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Unofficial Thoughts on the SAT and ACT

Should my student take the SAT or ACT?

Everyone we've heard speak on this subject says the tests are accepted equally by all schools.  It happens that the SAT is more popular on the East Coast and the ACT is more popular in the Midwest, but that trend isn't as true as it once was.

Many Tech students take the SAT just because most other students take it.  Also, students are familiar with the format of the SAT because all 10th and 11th graders take the PSAT.  Most advisers we've heard suggest having your student take a practice test of the SAT and the ACT and picking whichever test she prefers.

Princeton Review has a comparison sheet of the two tests.  Here's another comparison sheet from test prep company Applerouth.

For data nerds:  The College Board, which runs the SAT, has a table which purports to show the equivalent ACT score for each SAT score.

What is a "good" score?

It depends on what caliber of school your student is hoping to attend.  The following resources can give you an idea of the range of standardized test scores of admitted applicants to specific schools.

Princeton Review has a summary sheet of 50th percentile SAT and ACT scores for a handful of schools.  But really if you want a good idea, you should read one of the following guides or any similar guide.  They are sold on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble (founded by a Tech alum!) and are often available at public libraries as well:

The Fiske Guide is one of the most popular college guides.  It offers both qualitative descriptions of colleges, as well as the 25th-75th percentile test scores of admitted applicants.

The Best 382 Colleges from Princeton Review is also worth reading and has similar test statistics.  It also recommends good schools for specific majors or areas of study.

In addition to guidebooks, there is excellent data available on Naviance.


Naviance:  See the PA's Unofficial Guide to Naviance, which every Tech student will use in the college application process.  Naviance provides data the standardized test scores of Tech students by college.  Remember that while 25-75th percentile ranges in guide books can be a good indication of the test scores colleges look for, standards are often higher for students applying from areas that are saturated with good high schools (e.g. New York City).  Naviance data shows what scores successful applicants from Tech have needed to gain admission to colleges.

For data nerds:  The College Board provides a full breakdown of SAT scores by percentile.  (Not enough data?  See the College Board's main data page.)

PA Thoughts:  We often anchor to numbers, such as standardized test scores, because they are an easy-to-understand metric.  But remember that most selective US colleges rely on much more than just standardized test scores, and many schools at least claim to be de-emphasizing such scores these days.  Selective colleges generally say they rely on the following criteria when making admissions decisions:

1.  High school GPA:  Grades and difficulty of classes

2.  Standardized test scores:  SAT or ACT, often 2 SAT Subject Tests, AP scores (usually optional)

3.  Extracurricular activities:  clubs, teams, community service

4.  Student essay

5.  Teacher recommendations

If my student is taking the SAT, should he take it with the Essay?

Yes.  Many selective schools require the Essay section.

When should my student take the SAT or ACT?

Princeton Review has a useful timeline.

10th grade is probably too early.  It might make sense to take the SAT or ACT the first time in August or October of 11th grade, right after taking any prep class or doing review work.  If your student thinks she can improve, a student can take it again in March of 11th grade and/or August of 12th grade.  It's probably best not to take it more than three times -- it starts to look excessive and time is better spent on school work.

Many colleges "super score," which means that if a student took the test more than once, the college will use the highest of the math and verbal scores even if the scores came on different test dates.

How can my student prepare for the SAT or ACT?

There are several large test prep companies (Princeton Review, Kaplan, Revolution Prep, etc.) and also many smaller, local prep programs and cram schools.  Many Tech students take a prep course in the summer between 10th and 11th grade or during the 11th grade school year.  But be careful that the prep class doesn't crowd out schoolwork.

Many advisers suggest focusing time on schoolwork as the most effective test prep.  Of course working hard in math class is a good way to prepare for the math section.  Working hard in English and Social Studies is good preparation for the verbal section.  Many advisers and guide books also suggest reading challenging fiction and non-fiction books, as well as good periodicals such as The New York Times, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.

Finally, the free, online educational site Khan Academy has teamed up with the College Board to offer free SAT prep.  Also, when your student accesses her score report for the PSAT or SAT on the College Board website, there is a link to Khan Academy where you student can work on practice problems tailored to the questions she missed on the exam.

(Khan Academy is also a great site for video lessons on almost any topic in high school math, science or history.  Very useful if a student is struggling with a topic or wants to hear a lesson again.)

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