Do I Need to Take Both the SAT and the ACT?

This is one of the most common questions that parents and students ask when I talk with them about college admissions. Often, they have been advised by a school counselor or peer to take both tests. The SAT and ACT are both college entrance exams, but they are not the same exam. The tests have many slight differences that may cause a student to do better on one exam than the other. Although, historically in our area, the East Coast, the SAT was the test of choice, now almost every college accepts both tests. So, how do you choose which test to take, and why would a student choose to go through the extra work of taking both tests? 

Most students should take EITHER the SAT or the ACT

Taking both the SAT and the ACT is usually unnecessary and causes much more stress and anxiety during a time that is for most students already crammed full of activities, challenging classes, and testing.  It can also be a waste of valuable time and money. Students sometimes think that by taking both tests, their application will look more impressive. This is usually not the case, and in fact if you don’t have adequate time and energy, preparing for both tests can actually leave you less prepared in general because you are spreading your resources too thin. In a New York Times article on this topic, William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid says, “We see a lot of test results between the ACT, the SAT, the subject tests, Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate,” he added, “so it doesn’t concern us at all whether students send the SAT, the ACT or both.” Most students should choose one test, either the SAT or the ACT and prepare for that test exclusively. No school will require you to submit both tests scores, so there is no reason to take both official tests.

Do not take the official SAT and ACT to find out which test works best for you!

Often a parent will tell me that they are going to have their student take the official SAT and ACT just to see which one they are doing better on. If you want to practice, take an official released practice test. Administer it like it is a real test by timing each section and using a script. Never take the official test as practice. This is a waste of money and also can lead to having to report scores to colleges that are less than your best. Some colleges require you to submit all of your test scores from each time you sit for an official exam. For the SAT, the College Board has a comprehensive list of the schools that require all SAT scores in their Score-Use Practices Document. Schools such as Georgetown University, the University of Maryland- College Park, and George Washington University require all SAT scores. Although the ACT does not have a comprehensive list of schools that require all ACT scores, there are schools that require all ACT scores. This information can be found on the school’s admissions page. Here is an example from Carnegie Mellon University.

Use the Results of Your Practice Tests to Determine Which Exam to Prepare For

Take an official released practice SAT and ACT. When you take the practice tests, you should time yourself and take the tests each in a single sitting. Then you can use the concordance tables provided by the College Board or ACT to compare your two tests scores and determine which test score is higher. You may also find that you feel more comfortable taking one test than the other as there are many subtle differences in the timing, sections, and content of the two tests. For more information on what is similar and different on the SAT and ACT, click here. Most students should prepare for the test on which they are already doing better.

So, Who Should Consider Taking Both the Official SAT and ACT?

Students who have plenty of time to study may consider taking both the SAT and ACT for several reasons. Sometimes a student is performing equally well on both tests. By taking both tests, they can have more variety of test dates to choose from. If time is not a factor, having more testing opportunities may mean that even if you have a bad test day on one exam, you can have a good test day on another.  In addition, if you have a lot of time to devote to studying, preparing for one test can sometimes help you to prepare for the other test. For students whose scores have plateaued and won’t increase on one test, often trying the other test with adequate time to prepare can help to achieve a higher score. It may also be worth switching if your high school gives one exam and offers test prep for that exam, but you believe that you have the potential to do better on the other exam based on a practice test.

Once you decide which test to take, it is important to build a study plan based on the weak areas from your practice test and how much time you have to prepare. Your plan should include goals specific to you and with the college you wish to apply to in mind. Check out the admissions pages of the schools that interest you, and compare your practice scores to the scores in their most recent Freshman Class Profile. Use this information to set goals for score improvement and to make your study time more focused.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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