SAT-ACT: What, when, why and how does it factor in admissions?

It is Saturday, and I am at school because it’s been a week filled with testing education AND it continues with today’s practice SAT and ACT exam. Now I’m sure the students currently testing aren’t reveling in the joy that is waking up on a Saturday and coming back to school. And come back for a college entrance exam. Ya, they aren’t super stoked.

But those students are getting a clear sense and a first-hand look at a real SAT/ACT without it being an official exam. And that’s pretty smart. Because not only will they get a better sense of what exam they prefer and tend to score higher on, they also are beginning a game plan for themselves in testing. So it doesn’t become this all encompassing thing. Because the truth is, it really doesn’t have to be. So while those students check off their answers, I’ll spend some time diving into all you need to know about testing to get started and feel more informed about the process in general.

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SAT/ACT testing, what’s required, when to take them, how to take them…

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the test scores, practical preparation and information, it’s important to get a sense of the role testing plays in admission and the general landscape of college admissions.

Admission Testing Landscape

Why it feels so high stakes and what we’re really dealing with 

In the thousands of four year colleges and universities across the United States alone, there are a handful of colleges that accept less than 10% of its applicants (and we are really talking about a handful). The average college acceptance rate is over 66%. Over 60%! That means, a majority of students with average test scores and grades, completing classes in high school can and do get into lots of colleges. And these are incredible colleges. Colleges with specialized programs, colleges that allow students to study in an interdisciplinary manner, colleges with top notch career advising, colleges that graduate students with minimal debt, colleges that provide opportunities that launch students globally. The list could go on forever.

“Okay fine, there are a lot of colleges. I get it. But what about the SAT/ACT? What if I’m a horrible test taker? Don’t these scores matter in terms of whether or not I get into college?”

In a comprehensive college counseling program, testing drives more questions, confusion and anxiety than the other topics. And I get it. It’s this one test, one day for four hours that is hard, and long, and gives you a score that labels you where you are in an admissions pool. Ya, it sucks quite frankly.

How does testing compare in the admissions decision?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling polls thousands of colleges yearly and asks them what they consider the top factors in admissions. Year to year, consistently here are the top three factors:

  1. Grades in all courses
  2. Grades in college prep courses (your English, Math, Visual Performing Arts, Science, History, college prep electives, etc. basically takes out things like Health and P.E./sports)
  3. Strength of curriculum (if you’ve added AP/honors/advanced coursework as you successfully progress, taking an academic schedule in addition to choosing electives that showcase your strengths, etc.) SOURCE

Wait, I don’t see testing??? That’s because your transcript as a whole, the day in, day out classes you take, the assignments you complete and how you progress into a more challenging schedule pays off way more in the eyes of admission. Testing does come in fourth, but it is typically not THE defining factor. So testing can cause some angst. But like my students who are taking a practice test today, you can get started on a testing plan that makes sense for you and your goals and then move on with your life, because we all have way more to accomplish in this world than ONE SAT score.

So let’s dive into the logistics of the SAT/ACT, how to choose, what the landscape looks like and what your next step is depending on your grade level. Take a breath, and let’s conquer testing! 

Nitty Gritty of SAT/ACT

How to map out a testing strategy, gameplan, when to test, how many times, etc. 

Do I take the SAT, ACT or both? 

Actually you can take any one you want. All colleges will accept both! Really!

How many times do I test

You can retake the exam as many times as you want, but typically students take it 2 maybe 3 times by fall of senior year. Taking it 4 or more times is really too far, you get into the law of diminishing returns where you could spend time more wisely to boost your application elsewhere, like volunteering, studying for your exams, or maybe sleep! 

How do I know which exam is right for me to take? And what are the differences?

Sophomores and Juniors have the accessibility of their PSAT scores. In Junior year, take a practice ACT exam (offered at school or locally through companies) and decide which one you like! There are score comparisons in the Compass Guide to College Testing book.  

Parents, empower your students and let them decide which one to take! And don’t let anyone fool you with magical knowledge of which test date or which test to take. Take a practice exam, compare your strengths and weaknesses, choose and then move on! 

The exams are more similar than ever before, however there are some differences that may help you decide, these are a few, but again a practice exam will help you most! 

3 hours 50 minutes3 hours and 35 minutes
Begins with 65 minute reading passageBegins with English
Has math section with calculator and withoutAll math no calculator
No science, but has similar synthesizing information and charts embedded throughoutScience section (not your knowledge of bio/chem/science, more synthesizing information, reading charts/graphs
Sections are 200 – 800 scale, out of 1600 totalTotal score of 1 – 36
Optional essay (out of 2 – 12) Optional writing (out of 2-8)
Learn more differences HERE

What are and do I need SAT Subject tests? 

Subject exams are only required by a small number of colleges (Harvey Mudd, Cornell, MIT, Cal Tech) and recommended by some highly selective. They are one hour exams tied to one subject area, check online for the subjects and see if it makes sense for your plan to take them. You can take them throughout high school.

Are there colleges that don’t require the SAT or ACT for admission?

Yes! There are a number of colleges (around 50) that allow students to submit no test scores and/or other options for admissions. For example, Pitzer, U Chicago. See a full list at Fair Test.

What are the score policy’s of universities? Will they look at all scores? One?

It is helpful to note that colleges will view multiple test scores differently. Some will “superscore” which means they will take the highest section from all testing dates and combine it for one higher score. Other colleges will take the highest composite score (the highest test score from one exam) Some will ask you to send all of your testing history and some won’t. Because the policies are so different, we will not go into it in depth, just know to look at the colleges you’re applying to and see what they recommend.

Keep in mind admissions are reading in favor of the student, they want you to succeed, so don’t over think sending all your scores even if it has a lower test date. For more information check out the Compass guide linked above.

Still with me? Phew! You’re doing great, keep reading to learn about how to prepare for the exams and work smarter, not harder.

Test Preparation

How to prepare and feel confident

What are some testing strategies?

Understanding how you test and getting your emotional control calm in a stressful/four hour exam. Take practice tests, experience different testing environments. It’s like rehearsals for opening night at the play.

Have a game plan ahead of time. Figure out your starting point and get a good sense of where you can go from there. You can’t out work your way to a perfect score but you can come up to a place that makes sense to you

Pace yourself and invest time and energy in the questions your more likely to get right.

What about test preparation for a Junior?

Sign up for a mock ACT exam and compare them to your PSAT results. Decide which exam to take and register for an official testing date (typically in Spring of Junior year). Create a consistent testing plan (studying with a tutor/book/online, etc.) for about 3-4 months leading up to the first official exam. 

Common first target is March or May SAT or February or May ACT for Juniors. Finish testing by fall of your Senior year. Summer tests are an option as well. 

By layering in test prep your Junior year, you can knock out the SAT/ACT and move on to the application process. Test scores don’t define you as a person, what matters more in admissions eyes will be your day in day out grades, classes you choose, how you strengthen and try more challenging classes and how you spend your time outside the classroom. 

What is good preparation for a Sophomore?

The best thing you can do is excel in first and second year of high school in your classes and grades, put extra time and energy in things like creating a B into A, or trying a more challenging subject level. 

Your studying aligns with English and Math classes, so don’t study too early for the SAT/ACT. Sophomore year is too early! Take the PSAT if available and look at your results then set it aside until Junior year. Otherwise begin practice exams in Junior year and go from there.

Where can I find more resources?

SAT Test Dates 

ACT Test Dates

BHHS College Admissions Testing Website

The Compass Guide to College Admission Testing 

What you Need to Know about Standardized Tests and Mistakes to Avoid

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