This is the time of year that makes upperclassmen, especially seniors, tremble—the beginning of standardized testing. Although the scores you receive on these assessments are compared with all the other information on your resume such as your class rank, activities and awards as well as your transcript, admissions essays and letters of recommendation, the number of tiny circles you bubble in correctly has the potential to make or break an admissions officer’s or a scholarship provider’s decision.
The good news is that you can take and retake these exams as many times as you are able to drag yourself out of bed on a Saturday morning. And take it from someone who’s about to take the ACT for the third time: it’s worth it.
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A common path to take when you’re getting ready to take either the ACT or the SAT is to take the test once, typically in the fall or winter of your junior year, just to get a feel for how it works and see how you do without any outside help—and whether you need any!
When considering whether to take the ACT or the SAT, it’s important to weigh the differences between the two tests and whether one or the other jives better with your individual strengths. While the ACT is composed of a science portion, a math portion, an English portion (which covers grammar and usage, sentence structure and punctuation) and a reading comprehension portion, as well as an optional writing section, the SAT only has a reading section, a writing section and a math section. However, the SAT offers optional subject tests in a variety of other areas so that you can show colleges what your interests and strengths are.
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Where you’re thinking about attending school is another important question. Although many colleges accept scores from both the ACT and the SAT, each test is more common in different parts of the country: if you’re a Midwestern kid going to a coastal school, you should consider taking the SAT, and if you’re an East or West coaster headed for a landlocked university, the ACT may be a better choice.
After you’ve received your scores, you can decide whether you’re satisfied with your score or you want to retake it to try and bump it up a few points. At this point, you should consider getting assistance from an outside source, like a tutoring organization or one of those huge “official prep guides” at the library (just make sure you get the most recent edition!). However, definitely take advantage of any after-school prep courses that are offered at your school or nearby—they’re much cheaper and more convenient than hiring a tutor through an organization. Online practice questions and test prep offered by the testing organizations will also help you get a feel for the type of problems you’ll encounter when you’re taking it.
Go to the websites of the ACT
and the SAT
to register for the tests and to find handy resources like practice tests as well as general information on college, financial aid and career planning. And don’t forget the most important rule of taking these exams: breathe and relax, because you know more than you think you do.
Current seniors: the clock is ticking! Check with the colleges where you’re planning on applying to see if they have a deadline of the last date you can test. If you’re applying and planning on taking either test again in the future, make sure you include that on your app.
A unique option is open to juniors: they can take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). It’s the exam that determines whether you are eligible to compete for the National Merit Scholarship and also provides feedback as to what you should work on in preparation for the ACT or SAT.