There are two main standardized tests used in the college admissions process: the ACT and the SAT. Neither acronym stands for much of anything these days, but both are meant to assess the skills you’ve gained as you’ve progressed through high school.
Practice, Practice, Practice
With standardized testing, preparation is important. So, what’s the best way to prepare for the ACT or the SAT? Many students will take the “pre” SAT or ACT—the PSAT corresponds to the SAT, and the ACT Aspire to the ACT—sometime during 10th or 11th grade. These tests may be held during school hours, and most, if not all, students in your school will participate. Talk to your school counselor if you’re not sure if or when the tests will be offered at your school. Both of these tests have similar layouts to the SAT and the ACT, and will be a good way for you to get familiar with the formats of the tests and the experience of taking them. It’s important to note that neither qualifies as an official SAT or ACT—you’ll still need to plan to take the SAT or the ACT later on. Your PSAT score is the basis of potential qualification for the National Merit scholarship competition; this competition can help you access scholarships offered by a variety of colleges or sponsored by national corporations.
Free preparation for the SAT is available online through Khan Academy at www.khanacademy.org. Free ACT preparation materials can be found online as well. There are also practice books available that allow you to take self-paced practice tests which can often be found at your local public library. It is very strongly recommended that you take at least one practice test before you take the real one, so that you will know what to expect. In general, students tend to improve their scores as they become more familiar with standardized testing.
Most schools will require either the SAT or the ACT, though submitting standardized test scores is optional at some schools. These two tests are slightly different, so if you are disappointed with your scores on one test, consider trying the other. Be sure to consult the testing sections of college admissions websites to note specific testing requirements.
Some schools will require you to send supplemental testing results in addition to the ACT or SAT. This can include SAT Subject Tests, AP Testing, or IB Testing, or some other type of testing. International students are often required to submit TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores, or some other test of English proficiency. Just like the ACT or SAT, these tests can be important factors in the decision process, but are not going to be the only thing a college considers. Be sure to note which tests schools require and follow the same procedures for these tests as you would with the ACT or SAT. At some schools, these supplemental tests will not be required, but you can still send in your scores if you think they will strengthen your application.
How Will Your Scores Be Evaluated?
These tests might seem like they are promising to determine your future success in college or even beyond. They absolutely, categorically do not. Your future could never be predicted by a test and your value as a person certainly could never be affected by a test.
Selective colleges are looking for more than just numbers, and test scores are just one part of the larger college admissions process. Different schools will have different score ranges for their admitted students, which can be helpful to look at, but are not a helpful predictor of who will or will not be admitted. Remember, in holistic review, no one part of your application means admission is a “sure thing.” Even if you get a perfect or near-perfect score on the SAT or ACT, you’ll still want to make sure you’re doing well in the classroom, make a point of learning more about the schools you’re applying to, and make sure your essays are thoughtful to be a strong applicant.
Many selective schools use a process called “superscoring” (as in “super” + “scoring”), which means that they allow you to submit multiple sets of SAT or ACT scores and will count each of the best sub-section scores from all the times you’ve taken either tests, creating a new “composite” score that represents the best of your subsection scores. So for example, if you take the SAT twice and do very well on the math section the first time and very well on the verbal reasoning section the second time, both your good math score and your good verbal score will be counted. Be sure to check online to see if a school has a policy of superscoring test scores. Colleges cannot superscore between the ACT and SAT, so if you’ve taken each test once, your scores cannot be superscored.