoring is an investment in your student’s future, but it is also a financial investment that can have a significant return. Not only can it help students get the score they need to get into college, but it can open doors for grants and scholarships that might have been previously closed. Here’s what one mom had to say about it:

My daughter took one-on-one tutoring this summer to raise her ACT score to get accepted to A&M. She met with an amazing tutor once a week who coached her, and then she also took the practice tests available through your organization before taking the ACT a second time. Thanks to her score, as well as other aspects of her application, she is now going to be Texas A&M Class of 2026! 

The return on investment was outstanding, as her backup school was offering her $3,000/year renewable for four years due to her ACT score and her class rank. For anyone wondering if your service is worth the cost, please let them know it was for us.

If your student needs support for academic success or if college is a part of your student’s future, Woodlands Test Prep is just what your student needs to succeed. Call them today to learn how they fit into your child’s journey to college and beyond.

Click here to learn more about Woodlands Test Prep or call (713) 205-1807 to set up a session today!

Tests and the Rest Podcast

Tests and the Rest Podcast

From the Author Podcast

Woodlands Test Prep’s founder and CEO, Susan Powers, was recently featured on Tests and the Rest podcast, a podcast devoted to the college admissions process. Tests and the Rest hosts Mike and Amy said Woodlands Test Prep “improves students’ scores, supports students’ academic success, and helps families navigate the college admissions testing process with much less stress.”

Time to Think About Test Prep

Time to Think About Test Prep

From the Author

When Is It Time to Make Your Test Prep Plan?

Parents and students often wonder: When should I start thinking about the SAT and ACT?  To best position yourself or your student for the college application process at the beginning of senior year, students should start creating their college admissions testing plan at the end of their sophomore year or toward the beginning of junior year, ideally.  If you’re later than that, you’re still ok!  Here are the steps to get you started:

1. Get a baseline score for both the SAT and ACT.

While many students took the PSAT as sophomores at school this year, many students did not due to the pandemic.  Also, in general, far fewer high schools give practice ACT tests so those opportunities are more limited.  Students can take an official practice SAT or ACT or both in several different ways: at home at the kitchen table for free, via our new proctor videos, or participating in one of our live proctored exams (Test Flight Club).  There’s no need to take a national test date in order to find out which test suits your student better.

2. Once you have a baseline for both SAT and ACT scores, decide which test is the better fit.  We can work together to decide which test is a better fit for your student.  

3. Decide what testing calendar best suits your student. Here are some general suggestions:

  • Students who are taking Algebra II as juniors:  Plan to take either the March SAT or April ACT.  Test prep can begin after the Christmas holiday.  Student can then retake in either late spring or early fall or both.
  • Students who will have completed Algebra II by the end of sophomore year:  Think about extracurricular schedule and academic load in the junior year.  Most students will benefit from starting test prep in the summer and taking their first test in the fall to get the majority of the skill building finished over the summer.  However, if students have extremely heavy extracurricular schedules in the fall (Football, Marching Band, Cheerleading, Color Guard, etc.), they make choose to push their first test to the spring and follow the above schedule.  Students who choose to test in the fall have the opportunity to retest anytime in the spring and still have time to retest again early in their senior year if desired.
  • Students who scored particularly well on the PSAT in 10th grade:  Plan to prep for the PSAT over the summer.  The PSAT in junior year serves as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Competition.  Even if the ACT looks like the better fit from a college admissions testing perspective, students who scored particularly well on the PSAT in 10th grade should consider making a real effort to maximize their score on their junior year PSAT.  They can then take either the October or November SAT to lock in their qualifying score should they become National Merit Semifinalists.

4. Plan on allocating at least two months to test prep.

    Test prep is really much more about practice than it is about content. You do need to decide what tactics work best for you, how to best allocate your time, and how to recognize the many patterns on the test, but really making a difference in your score comes down to putting in the practice.  We offer Test Flight Club twice a month where students have the opportunity to take a full length proctored practice test, receive immediate results, and have a two hour Q&A-style group tutoring session with one of our most expert tutors.  We have seen amazing results with students who have put in the practice!

    Remember also that almost every student will take either the SAT or ACT twice, and most students will take it three times. So keep in mind that the process is more of a marathon than a sprint and be patient with yourself.

We know that there are a lot of moving pieces when deciding how and when to work on test prep. Let us know how we can help! We love helping people with their questions!

2022 National Merit Commended Scores Established

2022 National Merit Commended Scores Established

From the Author

The National Merit Commended cutoff for the class of 2022 was recently unofficially announced at 207 – two points lower than last year’s class of 2021 level and the lowest number in the last ten years.  The lower cutoff reflects the significant drop in the number of students who were able to take the PSAT in October and January.

While the Commended cutoff dropped significantly, one cannot conclude that the Semifinalist cutoff for Texas will also drop.  The Commended cutoff is calculated nationally, while the Semifinalist cutoff is calculated by state.  Due to all the moving pieces, we will still have to wait until September to learn how it all works out for the class of 2022.  Right now, we predict that the Semifinalist cutoff score for Texas for the class of 2022 will be somewhere between 217 – 221.  We will update you in late August/early September as Semifinalist numbers become known.

SAT vs. ACT?

SAT vs. ACT Tests

Which one should I take?

It’s junior year; the time has come.

Time to start considering the college admissions process. A big part of that process is taking the SAT or ACT to apply to college. So the questions loom: 

  • Which test do you take?  
  • Should you take both? 
  • Which one is easier?

Understanding the answers to these questions can make a significant difference in your college admissions process. Here are a few important points to consider:

  • All colleges accept both tests. This is great. Having the freedom to submit either test to your college of choice allows you to pick the test that works best for you.  
  • You should prep only for the test that suits you best. Most students do better on one test or the other. You can figure out which one is better for you by taking a practice and then comparing it to your PSAT or SAT results. Use our handy comparison tables to compare your results.
  • Each test has a different feel. The ACT is more straightforward, but much more quickly paced. The SAT is slower paced, but wordier and uses more complex vocabulary. The ACT tests all types of math; whereas the SAT focuses primarily on Algebra. The SAT has a math section that does not allow a calculator. The ACT includes a Science Reasoning section which tests data analysis skills more thoroughly than those skills are tested on the SAT. Pick the test that aligns best with your personal style and gives you the highest score.

Use these tips when beginning to formulate your testing plan. Creating a testing strategy helps to maximize your results and remove stress from the process. Woodlands Test Prep can help!  Call us at 713.205.1807 today for a free 30-minute consultation on your test prep strategy. 

And click here for our in-depth discussion of PSAT scores and National Merit considerations.

The New PSAT Score Curve

The New PSAT Score Curve

From the Author

After the return of the PSAT results last week, the reports of lower than anticipated scores began pouring in.  We’ve spent some time analyzing this year’s PSAT scale in relation to the last three years to see how different this year’s scale truly is.  Our conclusion: it’s definitely different.

The charts below show the scaled scores resulting from missing one, two, three, or four questions on each section (Reading, Writing, and Math) for each of the years 2016 through 2019.  For the sake of simplicity, the Reading and Writing scores have been expressed on the more familiar 160 – 760 scale.  When looking at *just* the main PSAT dates (on which 80 – 90% of students actually take the test), the evidence is stark: each missed question carries a larger penalty in 2019.  For students at the very top of the scale (and hoping for National Merit Semifinalist), the steeper curves raise the stakes on a test that was already high stakes.  Given the scales, it is possible that the cutoff for Texas may come down this year, having held steady at 221 for the years represented by these graphs.

We will stay on top of these changes as more information comes to light. 

Changes to the ACT

From the Author SAT vs. ACT

The momentous changes to the ACT announced on October 8th, 2019 will change how students choose between tests, how they view retesting, and how colleges look at superscores.  We’ve spent the last couple of weeks, including last Thursday at a webinar hosted by ACT, Inc., learning much more about how the changes will actually work.  

The three changes announced are:

  • Individual section retesting,
  • Optional superscore reporting, and
  • Online testing

While the individual section retesting has received most of the coverage in the press, the other announcements could be just as (if not more in some cases) impactful on how the college admissions’ testing process works for students.  Some of these effects have to do with the details of how all of this will work.  Let’s look at each component to see the details and possible effects.

Individual section retesting

Probably the most important unsaid fact about ACT, Inc. offering individual section retesting is that essentially no colleges have said how they plan to handle those scores.  During the webinar on Thursday, October 24th presented by ACT, Inc. covering all the changes, they announced that Vanderbilt has recently changed their policy to accept superscoring.  The implication is that the individual section retests will also be accepted as part of that.  While the logical assumption is that colleges that currently superscore will also accept the section retests, no colleges have definitively confirmed that they will.  Students in the class of 2021, who would benefit first from the ability to retest in the fall of their senior year, can’t rely on colleges accepting those scores.  

Section retesting is only available for students who have already taken the full test.  Section retesting will only be offered online (much more on that later) and on the seven national test dates.  It is possible, particularly for the class of 2021, that capacity will not be conveniently available to meet the demand for section retesting.  If and when it is, students will be able to take up to three section retests on a single day, essentially making any combination of retesting possible (any combination of one to four sections).  In an interesting twist, ACT, Inc. personnel confirmed that students will likely be able to “retest” just the essay portion of the test, even if they didn’t take it the first time.  In our opinion, this option will eventually eliminate the need to take the essay unless or until students decide to apply to colleges which require or recommend it; there will be no need to take it “just in case” (assuming capacity is available).

To assuage the worries about students for whom retesting is a financial burden, ACT, Inc. is increasing the number of fee waivers from two to four and letting a fee waiver work for either a complete test or up to three retests. Regular pricing for section retests will be different (presumably less) than taking the whole test, but ACT, Inc. hedged on the actual pricing. (“Pricing is still being determined.”)  

While most students (and their tutors) would agree that the order in which one takes sections matters, ACT, Inc. posits that order doesn’t matter.  “We have also conducted research to examine whether the order in which a student takes the ACT subject tests affects their performance.  We find that students perform similarly regardless of test order.  That is, regardless of whether you take the English test last or first, you are expected to earn the same score, which also supports the shift to single-subject retesting.”  This research has not been made available (unlike the research they have presented for the validity of superscores – see below).  Interestingly, ACT has not yet made a decision on whether students will have to take retests in the order in which they occur in a full test or in an order of their choosing.

It is our opinion that the opportunity to retest will be a significant factor in managing fatigue for some students. That being said, we will evaluate each student’s situation on a case by case basis. Often a student’s improvement on a superscore basis comes from sections that he or she did not expect, so focusing on only one section eliminates the possibility of improvement on those sections.  Section retesting will not be a universal panacea.

Our overall, near-term recommendation is for the class of 2021 to continue making their testing decisions ignoring these changes since it is unclear that they will be of benefit in time.  Of course none of these changes affect the class of 2020.


In September 2020, ACT, Inc. will begin to give students two choices in how they send their scores to colleges: either choosing test dates (including the choice of all test dates) or superscoring.  While some colleges have superscored the ACT for years, the number of school that do so lags behind schools that superscore the SAT.  Historically, ACT, Inc. opposed superscoring – rather vociferously.  In an about face, they conducted research over the last two years confirming (surprisingly) that superscoring is a better predictor of first year college grades than any other measure (average, last, or single highest test date).  In fact, they found that superscoring actually under-predicted first year grades. They hypothesize (and we concur) that students who are willing to retest are more likely to seek out additional help if needed at college.  One of the (not-so-subtle) subtexts of the webinar is ACT, Inc.’s hope that more and more colleges will now begin to superscore the ACT.  It is worth noting that the NCAA has always used a version of superscoring: the sum of the highest section scores achieved (rather than the average).  As the number of colleges superscoring the ACT increases, it will become more attractive as a testing option for students who score about the same on the SAT and ACT.

For the class of 2021 (and future classes), ACT, Inc. will super-score tests taken from September 2016 forward, including any section retests starting in September 2020.  Section retesting isn’t necessary to use the super-scoring option.

Online Testing

ACT, Inc. will start offering online testing at testing centers on national test dates in September 2020.  Online testers (and their score recipients) will receive their scores in two days instead of about twelve. Many of the changes to the ACT will be driven by the availability, however, of this online testing.  During the webinar, we asked in a couple of different ways how many centers and/or seats would be available for online testing.  When asked how many testing locations they anticipated being available, they said, “ACT is working on establishing the online testing centers. We are beginning with the current sites that offer ACT testing and will expand our search as necessary. When a student logs in to the registration system, it will display how close the nearest center is that offers online testing.”  We were underwhelmed with their certainty that online testing would be widely available.  In some states, online testing has been used for ACT/SAT testing for all juniors. Texas has not been one of those states, and will likely struggle to host enough testing centers with the infrastructure required (including but not limited to computers and high speed, reliable internet access).  Students will, of course, still be able to test with paper and pencil, but they won’t be able to do the individual section retesting.  

ACT, Inc., in fact, states that they don’t have any plans to do away with paper and pencil testing “at this time.”  In the same way that the use (or not) of accommodations is not reported to colleges, whether a student tests online or with paper and pencil will also not be reported.  For accommodations, only students with 50% extra time will be able to test online (and therefore take advantage of section retesting if desired).  Other accommodation modalities will require taking the test with paper and pencil (and will, therefore, make section retesting unavailable).  During the webinar, ACT, Inc. equivocated on whether online testing would be more expensive; we expect that it will be.

Again, the issue of availability is crucial and means that the class of 2021 should not rely on its availability when making testing decisions.

Key Points

  • None of these changes affect the class of 2020.
  • The class of 2021 should proceed as if these changes aren’t happening; we are uncertain that they will actually be accepted by colleges and/or that capacity will be available in the near-term.
  • The Woodlands and surrounding area will likely have a shortage of online testing centers in the near-term.
  • Section retesting will helpful for some, but not all, students.
  • Online testing will ultimately become the testing method of choice.
  • More colleges will likely begin superscoring the ACT.
  • Students with less common accommodations will want to think about what to request early in the testing process.

From a test prep standpoint, the biggest change here is the move to online testing. While the rollout may not have a lot of capacity at first (that remains to be seen), the future is clear: online testing will continue to grow every year given the incentive structure put in place.  Unknowns abound in how the delivery of the online test will look and function.  ACT, Inc. stated in the webinar that online practice is available in ACT Academy, but the look and feel of it does not correspond to the functions described in the webinar (highlighting, etc.).  Navigation tutorials are expected to be made available but the timing for that is unclear.  We will remain on top of how these tests look and function so that as online testing becomes available for our students, we can guide them expertly in the same way we have always done with paper and pencil.

About the Author:  Susan Powers is the founder of Woodlands Test Prep and a renowned test prep expert.  She focuses on delivering the most up to date testing information to students, taking both the SAT and ACT twice a year.