The prospect of standardized testing is immensely stressful for many parents and students. It feels arbitrary. Which, in many ways, it is. Standardized tests like the SAT were developed at the turn of the 20th century as a way for Northeastern colleges such as the Ivy League universities to diversify their pool of applicants and increase access to higher education. The SAT and its later-developed competitor, the ACT, have both evolved over time. But they are still central to the college admissions process in the United States.
Parents and students have many questions about standardized testing. This piece attempts to answer some of them. If you have additional questions, please let us know and we will update the piece.
How do the ACT and the SAT Differ?
The ACT and SAT are different from one another in some important ways. The ACT is a test of knowledge and skills that are “acquired in secondary education,” which means that in general, it is more closely aligned to what you’ve learned in high school. The SAT is meant to measure reading, writing, critical thinking and mathematics skills that the College Board says are important to success in college.
The ACT requires students to go significantly faster but has less tricky questions. Colleges have no preference for one test over the other, so the key is figuring out which test is better for you and taking it. It used to be that Midwestern schools used the ACT more, whereas coastal schools preferred the SAT. This preference is now not significant, so take the test at which you’d do better.
The ACT also tests science, so if you’re applying to certain schools, you may not need to take the SAT Subject Tests. But for many students, it’s easier to take the SAT because it doesn’t test science. But it’s important to remember that the ACT science section is less a test of your knowledge of science and more a test of your ability to read and understand scientific material, including tables, charts, and graphs, quickly.
How Do I Choose Which Test to Take?
The simplest and most effective way to find out is to take a practice test cold (unprepared), look at your scores, and compare. The ACT publishes a “concordance table,” that generates equivalent scores on the other test. You can use this table to compare the two tests. If your score on the two tests shows that one is significantly better, study for and take that one. If not, take the one that felt better to you.
Does Test Preparation Help?
In a word, yes. Test preparation can increase scores significantly in four ways by :
- Improving familiarity with the subject matter
- Gaining speed
- Learning test-taking skills
- Lowering test-anxiety
There are more excellent free preparation tools for the SAT than for the ACT because the College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to create some really good free tools. The ACT has online prep tools as well.
In both cases, having an experienced tutor or coach can help identify specific areas of weakness and focus on those. It can also help when students are making mistakes due to poor test-taking techniques or test-anxiety.
The one area where test-preparation isn’t enough is the reading section of the test. Reading is a skill, and getting better at it requires you to read. So, starting as early as you can, read every day. Read novels for fun, and read an article from well-written publications like the New York Times, the Atlantic, or Scientific American each day.
When and How Often Should I Take the Tests?
Anxiety causes many students to take the tests earlier, and more often than they need to. The simple answer to this question for most students is this:
- Take it once in the spring of your junior year
- If your score isn’t perfect, take it again at the end of that summer or early in the fall of your senior year
Twice is usually enough, and a third time isn’t likely to improve matters significantly. So focus on preparing well for those two tests, and find colleges that are a good match for your score.
How Do I Overcome Test Anxiety?
What Score is “Good Enough?”
The score you’ll need isn’t precise, but there are some guidelines. In general, the academic work you do at school matters more than your score on a standardized test, unless you’re an international student who hasn’t taken a recognized curriculum (like the U.K.’s A-Level Exams or the International Baccalaureate curriculum), or you attended a school that the college you’re applying to isn’t familiar with. In those cases, your standardized test scores are a way that colleges can assess your skills in a more nationally recognized way.
But the score you need will depend on the colleges you’re applying to, which means that the best approach is to use your scores as part of your college search.
Should I take Subject Tests?
A relatively small number of colleges require the Subject Tests, and then not for all programs. Some universities recommend it for certain programs, and many more colleges will consider it. So the best way to answer this question, unfortunately, is to go to each college’s website and look to see if they require, recommend, or will consider the Subject tests.
If you might be applying to one of these colleges. then take the SAT subject test in the same year you study the subject. For example, if you take Chemistry in sophomore year and might apply to a school that requires the subject test, take the Chemistry subject test in sophomore year.
How Many Colleges Don’t Require Standardized Tests?
FairTest publishes a list of colleges that don’t require standardized tests. The list grows each year. But remember, many of these colleges will consider standardized tests if you submit them. If you’re applying to one of these colleges, and your test scores exceed their average, you should submit them.