February College Guy Rant for Juniors: preparing for SATs and staying loose as a goose despite the hoopla...

Hey there Class of ‘20 -

Greetings from Gary the College Guy, and here’s my February newsletter. I’ve been busy with class of ’19 students but now that most seniors' applications have been “put to bed” you can expect to begin getting periodic rants from me over the coming months. 

Let’s start out with some important stuff: HOW ‘BOUT THEM PATRIOTS????!!!!! You may hate football and see it for what it truly is: a brutal body-destroying brain-addling sport with unenforceable (and largely unintelligible) rules and waaaaaaay too much testosterone running amok (I’m a more refined and cultured baseball fan, truth be told) but there’s something about seeing a team meet every storybook expectation year after year as they defy both the onslaught of time and all logic by winning that I find really exciting. Congrats on a job well done! (Funny thing, the above paragraph is cribbed almost verbatim from the rant I sent to juniors a year ago - those darn Pats just keep on winning and winning!!!!!)

Ahem, to continue: 

These emails are designed to pull your coat, tickle your fancy and put you hip to a number of things related to the college search, selection, application and financial aid process. They’re probably less interesting than your Instagram account and they’re certainly longer than your tweets, and I suspect that some of you (parents included) want to be reminded of this stuff about as much as you want to schedule a root canal surgery!

On the other hand, the best way to relax and not have a cow over this stuff is to UNDERSTAND it, particularly the timeline you should follow. Forewarned is forearmed, and being prepared is a good thing! 

So read on!

ALL Maine public high school juniors will take the SAT at their high schools on Tuesday, April 9th (there’s a make up date a week or so later which some schools may invoke). The good State ‘O Maine Education Department has decreed that this test will serve as partial satisfaction of the State’s Accountability and Accreditation Requirements and blah blah woof woof all sorts of mumbo jumbo but what this means to you is that it’s free (just this first time) and it’s easy as your guidance counselor is going to sign you up for it.

All non-Maine juniors reading this who live in States which do not require in-school SAT testing should plan to take the test for the first time on May 4th. You must register for it yourself by the deadline of April 5th. And yes, you have to pay for it - $64.50 with the essay (dont’cha wish you lived in Maine??!!).

You register for the SAT test (as well as SAT Subject Tests, more about them below and in another Rant) at www.collegeboard.org. You should have your own account at this site by now - if you don’t, make one now. (If you’ve got an account but you’ve forgotten your user name and password, go through the collegeboard web site to retrieve it. You’ll need this multiple times before your college journey is over.)

I suspect some of you are planning to take the March 9th test, and a few of you smarty pants have already taken the SAT on December 1 and hey, whatever floats your boat, go for it. There’s no down side to taking it early - it’s just that there’s no real up side to rushing it.

I counsel students to take the test for the first time in the spring of junior year, and then to take it a second time (no if, ands or buts!) when it’s offered in the fall of senior year (August, October or November). If necessary, you can even take it a third time in December. (That’s too late for Early Decision, but in plenty of time for all your regular decision college applications.)

Those of you who are strong students going after "big game” (ie., selective or “reach” schools) will want/need to take the SAT Subject Tests as well. Maine students should plan to take two or three of these on May 4th. Non-Maine students who will take the SAT on May 4th should plan to take two or three of them on June 1st. Many of you Subject Test takers should consider taking/retaking two or three more in November or December of senior year.

So what qualifies someone as a “strong student”? If you take mostly honors and AP courses junior year, and/or if you always (or nearly always) make your school’s honor roll, and/or if your PSAT scores were above 1200, it could be in your interest to take the Subject Tests. Those taking May AP exams should especially plan to take the corresponding subject test as close to the AP test date as possible (when the subject matter will be freshest in your mind).

And then there’s the ACT Test. It’s not better or worse, just different from the SAT, and because it's accepted by every college you can submit it in lieu of (or along with) your SAT scores if you do well on it. Students can take this test in April or June of junior year, and again in October or December of senior year. You’ll prep for this the same way you’ll prep for the SAT, so taking it near the time you’ll take the SAT makes sense. Ask your guidance counselor or me whether you should consider adding this test to your list. 

Now relax if this is all sounding strange or confounding to you - many of you don’t need to take the Subject Tests or the ACT at all. I’m just trying to touch all the bases here. If you’re in doubt give me a call or email (my contact information is in my signature at the end of this screed) and I’ll set you straight. That’s why I’m here!



I know many of you are anxious about testing, and some may have already looked in to tutoring or taking an SAT course to help. There’s no question about it: doing some sort of preparation before taking these tests can improve your scores. Because of the many options, I may have different recommendations for you depending on your particulars (what your PSAT scores were, what classes you currently take, what your grades are). If you (or your parent) calls me and shares some information I’ll be happy to weigh in with my opinion. 

For now, here’s my general recommendations for how to prepare for your first go-‘round with the SAT:

Do “self-prep” using a combination of Kahn Academy and the Collegeboard’s Official SAT Study Guide.

Order the guide here:


or here:


Log on to your collegeboard account and “link” your account to Khan Academy - instructions for doing so are right there on the first page. 

Count back eight weeks from your intended test date and begin: that’s Feb. 11 - MONDAY!!! - for Maine students taking it on April 9; and March 11 for those taking it on May 4. 

Spend 45 minutes three times each week over those eight weeks sitting down and doing Khan Academy’s system. They’ll customize a plan based on your PSAT scores (that’s why you link Khan and your collegeboard account). Pretty nifty huh? And easy peasy. You just need to be organized and diligent to pull this off. 

Also, plan to do three full tests using the Collegeboard SAT Study Guide book which contains eight full length SATs with answer sheets and answer keys. 

Those of you who have met with me over the past year or so will notice that using this book is a new addition to my advice - I’d previously argued that doing Kahn Academy was all you needed. I recently attended an SAT Prep workshop given by my neighbor and friend Eric Johnson (Johnson Test Prep, https://www.johnsontestprep.com) and he’s convinced me that including a “paper and pencil approach” in your test prep is valuable. (Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks??  :)

After you’ve taken the SAT this spring (and, for many of you, the ACT as well) you’ll have a “baseline” of scores (PSAT, SAT and maybe ACT) on which to plan for your second go round in the fall: which tests to retake, and how best to prepare.

Don’t get me wrong - there’s nothing wrong with going directly with a one-on-one tutor or taking a class if you’ve got the money for it, but in my humble opinion doing your own test prep may prepare you just as well. 

So that’s my (somewhat new) story and I’m sticking with it. 

One more thing: if you’re still nervous about this testing stuff? Check out www.fairtest.org for a list of over 1000 colleges (!!!) which are test optional. Don’t get too excited yet: most of those 1,000 are open enrollment and non-traditional schools. But there are several dozens of selective colleges (Bates, Bowdoin and Colby among them!!) which will evaluate you "sans standardized test scores” if you choose.

If you have questions and want to know more about how this would work, give me a call or email, and I’ll break it down for you.

I’ll write more about the relative importance of standardized testing, and the Subject Tests and ACTs next month. For now, relax, but get started on your test prep.



I generally send a “College Guy Rant” with advice about visiting colleges in March, in anticipation of the April vacation which is prime time for juniors to do college visits. For those of you thinking about visiting some colleges during the upcoming February vacation I’ll be happy to share my advice with you ahead of time if you’ll take the time to phone or send me an email. 



2019/2020 Common Application Essay Prompts Announced!!!!!!

One more thing: Late breaking news: the 2019/20 Common Application “Essay Prompts”, from which you’ll be instructed to choose one to respond to, have recently been announced and they’re….drumroll and dim the lights….the same as the last two year’s!!! Ta da!!

This is actually big and good news, cause you’ll notice that prompt #7 remains “topic of your choice” so you can write about anything you darn well choose.

I’ll write later in the spring about “How to Write an Essay” but for now, here’s the College Guy’s equivalent of “drop and give me twenty pushups!”. Write your first essay. No more than 650 words, make it interesting. Choose from one of the seven 2019-20 common application prompts listed here:




If you send me what you come up with I’ll give you a quick critique, let you know if you’re on the right track…




Well, you’ve made it through my first rant of 2019, and I imagine that if you’ve gotten this far you’re somewhat wiser and better prepared than you were before you read it. Share this with your friends and neighbors, and I’ll send another one out in the near future.

From your PSAT preceptor, your collegiate chaperone, your admissions Avatar, your garrulous guru...

Gary AKA "The College Guy”


Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711 

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.

P.S. For any of you who want to know what people actually pay me for in my role as a college and career advisor, have your parents give me a holler and I’ll tell all.

P.P.S. If you’d rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won’t!