What should I Know about the SAT and ACT?


What should I Know about the SAT and ACT?

As a college counselor, I probably get more questions about the SAT and ACT than any other topic. Which makes sense. After all, there are a lot of factors that students have to consider when it comes to standardized testing, from deciding on a test to selecting a specific date to take it. Understandably, a lot of students feel a fair amount of apprehension over this process (I know I did when I was in high school).

In order to--hopefully--relieve some of the anxiety surrounding these exams, here are answers to some of the questions I receive most frequently from students and parents.

Do colleges prefer the SAT or the ACT?

The good news is that every single US college accepts scores from both tests! No school prefers one over the other.

Ok, so which one should I take then?

This may sound obvious, but you should take the test that you will perform better on. I recommend that students take a full length practice exam for each test to figure this out.  They can then compare their scores (using a conversion chart like this one).

Can I use the official SAT or ACT for “practice”?

I would not recommend doing this since some college require applicants to send in all official test scores (e.g. the UC’s).

Take a practice test before taking an official test 

How do the tests differ?

In many ways, the tests are quite similar (especially since the 2016 SAT redesign). Both take about three hours and test similar concepts. Both offer an optional essay section. Neither penalizes students for wrong answers.

However there are some key differences:

--The ACT is a faster-paced test than the SAT, which means you have less time to answer each question. Thus, if you are worried about feeling rushed, the SAT might be a better choice.

--Unlike the SAT, The ACT has a Science section! If you enjoy interpreting data and graphs, the ACT might be a more appealing option.

--The ACT math section has a greater emphasis on geometry concepts, while the SAT has more questions related to algebra and data analysis.

--The math section is relatively more important on the SAT than the ACT. It makes up half of your SAT score and only 1/4th of your ACT score. For that reason, the SAT might be a better choice for students who excel in math.

When should I take the test?

For the majority of students, it is best to wait until your junior year of high school to take the test. Why? Because you will have more problem solving experience at that point and it will be easier to achieve a high score. In addition, students should ideally have completed Algebra II prior to taking the SAT or ACT.

How should I prepare?

When it comes to test prep, you have three basic options: self prepping, formal prep classes, and one-on-one tutoring. Many students find the most effective approach is one that is layered, with self-prepping beginning well in advance of the test, and more formal, intense preparation beginning a few months prior to the test. Classes and tutoring tend to result in larger score gains, but they also cost significantly more.

What if I cannot afford a class or tutor?

The good news is that you still have options! For one, you can buy a test prep book and begin working through it. “Cracking the SAT" and "Cracking the ACT" by Princeton Review are good options. In addition, both the SAT and ACT offer official study guides that include practice tests created by the testing agencies themselves. Finally, you can practice online using Khan Academy (for the SAT) and ACT Academy (for the ACT).

How much time should I dedicate to test prep?

It depends (doesn’t it always?). I would first recommend that you look up the SAT/ACT ranges of the colleges that you are most interested in. Oftentimes, colleges will provide a middle 25% to 75% score range. In other words, 50% of admitted students scored between these two numbers. To be on the safe side, you should aim for the 75% score. For example, if you really wanted to attend UC Merced (Go Bobcats!), you should aim for an ACT score of 24, which is the 75th percentile score for admitted students.

Research the SAT/ACT ranges for the colleges you are interested in

Next, compare that 75th percentile score with your practice test score. If you are already scoring at or above the 75% score of your top choice colleges, you may not have to study much at all. However, if there is a gap between your score and your target score, you should prepare to dedicate some time to prep.

In general, it takes around 40 hours of prep to boost an SAT score by 100 points, so plan accordingly. If you wanted to improve your score by 100 points, you might plan on studying approximately four hours a week for two or three months leading up to your chosen test date.

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