When it comes to preparing for the college admissions process, the junior year of high school is largely devoted to working on the standardized tests: the SAT and the ACT.
Most colleges require that students submit at least one standardized test score, but they do not require that students take both tests. There are differences between the SAT and ACT: the SAT emphasizes vocabulary, while the ACT includes science. Some students like one test better than the other. A good way to decide which test you prefer is to take online practice tests. Be aware, however, that practice tests offered by the test companies can be deceptively easy because the companies want you to like, and thus buy, their tests.
Despite what the test companies say, the SAT and the ACT are both “logic” tests which test not only what is learned in school, but also the student’s ability to answer questions as posed. In this regard, they are much like IQ tests, or even the quizzes one might find in the back of an airline magazine. Therefore, students should recognize that these tests require a special skill set. Preparation and practice are important.
If it is economically feasible, students should work with tutors for test preparation. Although it is possible to study on your own, it is usually better to have someone provide strategies that are not readily available in print or online. Classroom studying is helpful, but a class moves at the pace of the class, not at an individual student’s pace. Moreover, instructors of test-prep classes are seldom career test tutors. They are usually graduate students and school teachers looking to make extra money, and thus their knowledge is not as deep as those who spend their lives tutoring. Even with private tutors, however, students must study independently. As a general rule, students should practice at least 3 hours for every 1 hour spent with a tutor or in class.
When should a student take the SAT or ACT? When there is time to study. For most juniors, this means that the tests administered from January through April offer the best opportunity for good preparation because school exams are not pressing at that time. However, each student’s individual schedule should determine the timing of testing. If it’s a busy season in a student’s sport or in other activities, consider a different test date. Although a student can take the SAT or ACT in the fall of the senior year, we advise that the tests be taken as a junior; senior testing should be a last resort.
Most students take the SAT and/or ACT multiple times because most colleges consider only the student’s highest score. For the SAT, colleges often “superscore” the results, meaning that they consider only the highest result in each of the tested areas, regardless of when the tests were taken. Although a few colleges will superscore the ACT, the vast majority do not. Note, however, that some highly selective colleges require that students report all of their SAT and ACT results, so be careful of the strategy of endless retakes to “get lucky” with a single score; it might backfire.
Many private colleges and selective public universities also require “subject” tests, administered by the same company that offers the SAT. Unlike the SAT and ACT, subject tests are more content-based, like AP exams. Students select the subject areas that they wish to take (although some colleges will have requirements that certain tests be taken). We advise that students take these tests in June, just after they have finished a course in school on the subject matter. Do not wait until October to take a test on material that you haven’t studied for months.
The standardized tests are vitally important to a student’s chances of admission. However, if a student simply cannot perform well on the SAT or ACT, note that many colleges now have “test optional” policies.