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College Admissions Testing: Preparing For College Entrance Exams

College Admissions Testing—Advice from the Expert

By Diana Simeon

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 expect to get into; it can also pay off in more money towards tuition. 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 Jonathan Chiu, National ACT & SAT Content Director for The Princeton Review to find out what parents need to know about college admissions testing.

Should I Take The SAT? Should I take The ACT?

The first question students need to answer is whether to take the ACT or the SAT. While some students take both, most prefer to focus on just one test.

Start by taking a look at your student’s sophomore year results for the PSAT (a preliminary for the SAT) or the Pre-ACT (a preliminary for the ACT). Did they take both tests? Did they do better on one than the other? How students perform on the practice tests is an excellent indicator of how 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 Chiu.

If your student didn’t take the PSAT or the PreACT, then Chiu recommends your student take practice tests for both the ACT and SAT (you can find them for free online at 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. “We always say it’s better to open doors and shut them than to wonder what is behind that other door,” says Chiu. “So take both, and see which you prefer.”

It’s also helpful to understand some of the differences between the tests. While the content is very similar, the format does vary. The SAT has four areas of content; the ACT has five. Another key difference: the SAT allots more time per question than the ACT. For example, the SAT Writing & Language Test has 44 questions in 35 minutes, whereas the ACT English Test has 75 questions in 45 minutes . “So students who prefer the kind of rapid fire, on your toes answering of questions may like the ACT, whereas those who prefer less time stress may favor the SAT,” explains Chiu.

Preparing For College Entrance Exams

Once your student has decided which test to focus on, it’s time to make a plan for preparation. Chiu recommends that, if possible, students use the summer before junior year. In general, junior year can be busy, especially for students taking a full load of AP or IB classes, 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 prep exactly? 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 you should choose that option. 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, says Chiu. 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 tests like the backs of their hands,” says Chiu. “If they see certain question types or answer choices, they should know what to do.”

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.