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College Admissions Testing: Preparing For College Entrance Exams

An important college admissions to-do for high schools juniors is to take the ACT or SAT and get the best score they can. Putting in the effort to do well on these admissions tests is worth it, experts say.

A solid score broadens the kinds of schools your student can get into; it can also pay off in scholarships. At many schools, ACT and SAT scores are taken into account when awarding merit aid. More competitive schools also tend to consider test scores when offering need-based financial aid.

But which test to take? When to take it? And how best to prepare?

We caught up with experts at The Princeton Review to find out what parents need to know.

ACT vs SAT

While some students take both tests, most prefer to focus on just one. It’s helpful to understand some of the differences between the tests. Start by taking a look at your student’s sophomore year results for the PSAT or the PreACT. Did they do better on one than the other? How students perform on these tests is an excellent indicator of how well they’ll do on the SAT or the ACT.

The PSAT is built and scaled so that the score a student gets on that test is what she would get on the SAT if the student were to take it that day,” notes Jonathan Chiu, National ACT & SAT Content Director for The Princeton Review.

If your student didn’t take the PSAT or the PreACT (or only took one), then Chiu recommends your student take practice tests for both the ACT and SAT (you can find them for free online at Princetonreview.com) as a way to see which they prefer.

Even students who did take the PSAT and/or PreACT can benefit from this exercise. In addition to helping them figure out which test to take, taking full-length practice tests helps students learn where they need to focus their preparation.

The Difference Between ACT and SAT

While they have similarities, the ACT and SAT do have some key differences. “The single biggest difference is that the ACT has a science section,” says James Murphy, director of outreach for The Princeton Review. “Some students take to it naturally and others will have to put in a significant amount of work to do well on this section.”

Each test has a different approach to math. “The SAT covers Algebra heavily, while the ACT coves a much broader range of math,” explains James. The SAT also has a section where calculators are not allowed, which can be challenging for students.

Finally, the ACT allots less time per question. “It tends to be more rushed,” notes Murphy. “Students can struggle more to finish the science and math sections than they do on the SAT.”

How to Prepare for College Entrance Exams

Chiu recommends that, if possible, students prep the summer before junior year. In general, junior year can be busy, so it’s helpful to get testing done as early as possible.

“If you prep over the summer, you may actually be done with college testing by fall or early winter of that year,” Chiu says.

Prepping for these tests will pay off with a higher score, even for students who have already demonstrated they can do well with high scores on the PSAT or PreACT.  “Both these tests are extremely coachable,” says Chiu. “You can improve an ACT score by 5, 8, or even 10 composite points.” You can also improve an SAT score by 300 to 400 points, according to Chiu. “It’s not just learning the content. It’s learning the strategies for answering certain kinds of questions or passages.”

How to approach it? That depends on your student and your budget. “If a student prefers to go to class a couple of times a week with other students, then it would benefit your student to do that. Students who like to move at a faster, more customized pace may prefer a private tutor, which can be scheduled on an as-needed basis. And self study with books or online resources is also a very effective way for students to prepare,” explains Chiu.

Whatever you do, don’t cram the week (or night) before the test. Ideally, students should spread their efforts over a couple of months. Students do better on these tests when they’ve learned how to take them over time. “They should know the test like the backs of their hands,” says Chiu. “If they see certain question types or answer choices, they should know what to do.”


Should I Take the SAT/ACT Essay

The way colleges use admissions tests is changing. We caught up with James Murphy, director of outreach for The Princeton Review to learn more.

The optional ACT and SAT essays are not necessary.

“Only 17 colleges in the entire country require students to submit this,” explains Murphy. “For most students, it’s not worth the money.” Caveat: Obviously if your heart is set on one of those 17, do the essay. Also, schools in the University of California system still require it, so California residents should also do it.

Self-reporting of scores.

Another change: “More schools are allowing applicants to self report their scores,” says Murphy. For those schools, there’s no need to pay to send your student’s official scores, though you will have to send them if your student is accepted (and decides to attend).

Fewer schools are asking for SAT subject tests.

“Only three schools in the country require all applicants to submit subject tests. Two more require most students submit them and 20 schools recommend them,” says Murphy. “Our advice on this matter is, if it’s recommended, then you should take and submit subject test to those schools. Of the schools that recommend or require, it’s always two subject tests.  The exception is Georgetown, which wants three.” Students who are applying to rigorous STEM programs should submit a science and math subject test. Otherwise, consider one humanities and one science or math test.

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.