According to the New York Times, today more than ever, high schoolers are taking both the SAT as well as the ACT when preparing for college admissions. While most schools don’t care either way which test you take, there has been a long-held belief that the SAT was the more superior of the two, thusly making it the most it the most preferred. Nowadays, however, it seems that perspective is changing. A great rise has been seen in the number of students applying with just ACT scores, and a similar rise has been seen in the number of students applying with both. This has made many universities abandon their bias towards the SAT and become more accepting of the ACT as a means of judging a student’s aptitude.
But what does this mean for the students? Should everyone pile onto the ACT bus? Should one focus on the test that seems to produce the best score? Should both tests be taken to ensure that one’s admissions portfolio is as thorough as possible? Will taking only one of the tests get me into that prestigious school I want to go to? The questions this new trend raises are many, but I think the answer is simple to say yet complex to explain: it depends.
There are a variety of factors that go into college admissions, and aptitude test scores are considered chief among them. But what many students seem to forget is that the other factors that go into your portfolio (grades, extracurriculars, etc.) also weigh heavily in the admissions process. This leads them to become fully engrossed in studying for these tests while letting other aspects of their life suffer. Although ensuring that you get a good score on these tests are important, it should not be considered paramount over the other activities of your life. The culmination of your portfolio should show a balance; if reviewers see that you excelled on the SAT but seemed to have poor grades during the times you spent studying for it, a few alarms may go off. Therefore, it is important that you find the proper balance between all of your school activities, your classes, and these tests to ensure that your portfolio paints the best picture of your abilities as a student.
After ensuring that testing doesn’t dominate your life, now it’s time to decide which test to take. Many schools have both of the preliminary tests for the SAT and ACT, the PSAT and PLAN test, respectively. After taking these during your sophomore year or earlier, you may have a fairly good idea as to which test you’ll do the best on. Using this, you can set your sights on whichever test will make you look the best. If you see yourself as more science- or math-oriented, the ACT will probably be your best bet. If writing and reading comprehension are your thing, then the SAT will probably be better for you. After deciding which test you are better suited for, you can begin to put forth whatever effort is required to get the desired score you want.
But wait- what about that other test you’re neglecting? Honestly… don’t worry too much about it. If you obviously appear better suited for one test versus the other, then go for the easy choice. Why invest more time and money into two tests that tell basically the same thing when you could just do one and be done with it? Now, yes, taking the two tests would give a clearer view of your skills, but one very good score on a test can say just as much. Plus, all the extra time that would have been put into studying for your weaker exam can now go into bettering the other parts of your portfolio (or just for relaxing, if you want).
So what if your scores on the preliminaries seem to be pretty close? Are there any benefits to taking one test over the other? Again, it depends. For some folks, a big concern for these tests is the investment of both time and money. But, depending on where you live, the issue of money could be taken care of for you; currently, twelve states offer the ACT through the school district as required testing. This allows students from those areas to take one of the admissions tests without having to scrounge up extra money. I will say, however, that when I took the school-given ACT in my home state of Kentucky, we were not given the writing portion, a part of the test that, from what I was told at the time, was considered essential for getting into good schools. So if your state doesn’t offer the full test, then you may want to consider paying for the full thing, but only if you believe that you can drastically improve upon your score from the free version.
And what are the upsides to the SAT? Well, even though the stigma that it is the better of the two is apparently waning, it may still be present at various schools in at least some of the admissions committee. Also, the SAT is slightly cheaper than the ACT with the optional writing section (not counting additional fees and study materials). Other than that, the rest is mostly a matter of feel, which you can get a better idea of by doing the PSAT or other practice test. As I said before, if you’re adept at reading and writing, the SAT should work well for you. You might also feel a little less pressed for time when doing the SAT, as it is slightly less dense than the ACT, but the questions require quite a bit more comprehension AND you lose points if you answer incorrectly. So there is no standard choice that can be made for everyone; it is very much up to your personal test-taking style and abilities.
Now what about the additional tests, such as the SAT Subject Tests? That’s up to you. If you happen to be in AP or IB classes, the tests for those should be fairly comparable (if not more rigorous) than the SAT Subject Tests. So if you want to flaunt your skills a little more or show that you can excel in areas that you didn’t cover in other tests, go right ahead. If you already aced your AP or IB exams and don’t feel like wasting the time or extra cash, that’s fine too. But know that many of the more prestigious schools do require a subject test or two for normal admittance (with some exceptions).
Still worried despite me telling you not to worry? Go right ahead; although I hope that this article will help you with your college admissions process, I know very well that the process is very much an individualized endeavor. I took both the ACT and the SAT since my ACT (without Writing) was free, and ultimately my scores were fairly equivalent to one another. But I did have to work for both those scores in a way that fit my individual learning style. I also had to make certain that my testing conditions were suited to my personal preferences, and I think that could be the most important criterion of all. Make sure you study and practice in an environment similar to your testing conditions. Preparing in one setting and then having to take the test in a completely different setting will dramatically impact your score. I had to take the SAT twice, and my first score was 200 points lower than my second. What did I do differently? Nothing really. So why were my scores so bipolar? The school that I took the first test in didn’t have any heating, so the indoor temperature was about 60 degrees. No, I’m not kidding; something as random as a freezing school was enough to make me get massacred by such an important test, and it was completely out of my control. Stuff happens. All you can do is prepare for it as much as possible, make sure that your stress levels are only high enough to motivate you, and bring a comfortable jacket to the test site just in case. In the end, only you can say what’s best for you, but if you do whatever that is, I’m sure you will have no trouble getting into the school of your dreams.
For the New York Times article on college admissions testing, visit: