Ivy League Angst

04/10/2015 01:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

As the President of ACT, I am often asked by eager parents, "What's the secret to my child doing well on The ACT and getting into a top school?" Sometimes I pause a second, and the anticipation grows. I provide them first with some insight as a former admissions counselor. "You do realize that the ACT is just one of many items schools look at in deciding whether a student is a good fit for the institution, right? It's similar to the way your child should look at a variety of aspects of the college before deciding if that's where he or she should go."

Most of them do realize -- yet tend to overlook -- this important fact. But while they are appreciative of the insight, they continue to press me on how to do better. My response is always the same. "There is a way to do well on The ACT. It's not talked about enough, so I'm glad you asked. The way for your child to do well on The ACT is to take challenging courses in school, study hard in those courses, and master those lessons."

Inevitably, the parents look disappointed. They thought I was going to recommend a magic bullet, such as taking an expensive test prep course or hiring a certain tutor. But, frankly, there is no replacement for taking the right courses and doing the work necessary to learn the content in those courses.

This conversation is especially important in light of the new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, by Frank Bruni. Bruni argues, quite correctly, that when choosing a college, we often overemphasize prestige, selecting a school as if we are buying an expensive watch, as if these four years of study require a luxury brand.

Bruni cites research by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale that reveals students who applied to but didn't attend Ivy League schools were able to earn as much money after graduating as those who did attend. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be "among the best," but it certainly isn't the only path to future success. The key, according to Bruni, is not necessarily to go to the best school, but rather to make the best of where you go.

ACT sends a letter to every student who earns a top score of 36 on The ACT. It states: "While test scores are just one of the many criteria that most colleges consider when making admission decisions, your exceptional ACT composite score should prove helpful as you pursue your education and career goals."

A top score of 36 is worthy of acknowledgement and celebration. However, earning a 36 composite score on The ACT is not a guarantee for success. There are colleges out there to meet the needs of a wide range of students. But preparation is important for success at all of these institutions.

ACT is focused on working to help ALL students achieve education and career success, not just those who are high achievers. ACT research found that the odds an individual will succeed after high school increase significantly if they meet college and career readiness benchmarks. With this in mind, ACT has launched the 2015 National College and Career Readiness Campaign. It's an initiative that honors each state's leading exemplars of college and career readiness in four categories across the education and workforce continuum: students, high schools, community colleges and employers. We are trying to recognize achievement and encourage others to aspire to the same goals.

We realize, however, that other factors beyond academics also play a pivotal role in an individual's success -- factors such as motivation, discipline, time management and study skills. If students who fall behind academically have poor study skills or time management issues, giving them more homework will not help them to catch up. That's why we developed assessments aimed at measuring non-cognitive behavioral skills that can impact success in school and work.

ACT research also shows that students who pursue a college major or career that matches their interests (as measured by ACT's Interest Inventory, which can be taken at are more likely than those who don't to enroll in college, get good grades, and graduate on time. In other words, if you follow your passion, it can help you overcome barriers to success.

Many different factors can and do impact success. But the foundation of college and career readiness is academic preparation.

Much attention and angst has been placed on the importance of getting into a top school. Such a lofty goal, however, is not necessary for future success. Any quality school will do if you make the best of it. What's the magic bullet? Simply preparing well and working hard.