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Test-Optional Schools vs. the SAT and ACT

How to handle (or avoid) those standardized tests . . .

The SAT, the ACT, or . . . neither?

The ACT and the SAT can most certainly be scary parts of the admission process. For some students (and maybe you’re one of them), they add way too much pressure to an already stressful experience. Although most of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States do require the SAT or ACT, there is a growing number of schools who have decided to become “test optional.”

For most of you, you’re going to take at least one. However, think about taking both the ACT and SAT, and shoot for a test date during the spring of your junior year. These exams test over different material and ask questions in different ways, and some students will perform better on one test over another. Whichever one you score higher on, take that one again during the beginning of your senior year. About 55% of students improve their score the second time they take the test.

But what exactly are the ACT and SAT? “These standardized tests are used by admission offices across the country in order to help evaluate the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum, assess the differences between teachers of the same course in the school, and make fair decisions about applicants despite the wide variety of grading systems in U.S. high schools,” according to the College Board.


Here is some basic information on the SAT, which is divided into three components—Critical Reading, Math, and Writing:

  • Critical Reading tests students’ ability to identify genres, relationships, cause and effect, rhetoric, arguments, main ideas, authors’ purpose, and structure and function.
  • Math tests students’ knowledge of exponents, absolute value, functions, tangent lines, and more.
  • Writing tests students’ mastery of developing and expressing ideas effectively through a writing sample and multiple-choice questions.
  • 2400 is a perfect score.
  • The average score is 1500: 500 Critical Reading, 500 Math, and 500 Writing.
  • The cost is $45, but fee waivers are available (speak to your guidance counselor).
  • Students with disabilities can apply for testing accommodations.
  • To register and for more information, go to www.collegeboard.com.


Here is what you should know about the ACT, which is divided into five components—English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (optional):

  • English tests students’ rhetorical skills and their grasp of grammar, usage, and sentence structure.
  • Math tests students’ knowledge of pre-algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry.
  • Reading asks students to derive meaning from texts, drawing conclusions and comparisons.
  • Science tests students’ interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
  • Writing gives students a chance to display their writing skills by addressing the given prompt. It is an optional component, but many schools require it, so make sure to take a look!
  • 36 is a perfect score.
  • The average composite score is 21: 21 English, 21 Math, 21 Reading, and 21 Science. (The composite score averages each section.)
  • The cost is $30 for just the ACT and $44.50 for the ACT with the writing component. Fee waivers are available (speak to your guidance counselor).
  • Students with disabilities can apply for testing accommodations.
  • To register and for more information, go to www.actstudent.org.


Now, how do you go about preparing for these two tests? The best way is to take a challenging academic curriculum at your school. That will give you the most well-rounded approach to succeeding at any test. Your guidance counselor should also have a wide variety of books and test preparation materials available for your use. The SAT and ACT both offer free test prep on their websites.

There are also some fun random websites out there that are great for test preparation. For example, at www.freerice.com, you are quizzed on your grammar, vocabulary, and math skills. For each answer you get correct, 10 grains of rice are donated through the U.N. World Food Program to help end hunger. So, not only can you beef up your skills, you can also help feed those in need!

How about some other games? Think about watching Jeopardy!™ to work on those quick answers. What about watching Wheel of Fortune™ or challenging your parents to a game of Scrabble™ to work on your vocabulary skills? Don’t think that getting ready for the ACT or SAT is just about reading another book—it can be fun!

Test optional

There are also some schools that are test optional. According to the National Center for Free and Open Testing, “more than 815 bachelor’s degree–granting colleges and universities do not require most applicants to submit scores from either test.” A list of those test-optional schools can be found at their website (www.fairtest.org).

However, if you choose this route, it is important to review each school’s test-optional policy. Each college or university has a different twist on it. The common theme is that you have the option of not having your test score be a big component of your overall application. Here are just some of the test-optional guidelines some colleges and universities are using:

  • The school requires no standardized test information.
  • The school requires an ACT or SAT, but only for placement or academic advising.
  • In-state students do not have to submit an ACT or SAT score, but out-of-state students do.
  • Test scores are required only when a GPA or class rank standard is not met.
  • Some academic majors require a test and some do not.
  • Students only have to submit ACT or SAT scores if they have not submitted an Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or SAT Subject Test.
  • The school will take state achievement tests in place of the ACT or SAT.
  • Students do not have to submit test scores unless they want to be considered for the school’s top merit-based scholarships.
  • If students choose not to submit ACT or SAT scores, they must come onto campus and interview with an admission counselor.
  • Students must submit a form indicating that they do not want to submit test scores with their application.

So, that was a lot of information to take in, but the earlier you start looking into the SAT and ACT, the better! Don’t forget to take each test once and retake the one you did better on. Also, take advantage of all of the free test preparation opportunities that are out there. It can actually be fun! And, if the ACT and SAT just aren’t your thing, look into the test-optional schools—just make sure that you contact each school to determine what “test optional” means to them, in case there is any additional criteria. Just take things one step at a time. Best of luck with all things “test” in your college application process!

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