College Pete

SAT v. ACT! Which Should You Take? Both? Neither?

SAT v. ACT! Which Should You Take? Both? Neither?

Saturday (June 1) was the last time this school year that a student could sit for the SAT; and Saturday (June 8) offered the last bite of the ACT apple.  With these two tests now in the rearview,  I wanted to reprint an earlier, and soothing message for all students who are bright and talented, and worried about what to take, how often they can take it… and worse, that their test scores will keep them from getting into a competitive college or university!

Dear Neighbor,

Back in the day, taking the standardized  ‘college entrance exam’  was tough, but deciding which standardized test to take was not.  That was mainly a matter of geography. If you lived on either Coast, you were taking the SAT, period.  In the Midwest, you might take the ACT.

Fast forward to today and  I probably get asked about which test to take as much as any other question.  Here’s the short version of my response:

Take either, or both!

Now the longer version:

First, you need to know that today both tests are widely and equally accepted by even the most selective schools.  Schools are literally incented (hello US News & World Report) to take your BEST scores, or none at all if testing is not your strong suit (more on that later)!

I’ve been told this over and over again by every Admissions officer I’ve met.  But you don’t have to take my word: Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College said this about the ACT v SAT conundrum. “Either is fine with us, and we don’t have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile.”

That’s from Harvard, which quite frankly sets the standard.  As you can see, colleges truly don’t prefer one test over the other.  They do prefer, however,  that you do well on whichever test you do submit, so much so, that it’s OK to take both and/or one multiple times.  Really. In fact, most Admissions offices have software that will automatically ‘superscore’ your results for you — i.e., pair your best sections! (important hint:  you don’t need to pay the College Board for this service).

Second, the tests do have distinct flavors and unique construction, style and content.  Broadly speaking, the ACT is shorter, more big picture in nature and tests concepts more closely tied to your high school coursework (including a science component).  The SAT is considered more of a reasoning assessment with longer, more involved questions and a heavier emphasis on vocabulary than it’s fraternal twin and competitor.  Both offer writing sections, but the ACT writing is ‘optional’ (which means ‘mandatory’ in my book).

And finally, Since the test choice truly is yours, you want to take the one that best suits your academic skills and test-taking style.  Here are a few tips that can help you figure out which test is right for you.

1. Take the full-length predictive tests (the PSAT and PLAN) sophomore year and extrapolate scores you’re likely to get on the SAT and ACT. The practice tests cover much the same material as their respective cousins.

2. Take a free diagnostic which you can do on our CoolTestPrep site.

3. Take these diagnostic tests in as realistic conditions as possible, with no distractions, timing yourself.

4. While your score is an obvious benchmark, you should also think about how you felt when taking each test. Did you understand the format? Did one experience cause more stress than the other?

Regardless of which test you decide to take, the most important thing is that you maximize your scores.  After your coursework, your test scores are the next most important part of your application.  Performing well not only opens doors to more competitive (and more generous) schools, it also can return thousands in the form of merit-based scholarships.

That said, I have (successfully) counseled a lot of fantastic students who, for one reason or another, just don’t test well… what about them?  Relax. it’s not as bad as you think.   Yes, standardized tests are important, but you can rest assured that no college makes admissions decisions based solely on test scores and some don’t require them at all!   In fact, there is a real and growing movement afoot to de-emphasize their importance.  And some really great colleges and universities are beginning to adapt their admissions policies accordingly.  Today, there are currently 850 (GREAT) schools that de-emphasize standardized tests in their admissions process.  And that list is growing.  Some of the universities on this list are considered quite prominent nationally.  And many are among my favorites:

American University (where Jill got her MBA), Smith College (where my mom went), Union College, Rollins, Marist, Muhlenberg, NYU, Wake Forest, Bates, Bowdoin, Connecticut College…

For more information about ‘test optional’ policies or to view a full list of test optional schools, check out the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  And remember, even if you don’t see your child’s dream school on this list, she is way more than her score.

The admissions and funding process at ALL colleges (whether on this list or not) is about determining who will be a good fit for their particular campus, and most will consider any and all information that expands their view of a particular student.  That means grades count; as do extracurriculars, essays, even  tweets (and yes,  test scores).  So, tell your high schooler to mind his manners; put her best face on Facebook and study hard!


– Peter

P.S.  One way to help your rising 12th grader get ahead of the curve is to have him attend our 6th Annual EARLY BIRD Admissions Bootcamp on June 29.  Click here for more information on this intensive workshop.

P.P.S.  Regardless of your opinion of them, the truth is that standardized tests aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  And given that, it behooves you to make sure that your student is prepared.  At a minimum, buy a recent book (no more than a year old) to practice.  Better still, enroll in a quality test preparation course… one that is delivered by an actual expert.  We know some great test prep folks throughout South Florida depending on your locale, and we love making referrals!

One very affordable alternative is our on-demand video courses for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT tests.  Our courses offer the benefit of full-length practice tests under real test conditions, 1000’s of expert lessons, a personalized study schedule and guaranteed results, at a fraction of the cost of more pricey big box options.   To learn more or to get a free demo, visit CoolTestPrep.comNonetheless, the best way to cut through the hype is to make sure that your child studies hard.  Investing in a reputable test prep program, class or tutor will not only improve your child’s scores; it will save your sanity.


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