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

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.

Of course, plenty of colleges have become test-optional, meaning they don’t require SAT/ACT scores. Some schools will ask for an additional essay or more information about courses, even a special project. Others will simply use one less piece when determining whether to offer admission.

Because more than half of colleges still want to see SAT/ACT scores, read on to understand what these two tests are all about.

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The tests The College Board administers the SAT, (as well as the Advanced Placement [AP] program and tests). The ACT is its own entity. Since the 2016 SAT revamp, the two tests are more similar, focusing on measuring what a student has learned in high school. The tests are supposed to indicate a student’s potential level of success in college. As you’d expect, that assumption has been questioned.

Colleges no longer have a preference for one test over the other, so your student should take whichever one they feel most aligns with their strengths.

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 details The tests are structured and scored differently. The SAT has two main sections, Reading & Writing and Math, where a student can earn anywhere from 200-800 points for a total of 1600. The ACT uses a composite score in each of four sections, English, Reading, Math and Science. A student can earn up to 36 points in each section and their total score will be an average of their scores in the four sections.

There is also an essay/writing section on each test that some colleges require.

Both tests create a score based only on correct answers, no points are deducted if a student answers any multiple-choice question wrong. That’s why test takers are encouraged to guess when they don’t know an answer.

Some colleges use what’s called a superscore where they will let students use their best score in each section of the SAT/ACT from different test dates to create the highest possible total score. For example, for the SAT, a student’s math score might be from May and the Reading & Writing from October.

If a student submits their scores from both the ACT and the SAT, a college will use the score from whichever is highest (they have conversion tables).

Both tests are given several times a year, almost always on a Saturday morning. Dates and fees are on their websites. Register early for the best chance of your child sitting for the test at their 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 them 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.

When to test Because both tests are looking for how much your student has learned in high school, I generally suggest taking one test for the first time in the spring of junior year, close enough to the end of the school year that they’ll have covered most of the material for each of their classes. If they want to test again, they can sit in late spring and/or early fall before their applications are due.

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

The scores To understand score goals, students should work from their their list of prospective colleges. In creating this list, your student used a college search site where there is information about average SAT and ACT scores for each school. College websites will also have this info on their admissions page or in their Common Data Set. Remember, averages are just that–admitted students score above and below that number.

The first set of test scores will help you and your student refine the list of colleges and figure out the areas their summer test prep should focus on.

Those of you with experience, please share your college admissions test advice.

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