Why You Have to Care about the SAT and the ACT

The tests are still a key factor in admissions at most colleges.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

Simply hearing the three letters said together, S-A-T, makes parents and teenagers tremble. I wish I could say everyone’s overreacting, but unfortunately the SAT and its rival, the ACT, play an important role in college acceptance. Good scores open up doors to admission and merit scholarships.

Before you get too panicked, let me help you understand what these tests are all about.

The tests The SAT is administered by a company called the College Board. It’s considered a test of intelligence which is supposed to indicate a student’s potential level of success in college. The current test contains three parts—critical reading, math and writing, each with a maximum score of 800. Most schools ignore the results of the writing portion. Note that the test is being completely revamped for spring 2016. The details can be found here.

College Board also administers SAT Subject Tests, often called SAT IIs, required by some of the more competitive colleges. These exams are exactly what their name implies, a test of a student’s knowledge in one specific area.

The ACT measures what a student learned in high school in English, math, reading and science. There’s also a writing option, which most colleges require applicants to take. The ACT doesn’t penalize for wrong answers, so it’s okay to guess on this one. The test is now almost as popular as the SAT among students. An ACT score is given as a composite, averaging results in the four sections. The highest score in any section is a 36.

The details With the SAT, colleges take the student’s best score in each area. For example, the math score might be from June and the critical reading from October. Colleges only care about the highest composite score with the ACT. A college will use the best score of either the SAT or ACT.

The ACT is given six times a year; the SAT seven, usually on a Saturday. Dates and fees are on their websites. Register early for the best chance of your child sitting for the test at her high school or one nearby.

The prep Colleges do need a standard with which to compare achievement among  students from different high schools. But the reality is that the playing field is uneven because so many kids prep for the tests. To give your child the best chance of success, sign him up for some type of test prep, whether it’s a personal tutor or a class. There are programs around to fit all budgets. This time you want your teenager to be like all the other kids. Look at my post on prep options and how to pick a test prep program to learn more.

When to test Deciding when to take the exams depends upon a few things. I’ll use what we did with our kids as a way to illustrate what you should consider.

Both of our kids were done with their SAT prep courses in time for the May exam, but  chose to take two SAT Subject tests instead because they were already studying the same topics for their upcoming AP exams. In June they each took their first SAT and ACT tests. (They prepared for the ACT with a review book because there wasn’t time to fit in a prep course.) They both increased their scores from their PSATs.

In October of their senior year they retook the SAT so that they’d have scores by the time they submitted their early action college applications. My son also sat for the ACT again to see if he could do better, and he did. The additional three points he gained made his ACT test results worth sending to colleges.

Check out my post on when to take the tests for more information.

The scores To understand your score goals for your child, use her list of prospective colleges. Check the average and mean SAT and ACT scores listed on the each college’s admissions page. Because it’s an average, remember that accepted students score above and below that number. SAT prep courses usually guarantee your child’s score will increase by at least 100 points over the PSAT. Try to be realistic about how hard your student is willing to work to improve her results.

Neither of our kids sent their spring scores to any colleges initially because they hadn’t solidified their college lists by then (they sent them in the fall). That first set of test scores will help you and your student refine the list of colleges and figure out the areas his summer test prep should focus on.

Now it’s your turn. Those of you with experience, please share your college admissions test advice.

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2 Responses to Why You Have to Care about the SAT and the ACT

  1. No advice (not there yet!), but thanks for prepping those of us who aren’t there yet!

  2. Pingback: Finding Your Way Around College Websites | Parents' Guide to the College Puzzle

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