GREC Guide to Tackling the SAT and ACT

One of the first steps toward completing a college application is to tackle the testing requirement.  Many high school students gain valuable experience taking the PSAT (pre-SAT), and some schools offer the PLAN (pre-ACT) test as well.  Despite the exposure to these tests, tension runs high when considering the options in regard to “official” test scores.  

Colleges and universities view the two tests as equal; one is not preferred above the other.  That puts the choice in the hands of each student and gives them the ability to choose the test that fits them the best.  While there are similarities between the ACT and SAT, the differences can be significant enough for some students to be better suited for one over the other.  

Focus on one.  Rarely is it advantageous to focus on both the SAT and the ACT.  It is much better to score your best on one test versus scoring well on both. So how to decide…

  • Know your learning style.  The ACT is a time sensitive test – there is less time available per question.  It also includes a science section, although less content specific and more evaluative of data.  
  • Diagnostic/Mock tests.  The best way to make a decision is to compare apples to apples.  Take a practice SAT and a practice ACT.  Many companies offer mock testing options that provide insight into which test is best suited for a student.
  • Listen to your intuition.  Often times it is a toss-up – sometimes it is simply a matter of listening to which test “feels” better.

Make a plan.  Life gets busy – especially during the junior and senior year of high school.  Know what the plan is and how get there.  Things to consider…

  • Teenage brains continue to develop – so what’s the rush?  Consider that another year of brain growth and academic classes during the junior year may be the best strategy. Both tests are now offered during the summer months and the earliest application deadlines are mid-October.  
  • Prepare for every test.  Whether you buy the book from Barnes & Noble or hire a tutor, take some time to be sure you are ready for the test each and every time.  
  • Understand that most kids have a limited number of times they can sit for these tests.  Expecting much more than 2-3 rounds is likely not going to yield a continuing upward trend.  Focus on quality, not quantity.

Know what you will need.  It isn’t so simple anymore (what is, right?).  Research schools and check to see if there are additional testing requirements.  Possible requirements may include…

  • The writing section.  Writing is “optional” for both the ACT and the SAT.  The problem is that a writing sample may NOT be optional depending upon the individual college and university.  Better safe than sorry – take the writing section at some point. 
  • Subject tests are another layer of strategy and complexity.  Some schools require them, others recommend them.  Many schools will accept them.  Consider the timing of classes, especially AP classes, so that the knowledge needed in the subject is the most fresh.  
  • Submitting scores. Control what is controllable.  Do NOT automatically send test scores before the results are in.  Sure, you will pay to send scores but the cost is minimal and being able to decide what schools see is worth it.

Course rigor, grade point averages, activities, recommendations, essays….Test scores add to the overall picture of a student, but they are not the only consideration when admissions departments evaluate applications.  The fact that many schools have chosen to allow test optional applications is an indicator that for many schools, standardized test scores are a piece but not the defining or definitive aspect, when making a decision.  It is important to know your strengths and challenges as an applicant, and work to highlight your strengths.  If standardized test taking is not your strength, do your best, and move on to the pieces of the puzzle that your can better control. The hope is that at the end of this process that every student feels like they have given each aspect of their application their best effort and feel proud of their many accomplishments! 

Garrett Rohr Educational Consulting is a full-service, academic consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. With a combined 40+ years experience in education, college counseling, boarding school admissions, learning styles, and executive functioning skills, GREC delivers unparalleled guidance and support to students and families navigating important academic decisions. Services include: complete academic advisement, college planning, independent day school and boarding school consulting, SSAT Flex Test administration, and executive functioning support.