Everything You Need to Know About the SAT and ACT

Editor, Carnegie Communications

Last Updated: Jul 21, 2016

SAT, ACT, PSAT—how many test acronyms are there?! Enough that we decided to put together this standardized tests guide, from the role the SAT and ACT play in admission to insider test-taking tips and everything in between.

Why are there standardized tests, anyway? Well, the basic answer is that they “level the playing field,” giving admission counselors a standard by which all students can be measured, says Steve Kappler, Assistant Vice President of Market Strategy and Services with ACT, Inc. “A 22 on the ACT in California is the same as a 22 in Ohio.”

They are not without their debate, but the idea, and the ideal, is that standardized tests reflect academic skills all students can and should have. They are created using extensive research into expected high school abilities and necessary college expectations. And they’re all about setting you up for success in college.

“The SAT was created to democratize access to college for all students,” says Kathleen Steinberg, Executive Director of Communications for the College Board, which administers the test. “The SAT also shows how well students can apply their knowledge, a factor that educators and researchers agree is critical to success in college work.”

The SAT or the ACT?

Because you probably have the option of taking either the SAT or ACT, you may be wondering which one you should choose. Taking both tests to hedge your bets may be for naught, because most colleges across the spectrum don’t have a preference. However, you may find one test suits you better than the other.

It may seem obvious, but students who have a knack for test taking may do better on the SAT. It’s an analytical and reasoning test, and while you’ll definitely need to know how to use equations to survive the math section, you really can’t “study” for the SAT. You can practice taking the test, you can hone your vocabulary with flashcards, and you can read voraciously—arguably the best preparation for the SAT and highly recommended—but memorizing your textbooks won’t help.

But what if memorization is your thing? You might perform better on the ACT. If you’re the “nose-to-the-grindstone” student who studies like crazy, you could have an advantage when taking the ACT because it tests your knowledge. The ACT and SAT cater to different learning styles—one of the reasons two distinct exams exist.

Also, the more challenging your high school courses, the more likely you are to do well on the SAT. “Students who report that they are completing four or more years of English, three or more years of mathematics, three or more years of natural science, and three or more years of social science and history tend to perform better on the SAT,” Steinberg says. Indeed, it’s yet another reason to take the most rigorous curriculum you can handle in high school.

Standardized tests in the admission process

“Standardized tests are only one of the components used to evaluate students in the admission process. It helps admission officers evaluate whether a student’s GPA correlates with his/her test scores,” says Megan H. McConville, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at The University of Tampa in Florida. “Our ultimate goal is student success, and this is one of several tools we utilize to optimize the likelihood of a positive outcome for our students.”

“We don’t think that our test should be a single source of decision,” says the ACT’s Kappler. Steinberg says the College Board agrees; she cites a recent report from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, where respondents ranked test scores as the third-most important factor in the admission decision, “behind grades in college prep courses and strength of the student’s high school curriculum, and ahead of factors such as overall GPA, application essay, class rank, and recommendations.”    

At Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, standardized tests are one of six “tools” used to evaluate applicants. “We believe that, in conjunction with other items—student’s academic record, writing sample, résumé, etc.—that we can see a profile of the student and an idea of how successful they will be at our institution,” says Christine D. Bowman, Director of Admission at Southwestern. “I think students should base their search around multiple factors—with the fit of the school being the most important.”

Test scores are used for more than admission purposes too; they can determine scholarship eligibility and what classes the incoming student may be required to take or able to skip. McConville says students should know if and how their prospective colleges evaluate standardized test (yes, some schools do not require them). “If a school tells you that the SAT/ACT scores are a significant part of the process, look at their academic averages,” she says. “Even if you don’t meet the average it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply, but it would be advisable to have other options readily available.”

Most selective schools also require SAT Subject Tests (once known as the SAT II) for admission, which demonstrate your knowledge in one of 20 specific academic areas. Schools may require certain combinations of these exams, like a math test plus two others of your choosing. You can and should study for SAT Subject Tests; you should also take them in your strongest subjects and, ideally, soon after completing the corresponding high school class. However, not all schools require Subject Tests, and because it costs money to send the results, you should carefully consider sharing your scores with schools if it’s not necessary.

If your ACT and/or SAT results are, well, less than optimal, it’s not the end of the world. In this case, McConville recommends contacting your admission counselors. “When a counselor gets to know you, we are able to speak on more than just grades, test scores, and what club you joined, and we enjoy that!” she says. McConville also advises students to remain positive during these interactions—and to know the difference between building a relationship with your counselors and hounding them for information.

“It is also important to have quality over quantity,” McConville says. “We would rather read one recommendation that speaks volumes about a student than 15 from every teacher they ever had in high school,” she says. “We’d rather see a student who was in five organizations as a leader than someone who joined 15 clubs.”

A solid academic foundation and three years of rigorous high school classes can also help cut you some slack. “For a student that has challenged him/herself with rigorous course work,” says Bowman, “the testing becomes less of an issue.”  

So if it’s just one piece of the puzzle, what do admission counselors really think when they look at your test scores? “Who doesn’t get excited about a strong test score?” Bowman says. “But I get equally excited about someone who presents a great transcript and has great accomplishments, especially when the testing is a little off. I have found that the test scores usually parallel the academic record, but when they don’t, many times a great student is waiting to be discovered.”

Top SAT/ACT tips and strategies

Sure, you can pay for test prep services, but you can also prepare on your own, often for free or inexpensively. You can buy books of complete past tests, and taking them may help you determine your test-taking weaknesses. For example, if you struggled with the essay portion on a practice test, you can focus your test prep on drafting an outline and writing under time constraints.

Taking practice tests on your own or with a test prep class can also help you gauge your performance on the real deals. (or Taking the the PSAT, official practice test for the SAT, will also give you a sense of how you'll do on the SAT. (The PSAT is doubly important, as it’s the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test too!) The results of these tests aren’t shared with your prospective colleges either, so you have nothing to lose by taking them.

But the best way to prepare for the ACT, Kappler says, is to simply be a good student. “Pay attention in class and take the right kinds of classes.” Okay, maybe easier said than done, but if you’ve been staying on top of your school work (or you’re committed to doing better), you’re already in a good position for taking the test. Kappler’s other tips include taking timed practice tests, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating breakfast the day of the test. That way, “you’re well rested and well fed and not sitting there grumpy.”

The College Board’s Steinberg echoes that sentiment. “The very best way students can prepare for the SAT is to do well in school, take rigorous courses such as AP or honors, and read as much as possible.” She also recommends taking practice tests and becoming familiar with the exam; you’ll find tons of helpful tips and resources on the College Board’s SAT practice page.

If you have learning disabilities, you can apply for test day accommodations for both the SAT and ACT, like extended time. Work with your guidance counselor and/or learning disabilities office to coordinate this well before you register for either test.

There are specific strategies for doing well on the tests too, like being able to make educated guesses. The SAT is scored a little differently from your standard pop quiz: each multiple-choice answer you get right is worth one point. Each wrong answer, however, deducts a fraction of a point. Skipped questions don’t count toward your score. So if you come to a question that really has you stumped, you can play the guessing game, but you need to play it right. That means reading the question thoroughly and trying to come up with an answer. Then, read the multiple-choice answers completely and try to eliminate any you know are wrong, thus increasing your odds of guessing correctly. Eliminating just one out of five possible answers makes you 5% more likely to guess the correct response. In this case, an intelligent guess is decidedly in your favor. If you can’t eliminate any choices, you are better off skipping the question. (A note about the Math section: you will not lose points for wrong answers on the grid-in questions. Give them your best shot, again, because you won’t be penalized for trying.)    

The SAT also has “trap” answers: responses that look right but are oh so wrong. But knowing they exist (in every section except for Writing!) is half the battle. You can avoid the traps, in part, by staying calm. Falling into a trap answer is easier to do when you’re panicked, rushing through the test, desperate for an answer. Reading quickly and carefully is an important test-taking skill in general, as is maintaining focus. Also essential? A positive attitude. No, really. Some studies have shown that people with greater confidence in their ability to do well on tests tend to live up to those expectations.

Of course, you may be tempted to just keep retaking the tests until you get your dream score—not a great idea. Maybe you went into your first test day in a funk: you couldn’t sleep the night before, you weren’t feeling well, etc. If you think retaking the test(s) can improve your score, then go for it, but do not expect a miraculous change. According to the College Board’s website, 55% of students who retook the SAT as seniors improved their scores, 35% actually saw their scores drop, and 10% stayed the same. Among those seeing an increase, the average point gain was 40. Those who scored lower initially were more likely to improve their scores with a retake; conversely, the higher the initial score, the more likely the student was to experience a score drop the second time around.

Remember, the college search shouldn’t be a blind pursuit of a handful of “brand-name” institutions because that’s where you (or others) think you should go. This is your chance to find a school where you can really thrive academically and socially. And once you find schools that fit you—truly fit you—chances are your standardized test scores will fit too.

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