The College Search - The ACT/SAT Tests

Taking the SAT or the ACT Test multiple times is a great way to get a better score.

May 12, 2010 7:36:59 AM PDT
Any student who wants to go to college must take either the SAT or the ACT standardized tests. But there are some misconceptions out there about this process that I want to dispel.

First of all, no one test is better than the other. Every college to which our son applied in 2008 pointedly told us that EITHER test was fine. And while I would recommend that you check the websites of schools on your son or daughter's wish list to confirm this, my educated guess is that you will probably be told the same. The SAT is the test that, traditionally, most kids in the Northeast have taken over many years, while the ACT was originally more popular in other areas like the Midwest. But at this point, either is considered a fair judge of your child's academic abilities, no matter where you live.


You can take both tests with impunity. In other words, your student can try both the SAT and the ACT, and if he or she aces one and bombs on the other, you can simply choose not to release the bad test. There's no risk in trying both. The word on the street at the time my son tried the ACT was that it was a little easier, but he did far better on the SAT, and I don't think you can predict which is going to treat your child more kindly.

Try, try again...

You can take the SAT and the ACT as many times as you'd like, and there's no downside to taking them multiple times. In fact, I'd recommend that your student take one of them at least twice, and preferably three times. Here's why: only the top grades from each section of the test (math, reading, writing, etc.) will be considered by admissions officers. In other words, your kid can ace the math one day, but bomb on it a month later, and only the higher score will be considered. And considering this example, if your child happens to do better on the reading portion of the test during the second try, the two best grades that occurred on separate days will be combined into one higher grade. So in this case, the student's cumulative test score would be higher, because they took the test twice.

There is some opinion that scores tend to drop, the more a student takes the test. This was not our experience. Scores on one side of the test or the other went up on the second try with both kids. In fact, I did better on the second try way back in the Stone Age, and I wouldn't listen to any of this sort of talk.

Breaking them down

As for the SAT, the Math section of the test examines various math skills, from algebra and geometry, to statistics and data analysis (basically, all the subjects covered in high school). The Critical Reading section, formerly known as the Verbal section, involves some reading followed by questions aimed at measuring comprehension. Students also have to complete sentences to show their grammatical skills. The Writing portion of the SAT (commonly referred to as "The Essay") is not all about the essay. Roughly half of this section involves multiple choice questions. This is the relatively new portion of the SAT, and as of 2008, it was the subject of much worry, debate and controversy. In fact, most of the colleges we dealt with were not including essay results in their evaluation, primarily because of its newness, or because they were more interested in math and science skills. This could change. Check the websites of your child's prospective colleges to learn their current posture. I can tell you, however, that my son---not the world's strongest writer---had acceptable essay scores, and I would tell your kids not to get too stressed-out over this issue.

There are also SAT Subject Tests in everything from Math to History. These are separate, less lengthy tests that are given on different days than the regular SATs. Many (but not all) schools require these tests, which focus more intensely on specific subjects, often those taken at the AP or Honors level. Don't skip these, unless you've very carefully researched whether they are required by all the colleges in which you may have an interest. In some cases, certain majors will require some of these extra tests. Also, the subject test results can be important, because they give college admissions officers an even better way to compare students' specific academic ability.

The ACT test examines four different skill sets: English, Math, Reading and Science. There is an optional Writing section. ACT tests also take several hours, roughly the same as the SAT.

Test scores

Scores for the SAT range from 200 to 800 per section. So, if your child is the next Einstein, he or she will score a 2400, and it's off to M.I.T. or Harvard! The ACT scoring operates on a different scale, with 36 being a perfect score. Usually, a student will score higher in one section of these tests than another, based on his or her strengths. However, the cumulative score from the different sections is usually the one that's most commonly used to match up your child with appropriate schools. Elite schools will be most interested in students who score well on all sides of the test. But keep in mind that a particularly good score in just one section may appeal to a certain college or program that focuses on that skill set. Also, a higher SAT/ACT score does not guarantee anything. I know of students who got into elite universities (including M.I.T.), even though some of their classmates had better test numbers. The SAT/ACT tests are only one of several things colleges consider. GPA and the level of courses taken in high school may actually be more important to many schools, not to mention the specific activities and skills a student demonstrates on his resume. The essays your son or daughter writes as part of the college application can also tilt the scale.

How Where and When

Your student signs up for the SAT and ACT online and there is a nominal fee charged each time you schedule a new test. Here are the links.

The tests are given regularly, early on Saturday mornings at various area high schools. The exact locations rotate, but no matter when you schedule, the chances are very good that you won't have to travel far. Obviously, it's important to make sure you have the locations and dates straight. You'll be instructed when you sign up, as to what time to get there and what to bring, but basically, it's a lot of pencils, a calculator, and the admission ticket you print out after registering. Plan on picking up your child around lunch time. Both the ACT and the SAT take several to complete.


Preparing for the SATs is a very good idea. Kids who do some level of preparation, either formally or on their own, tend to do better on the tests. Popular learning centers usually offer SAT and ACT prep courses. You will more than likely learn of other programs through the many flyers that will somehow find their way to your mailbox, beginning in your child's junior year. We opted for the much less expensive practice test book that's offered at the end of the online test sign-up. I can't say that my kids made it all the way through the books, but I got the sense that taking practice tests helped. There's also advice in the books on how questions tend to be asked, and other success strategies.

Finally, I would encourage you to get an early start on this sort of testing, starting with the PSATs, and then the SATs or ACTs. That way, you have time for follow-up testing with nice breaks between test dates. My kids took their first SATs by either late Junior year or early the following summer, if memory serves. They both took their last tests in the fall of senior year, although there are test dates in the winter as well.

By the way, the most useful aspect to the SATs, in my mind, is that they give you an immediate idea of which schools may be best suited for your child. On (linked above), every college has a sort of home page, and among the many statistics listed is the range of SAT and ACT scores recorded by the preceding class of accepted students. This makes it easy to match your child's scores to schools. It's also easy to see how much of an improvement in scores your student may need to put themselves in a good position for higher ranked colleges. We found this to be a great tool, when it came down to deciding which schools to pursue, and how to distribute colleges of different rankings among our choices.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: Submitting Applications, When Will I Hear If I'm In?, Wait List, When Must I Decide?, What If I Have Trouble Deciding?, What Is Merit Aid?, Need-Based Aid, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Savings Accounts, Myths About The Cost, What Is Upromise?, The Best Way To Pay, College Troubles, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface

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