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Testing/Test Prep

Four Common Questions (and Answers!) about Standardized Testing

Picture of Jordan Kanarek
By Jordan Kanarek on October, 17 2019 | 5 minute read

Multiple-choice question: As a college-bound student, which standardized tests should you be taking within the next year? A) ACT, B) SAT, C) PSAT, D) Subject Tests E) Some of the above

If you’re the parent of a high-school aged student (or if you’re a high school student yourself), you know there's tremendous pressure around the subject of standardized tests for college admissions. You have likely wondered which exam (SAT or ACT ) to take, which scores to submit, and whether or not you should take subject text exams.

Read on for our answers to common questions around standardized testing.

1. Should I take the SAT or ACT? Or both? How are they different? Do schools prefer one over the other?

We suggest students stick with one test. While the tests are now more similar after changes to the SAT's format implemented in 2016, there are still notable differences between the two.

While the ACT has 60 Math Questions to the SAT's 58, the SAT allocates a larger proportion of total testing time to its Math sections (about 45%) than the ACT does to its Math section (about 35%). Fully half of the SAT's total scoring is allocated to Math (800 out of a possible 1600 points), while the ACT's Math section accounts for 25% of a test-taker's total composite score.

The ACT's Math section is democratized, with a broad focus on material from pre-Algebra, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, Statistics, and Probability. The SAT takes a deep dive into Algebra I and II, with a secondary focus on Statistics and Data Analysis, and a tertiary glance at Geometry (4-5 questions per test, in total).

Take a practice test for each to see which exam might be a better fit for you. As a general rule of thumb, if your PSAT Verbal score is more than 50 points higher than your math score, it’s likely you’re a good candidate for the ACT.

No school prefers SAT over ACT. In fact, schools don’t love to see students take both. Sure, if you can sit down and knock a 35 out of the proverbial ACT park, and then take the SAT and hit a 1550 with no preparation—they don’t mind. But, the last thing any admissions counselor wants to see is a student take more time to prepare for an exam that schools put less and less weight into each year.

There’s a reason 1,000+ schools have now gone test optional, or test flexible: these tests don’t measure intelligence and they don’t predict college success.

2. What’s a “Superscore?” Do colleges see all my scores?

Many colleges will allow you to “superscore” your best sections across multiple exams. For example, let’s say you took the SAT for the first time and scored a 600 on the Math section and a 700 on the Reading section. Then took it a second time and scored a 650 in Math and 690 in Reading. You could submit both for a superscore of 1350 (700 Reading from the first exam and 650 Math from the second exam).

Not every school superscores. For example, the University of California schools will accept one SAT or ACT, and it should be your highest score across the board. University of Maryland asks that you send all test scores so they can superscore for you, allowing them to see exactly how many times you took the SAT or ACT. If you got a 1450, but took it five tries, they may be slightly less impressed and look less favorably on all the time spent on this particular aspect of the application process.

You can find a list of colleges that superscore the ACT here and SAT here.

3. Should I take Subject Tests even if they’re not required?

The Subject Tests, or SAT II Tests, are 1-hour exams in a particular subject, like biology, U.S. History, Spanish, etc. Only a handful of schools “require” SAT IIs: Harvey Mudd, McGill, MIT, and Cal Tech. However, many very selective schools “recommend” you take them. Those are schools that ultimately need to find reasons to say no to droves of applicants. If a student is planning to apply to very selective schools, strong subject test scores can help show the level of academic mastery these schools want to see. For example, while Johns Hopkins does not require subject tests, many accepted students tend to have two strong Subject Test scores.

If you think you can do well on one of the exams because you have a similar AP class or you truly love the subject, there is no harm in taking these exams, even if they’re not required. Just make sure not to report lower scores if they’re not required to be sent to your prospective schools.

It's worth noting that many schools have gone test optional with respect to Subject Tests, and those that have required Subject Tests in recent years may now identify them as optional or simply recommended. 

4. What’s the difference between pre-ACT and PSAT?

The pre-ACT and PSAT are just a practice tests created to let students take a nonthreatening trial version before they take the real thing. Both the pre-ACT and PSAT are slightly shorter and easier than their more official counterparts.

Neither the pre-ACT nor the PSAT is a requirement for college, and therefore these shouldn’t take up much of your energy or decision-making process. Yes, a comparatively small number of students are awarded National Merit scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first of many rounds of qualifiers, but neither exam is worth hours of preparation.

Generally, students should take a practice ACT around the same time they take the 11th grade PSAT and compare their scores to decide which exam they want to pursue.


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