SAT, ACT, or BOTH?

In her article “Testing, Testing” in the New York Times, Tamar Lewin discusses how competitive college applicants have become a little test-happy in recent years.  Reasons for this trend include: the ACT’s elevation from the minor league to equal status with the SAT in the college admissions game,   state-sponsored (and required) ACT testing, increased competitiveness across the board for top colleges and universities, and motivated students embracing the challenge by taking and submitting scores from both tests multiple times.

On the other side of the coin, admissions officers are condoning the submission of both tests, explaining that it gives a more complete profile of the thousands of applicants they evaluate.  Of course, from a sage student’s perspective, following admissions officers’ advice and providing colleges with a more comprehensive standardized testing profile—warts, acne and all—might not be the best idea.  Indeed, many students’ scores vary widely between the SAT and ACT—certainly enough to affect an admission decision.  And Lewin underscores some of the main differences between the tests that account for this variation.  This reality begs the question of whether your intellectually-budding junior should follow the masses and take both.

The answer is complex.  The fact is that you can’t determine which test is right for you without actually taking each test under the unique pressures and time constraints of the real test that can profoundly affect your score.  This is why diagnostic tests at testing centers that use official SAT and ACT tests are essential to determining the test that is right for you.  There, students have the simulated pressures and time constraints of the real tests, without the potentially adverse implications on their college admissions prospects.  After taking each test, students can check out how they compare using this score converter and go from there. After determining which test is best, students should stick with it, taking it two times (and sometimes 3-4).

Ideally the student would have a realistic estimate of his or her expected score before even entering the testing room.  This approach precludes the often frustrating option of Score Choice, a policy that some schools utilize and some schools half-way utilize to allow students to choose which test scores they want to submit.

Of course, parents should do their research to ensure that any company they hire doesn’t create their own versions of the tests.  In my experience, this leaves a little too much room for companies to artificially create the illusion of progress where it may not actually occur. At Streamline Tutors, for example, we use only official SAT and ACT practice tests and offer complementary diagnostic and practice testing for our students to track performance up until the real thing.

One important consideration for those with documented learning disabilities is that it is MUCH easier to get extra time on the SAT than the ACT.  This is true for obvious reasons: time is a critical factor on the ACT in which the questions are more straightforward but more plentiful.  Parents and students should be proactive about applying for extra time on both tests, but especially on the ACT.

 While standardized testing is crucially important in college admissions, there are bigger fish to fry once you have a score in a range you desire. Grades, extracurricular activities, and intellectual pursuits outside of the classroom will all have a greater impact on your admission decision.  My advice is to treat standardized testing like a box to be checked off.  Once you have the score you want on the test you’re best at, move on.  You’ve got college application essays, teacher recommendations, and SAT Subject Tests to worry about now!

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