For decades, the SAT and ACT have been a crucial component of college applications: some universities have even automatically rejected students with scores below a certain threshold.
This year, though, many colleges have moved to test-optional policies for the 2020 admissions cycle. You may be wondering whether it's worth taking these tests if they remain optional in 2021 and beyond. In addition, many students are confused about whether they should focus on studying for the SAT or the ACT.
We recently assembled a panel of seasoned test prep and college admissions experts to field the many questions facing students this year in deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT, which test to take, and how to prepare. Here’s what they had to say.
How important are standardized test scores in college admissions today?
You’ve likely heard about the slew of cancelled test dates during 2020, resulting in announcements from schools that they have gone test-optional (or in some cases, test-blind) for the fall 2020 application season. All of this has led many students to wonder whether it’s worthwhile to prepare for and take standardized tests this year or in future years.
For current high school students, standardized tests will continue to play a role in college admissions, if primarily as a differentiator: to demonstrate which students are college ready. If your aim is to show colleges your academic strength, then it’s a smart choice to take the SAT or ACT, as the high stakes pressure to take the test has dissipated, which means less anxiety and better performance on test day. Your test score will be one of many measurements in your college application that help you stand out, including application essays and statements, resume, references and your academic record. For more insights, take a look at our recent post on how the coronavirus pandemic is changing college admissions.
The reading comprehension skills these tests measure are critical for college success, and thus even just preparing for the SAT and ACT will leave you in a better position to excel in college. Standardized tests are also integral in graduate school admissions and professional certifications such as the Bar exam, and preparing for the SAT or ACT will train you on test-taking skills needed for these future exams.
What are the key differences between the SAT and ACT?
There are actually more similarities between the SAT and ACT than there are differences. In fact, two letters are the same, and only one is different! Seriously, both tests are primarily about reading comprehension, whether on the English, Math or Science sections: they require you to carefully read, understand and interpret questions and passages.
There are, however, a few key differences between these tests. Close to half of the SAT’s 3 hours of questions is devoted to math, with 58 questions spread over 80 minutes, whereas 96 questions over 100 minutes are devoted to English, reading comprehension and editing. More so than the ACT, the SAT math problems can be tricky, and some require writing in answers, as opposed to being entirely multiple choice like the ACT.
Both tests require you to work quickly, as there are often more questions than most students can get to, but the ACT has more questions with less time allotted to each one, requiring more aggressive pacing. This includes 60 math questions over 60 minutes, 115 English and reading questions over 80 minutes, and a 40-question science section over 35 minutes. The ACT’s math section is shorter and a little harder, and you need to work even more quickly than on the SAT. The ACT’s unique feature is a “Science” section that tests not so much your science fluency but your ability to read visual charts and graphs. You can also read our detailed comparison of question types on each exam.
The tests also differ in how they are scored. Many colleges accept superscores for both exams, which combine your top section scores from different exam dates, into a composite score. The ACT recently introduced changes to its superscoring policy, which now allows you to retest only on specific sections. The upshot is that you don’t need to take the whole test again to improve your score, allowing you to focus your studying on areas that you need to improve, and not stress about the other parts. Keep in mind though, that some colleges do not accept superscoring, and you must take the whole test again if you want to edge up your score. So, if you’re planning on “superscoring”, make sure you check with each college on your list first.
To help decide between the SAT and ACT, an essential first step is taking a diagnostic test. Ivy’s diagnostic includes questions from both types of tests, and by scoring your performance on those questions, leads to recommendation of which test you may have a natural aptitude for, as well as a data-driven plan for achieving your target score.
What “type" of student should take the SAT or the ACT?
There is no type of student that will excel best at one test over the other, as they test for the same competencies. You may have heard the stereotype that really “good students” sometimes do better on the ACT. That is because the ACT’s phrasing of its question tends to be more straight-forward while the SAT is known for “trickier” questions. Over the years, the SAT has updated its test to be increasingly similar to the ACT, but the SAT still likes to “trick” the test taker more than the ACT.
Whether your strength is in Math, English, or another subject, you will be tested on the same skills in both tests. Each test puts a different weight on certain skills over others. The key is understanding your preferences and strengths, which you can assess with the help of a diagnostic practice test. If you enjoy math, SAT has more math problems to puzzle over. If you prefer reading, the ACT is heavy with questions involving reading comprehension. If you like to sprint through a test, the ACT gives less time for each question.
Studying for each test is similar: if you put in the time, reviewing content areas you’re less familiar with, and practicing with tests and questions, you will see the results. It is essential that you focus your practice using questions for the particular test you will be taking.
How long does it take to prep for each test? How should I prepare?
In short, most students should set aside 3-4 months, for either test. Here’s what we suggest, ideally:
Start with a diagnostic in the 10th grade, to help you understand what score you are starting from, how far you are from your goal score, and whether you need to gain overall test-taking skills as well as content mastery in order to get there. Not everyone who is a good student is also a good test-taker, and you may need to develop skills in pacing, handling anxiety, as well as address content gaps such as grammar rules or polynomial equations.
If your aim is to improve your score “as much as possible”, without a specific target score in mind, think again. This is often a mistake, as a realistic, achievable target score is more motivating than a perfect score or an undefined increase. Knowing your target score can also help you allot the necessary time for test prep, as well as guide test-taking strategies, such as how many questions you need to answer in each section.
Once you know your baseline and target scores, you should plan to set aside at least 3-4 months, where you work everyday or every other day for 30-60 minutes, along with two sessions a week with a tutor. A successful study plan will help you fill in content gaps, learn the test, and practice smartly. How much practice does it take? This is the biggest variable, as some students take longer to improve in their test scores.
Working with a tutor will help you start your test prep with a customized study plan that is realistic in how much work is needed to reach your target score. In addition to coaching you through the test prep journey, the tutor provides personalized attention, helping you absorb content, understand why you got questions wrong, and develop your test-taking skills.
It’s best to set aside time when you can focus, without having many competing demands on your time, such as mid-year and final exams, sports schedules, etc. This also helps reduce the anxiety of test prep, helping you to learn more easily, retain knowledge and increase your score. Thus, many students opt to focus their test prep during the summer months. It’s also helpful to begin test prep once you have covered key math topics such as Algebra 1 and 2, Trigonometry, and Geometry, as these skills are featured in the math sections, and it can be easier to first learn these topics in school.
Are both exams accepted at all schools?
Yes... There was a time when the ACT was required for West coast schools, and the SAT for East coast schools. Fortunately, those days are behind us and both exams are accepted at all schools, so which test you take is largely a matter of preference.
Should students ever take both exams?
It’s uncommon for a student to prepare for and take both exams, and we do not recommend it. Preparing for both tests is too much for the brain to handle. Test prep involves repetition, helping you to get to know these tests to the point where you are no longer surprised by tricky questions, and you can anticipate what’s coming next. This is much more easily done when you are preparing for only one test.
If, after taking a diagnostic test, it is still not clear which test is better for you, then do a full, timed ACT practice test, and a full, timed SAT. This will give you the extra information you need to make your decision.
The one situation in which you might take both tests is if you have worked over the long term to prepare for one test and taken it, and then the other test becomes available through your school. Having honed your skills with the first test, you may decide to take the other as well, to see if you can score better with the different format.
When do most students take these tests?
Most students take their first test during spring semester, junior year.
Students vary in when they need to start their preparation and testing, as described above (see “How long does it take to prep for each test”). It can be counterproductive to start your test prep before you are mentally ready. Taking the SAT/ACT and beginning the college search and admissions process are, for many students, the first time you get to take action on what you want your life to be like after high school. Rather than feel forced or drag your feet in this process, It’s important that you take ownership and start when you are ready.
What can students do prior to starting test prep, to increase their scores?
The central skill in the SAT and ACT is reading comprehension, as every single section involves reading and understanding questions, as well as visual aids and longer passages in some sections. Get started by reading periodicals such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, WIRED, Rolling Stone, etc. Use this reading not only to build your read comprehension skills, but also to improve your vocabulary, by looking up words you don’t know. Read from publications you enjoy, as well as ones you don’t enjoy. Getting through boring passages is a helpful skill not only for standardized tests, but for college and beyond!
As for specific Math and English skills, get familiar with the Khan Academy website, which has courses and practice questions that will help you in your schoolwork, as well as a dedicated SAT prep section.
How many times is it standard to re-take these tests?
Most students take the SAT or ACT twice. Three times is common, however four is the outer limit. If you have taken the test more than four times, schools can start to grow uneasy about your application. The good news is that improving your test score depends on consistent hard work. If you receive a lackluster score, put into action a solid test prep plan, so you don’t rely on getting lucky on your next test.
How can you deal with test anxiety?
Everyone feels stressed out about a test sometimes; it’s normal to be concerned when the outcome of any situation is unknown. Test day anxiety becomes a problem when it gets extreme, causing you to, for example, go completely blank, second-guess every answer choice and, ultimately, run out of time. With solid preparation over several months, you will likely head off any paralyzing anxiety, as you will have already taken several timed practice tests and know what to expect. For more practices and tricks to reduce your anxiety on test day, read our post on academic anxiety.