SAT and ACT (College Admissions Tests)

2021 Note: There is a lot of uncertainty about the role of testing in college admissions after the pandemic. After not requiring testing for the Class of 2020 and 2021, there may be many colleges that don’t use or require testing. However, most believe that testing will continue to play a role in selective college admissions. Unless they say this change is long term, do not assume this is a permanent change! Always check directly with the college to determine if they require admissions testing. This note will be updated as conditions change.

SAT and ACT are one piece of many four year college applications. Both of them are standardized college admissions tests that cover similar content. Here we’ll talk about how to decide if you should test, how many times and how to prepare.

An important note about SAT and ACT: while they are often required for four year colleges (not always) and if they are required it’s important to do your best and have your official scores sent, they are never as important as your grades and the classes you take in high school.

Your grades and taking challenging courses will always be more important so keep test scores in perspective!

What are the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and the ACT are both standardized tests that are designed to compare high school students across the country. In the United States, we don’t have standardized curriculum across states or even within states. Local school districts have a lot of control over what is taught and what is required.

This wide ranging academic opportunity across the country or even across a state makes it very challenging to compare students to one another during the college admissions process. For example, if one student took lots of really hard classes and got Bs and another student went to a high school that didn’t offer challenging classes but got all As, how do they compare those students to each other?

They have a variety of ways of digging deeper (this is why they also often ask for a personal statement or letters of recommendation) but one of them is to have SAT or ACT scores where the test that students take everywhere in the country is the same. College admissions is trending away from emphasizing SAT and ACT but they are still part of the application process at many colleges.

The SAT and ACT are both accepted basically everywhere (there are a few very small colleges in the midwest that only accept ACT) and neither test is better than the other. They are different, but serve the same purpose.

Some students will get comparable scores on both tests, some students will do better on one than the other. You do NOT need to take both tests. Deciding which test to take is covered in the section below.

The SAT covers math, reading and writing and the ACT covers math, reading, writing and science. Both tests take about three and a half hours and are offered multiple times a year on Saturdays. Some high schools also offer the SAT on a school day.

How do I know if I need to take the SAT or ACT?

You need to take the SAT or ACT if any of the colleges or universities on your list of where to apply require it. If they don’t, then you don’t need to. For a list of test optional colleges, see this list (make sure to always double check with the colleges themselves to confirm and see all the details).

Make sure to have your scores sent directly to all the colleges you apply to that require it. You can and should do this when you register for the SAT or ACT. The college will always take the highest set of scores you submit.

In addition to college admissions, some two year colleges will accept your SAT or ACT scores instead of doing a placement test, so if your school offers a free school day experience this is a good reason to take advantage of that.

Finally, sometimes you can use your SAT or ACT score in place of a high school graduation exit exam if your SAT or ACT score is high enough, and if your state requires an exit exam.

Which Test should I Take and When?

It doesn’t matter whether you take the SAT or ACT. Really. If you want to take both, you certainly can but you definitely don’t have to.

I recommend taking a practice test or doing some practice questions to get an idea of which test you’re more comfortable with and then taking that one.

Many people take both and there’s no problem with that. Definitely do not take both more than once! If you want to retest, only retest on the one you got the highest score on to start with and focus on preparing for that one.

The ideal time to take the test is spring of your Junior year (March, April, May or June). If your school offers SAT school day, that will happen in March or April of your Junior year. If your scores are what you need for the colleges you’re interested in then you’re done! If you need a higher score, you can test again in the fall of your senior year.

How many times should I take the SAT or ACT?

Really, truly, you only need to take the SAT or ACT (not both) and you only need to do it once. Many students want to take both or take them multiple times. There’s not anything wrong with this but consider that it might be a waste of time.

The most important thing is to look for the average scores of admitted students at that college or university the previous year. You can find this on the college or university’s website as well as at the College Scorecard. College Scorecard is a US Department of Education site that has a wealth of information about colleges, including their test scores. They provide a range of scores that most applicants had who were accepted.

Once you know what score would place you within range of the accepted students at the colleges you plan to apply to (this is not a guarantee as many other factors are just as important or much more important – such as your grades and the classes you choose to take) then compare that to your score from spring of junior year. If you need a higher score to push you into that range then it makes sense to take the test again in the fall.

I would not recommend testing more than twice unless there’s a very compelling reason like you got the flu or didn’t get any sleep for one of your tests!

I also recommend preparing for the test because that increases your chances of getting your best score the first time. There are free resources for this, described below.

Remember – there is no value in getting a higher test score if you don’t need it!

How to I sign up for the SAT or ACT?

If your school offers SAT school day you will be automatically registered for free during the spring of your junior year. If not, or if you want to retake the test, then you register online. For both tests, you should register for the essay/writing section, which is optional (but not optional for many colleges).

Register here for the SAT : Register as early as you can so your preferred testing location is available. The cost is $68, however if you are low income you can get a fee waiver from your school counselor.

Register here for the ACT: Register as early as you can so your preferred testing location is available. The cost is $70 and you can get a fee waiver from your school counselor if you are a low income student.

How can I prepare for the SAT and ACT?

SAT and ACT are worth taking some time to prepare for, since you’re giving up a Saturday to show up to test!

There are classes and tutoring that you can pay for, and if you put in the work it will definitely increase your test score! However, paying a lot of money is not necessary to increase your score.

Take the Test you do better on

Most test prep companies offer free practice tests, and you can also get them free from the testing companies themselves. If you take a practice test, or even just some practice questions for both tests, you’ll get a sense of which test you feel more comfortable with or score higher on. Pick that one and go with it!

Learn what to expect on the SAT or ACT

Both the SAT and ACT have online information about what to expect on the test. If you do nothing else, make sure to look at the type of questions to expect, what the sections are and how long they are. You can also get a good sense of this by doing a practice test

Take advantage of free test prep resources

There are excellent free resources to support you while you prepare to take the SAT or ACT.

The College Board (who administer the SAT) has partnered with Khan Academy to offer full length practice tests as well as personalized test prep with Khan Academy that will help you target the kind of questions you need to practice. Check it out!

The ACT has their own in house preparation system that also gives you personalized support to practice what you need to practice before the test.

By Jennie Flaming