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  • Writer's picturePirie McIndoe

Planning for College: Do I Need to Take the ACT® and SAT® Tests

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

An ACT® and SAT® FAQ

Do I Need to Take the ACT® and SAT® Tests

To answer this question, lets look at what colleges require.

  • Standardized testing required: Yes, you must submit either the SAT or ACT score.

  • Testing Optional: You may submit your score if you want. If you do, it will be considered as part of your application. If you do not submit a score, your application will be considered, and you are not penalized for not submitting your score.

  • Not Considered: This is also called test blind. These schools do not consider your SAT or ACT scores, even if you provide them.

Since most students will apply to a college where the scores are required or optional, students should plan to take them. So, the questions begin.


What to do when a school is test-optional

This can be tricky. Generally, if your score is above the midpoint for the previous year’s applicants, it makes sense to turn in the score. If it is below average, it could hurt your chances for admission.


This is where an experienced college advisor can help you decide. I have had students turn in scores for some schools and decide not to for others. Students who apply to more selective schools, tend to turn in their scores.


What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?

The SAT and ACT tests are very similar. Both are trying to judge your ability to handle college level work.

The SAT test gives you more time but often asks more challenging questions, while the ACT test has more questions with less time but is more straightforward. Many students feel the ACT is a test of what they know, while the SAT is a test of what they can figure out.


This is why students should take both tests. Both the ACT and SAT tests provide students with a detailed score report that can be used to determine which test focuses more on your strengths.


Of course, there are some other differences.


In the math section of the ACT, all answers are multiple choice. On the SAT, students will have several questions that require them to bubble in an exact answer. In addition, while a calculator is allowed on the entire math section of the ACT, the SAT includes an entire section that is “calculator inactive.”


The reading comprehension passages of the ACT tend to be longer, but the questions are more direct. The passages for the SAT are a little shorter, but the questions often require a little more analysis and thought. The SAT is known for having a few tricky questions.


How the SAT is changing

Yes, the SAT is changing to a new online, streamlined test beginning in 2023 for international students, and in 2024 for those in the U.S. Changes to expect:

  • The test time will be cut from three hours to two

  • A calculator will be allowed for the entire math portion of the exam

"The digital SAT will be easier to take, easier to give, and more relevant." - Priscilla Rodriguez, College Board

Do colleges prefer one over the other

No. Shortest answer there is. Colleges look at both equally.


Do colleges still care about the scores

Yes! Only schools that are test blind do not care. Generally, schools that are test optional place less weight on standardized test scores than schools that require them as part of the admissions process.


For the high school class of 2023, more colleges, such as MIT, will require the exams for admission than the previous few years. There are still many universities that consider test scores to be “very important” in the admissions process.


Should I take both the ACT and SAT


If you have the time and can afford it, YES! Most students prefer one over the other. I always suggest students take both by sophomore year, so they can focus on studying for one over the other when they are juniors.



What if I cannot afford to take the ACT or SAT

Both offer a fee waiver for students who have financial need. You can coordinate this through your school counselor.


Should I submit my scores to schools I might be interested in when I take the test


You might be able to tell, I feel strongly about this. Never send in your scores until you are ready to apply to college. You want to be in control of what a college sees. If you do poorly on your first attempt, you do not want colleges to have that information.


Does turning in both scores to a college help my chances of admission

If both of your scores are good, it certainly can. For example, a student interested in studying science in college has a 1400 SAT and 30 ACT. These are roughly equivalent.

However, the ACT includes a subscore for science. If that score is good, say a 33, send in both. However, if the science subscore is a 26, sending in the SAT may be the better option. Guidance from a professional can help you determine what is best.


What is superscoring


 

Superscoring is simply a way for colleges to look at the best parts of either the SAT or ACT exams.

 

For example: Jackson took the SAT three times, earning the following scores on each test:

  1. Test 1: 1210 610 Verbal 600 Math

  2. Test 2: 1250 590 Verbal 660 Math

  3. Test 3: 1270 630 Verbal 640 Math

Thus, Jackson’s super score is 1290. The combination of 630 Verbal and 660 Math.


The same is true for the ACT. I won’t provide an example here, as there are more sections of that exam. However, if you take the ACT more than once, the ACT will provide a super score for you.


Do all schools use super scoring?

Most do for the SAT. Many do for the ACT. A few don’t superscore either. However, you can always confirm this with the school directly, or by checking on their website. Here are a few popular universities and their respective policies.

  • Stanford: Does for the SAT, but not the ACT

  • UNC System Schools: Super scores for both the SAT and ACT

  • UChicago: Super scores for both the SAT and ACT

  • UT Austin: Does not super score either the SAT or ACT

What is the best way to prepare for these tests

Quite literally, thousands of books have been written on this subject. An entire industry exists around college test preparation.



The more you research all the options, the more likely you are to look for a bottle of Advil. These seem to be the most common options:


Taking a test prep course

There are lots of options here, and many can be quite expensive. Those that guarantee high scores normally require an extensive amount of work by the student. If the student does not put in the time, the guarantee evaporates.


Of course, there are also courses that are less expensive. Sometimes students simply need more structure because they lack the focus for significant self-study.


Self-Study

This can work well for students who have the discipline to buckle down, study, take practice exams, and review their work. There are many excellent books for both math and verbal. Sadly, there are many more books that…stink.


I have a few favorites that have helped some of the students I work with improve their scores., in many cases, quite significantly. Contact me and I’ll be happy to pass along my current list. I always suggest students check out free resources, such as Khan Academy.


A Tutor

While this might seem like the most expensive option, it often costs less than a test prep course. I’ll give you an example. When my daughter was preparing for the SAT, she really wanted to improve her math score. Since the tests are highly repetitive, she simply took a lot of practice exams on her own.


She then went to a tutor for an hour to review what she missed. Twenty practice exams and five hours of tutoring later, she hit her score. For her, it simply meant getting four more correct answers than on her previous SAT. Yes, four more correct answers to go from a 700 to a 750.


When should I take the tests for the first time

Earlier is better, just to set a baseline and see which exam better suits your test-taking skill set. I generally suggest sometime in the spring of sophomore year or early fall of junior year.


Should I take the Essay Portion of the ACT

Taking the essay part of the exam is generally optional. Currently, there are only a handful of colleges in the country that require the essay. If you plan to apply to one of these, then you must take it.


If not, I suggest students opt out. The scoring is more subjective, which is one of the reasons the SAT dropped their essay completely. Too many students do well on the main part of the test, and then receive only an average score for their essay.


Summary

While some universities are or have stopped requiring the tests altogether, many still require the tests or make them optional. While not perfect, many colleges see value in the results.


These days, the majority of students who apply to more selective colleges will turn in their scores. Take both tests to determine if you like one more than the other and do your best. Remember, there is a college out there for everyone!


Fun Fact

Three-quarters of Princeton Alumni go on to marry someone else from Princeton. I know two couples who found their respective prince and princess in New Jersey! And you thought all Jersey had to offer was Springsteen and Bon Jovi!


About An Advisor for College

My name is Pirie McIndoe, and I am the founder of An Advisor for College. Having worked with over 350 colleges and universities during my 35 years in the higher education market, I bring a unique perspective to the college admissions process. I know what college admissions officers are looking for as they seek to develop a diverse student body. I am fully invested in each student’s success; helping them present the best version of themselves for college consideration. Contact me to learn how I can help you navigate this complex and competitive process. www.anadvisorforcollege.com

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