Standardized testing has been a vital component of the college admissions process since the 1950s. According to data provided to The Washington Post, nearly 2 million U.S. high school students in the class of 2018 took the SAT, and 1.91 million took the ACT. Applying to colleges is stressful, and with anxiety come questions and doubts about how to approach testing. If you’re searching for answers about the SAT and ACT exams, here are a few myths to leave behind.
Myth 1: Colleges prefer one test over another.
Choosing the SAT or the ACT exam was once a geographical decision. “For a long time, the ACT was the preferred test of most Midwestern colleges and universities, whereas the SAT was preferred by the coastal schools,” says Steve Sandweiss, owner of Sandweiss Test Prep in Seattle. “It’s a common assumption, but that hasn’t been true for a long time.”
Preferences have changed in the last decade, and both SAT and ACT scores are now accepted at all U.S. colleges, according to The College Board, a nonprofit organization that owns the SAT test. “My speculation is that colleges realized that they could both raise their rankings and attract stronger students if they allowed applicants to submit scores from either exam,” Sandweiss says.
Myth 2: You should wait until spring of junior year to take the test the first time.
Many high school counselors encourage students to wait to take their SAT and ACT exams in the spring of junior year, but Sandweiss thinks this isn’t necessary for most students. “We tend to encourage students to wait until they have taken or are currently taking Algebra 2,” Sandweiss says, “but in most cases we recommend that students consider preparing for the SAT and ACT tests starting in the summer after sophomore year.”
Sandweiss points to time as a limiting factor for students who choose to take the SAT and ACT tests later in their junior year. “Finals are coming up in the spring, and that’s when Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests are happening,” he says. “And if you want to retake the tests, that means you’ll have to dedicate part of your summer between junior and senior year to working on test preparation, when summer should really be about working on your essays and other aspects of your college applications.”
Myth 3: If you’re better at math and science, take the ACT. If you’re better at reading and English, take the SAT.
There are important differences between the two exams, but these differences are not as great as many people believe. Both the SAT and the ACT have a section testing knowledge of English grammar, and they both have a reading comprehension section featuring passages drawn from academic and literary sources. More pronounced differences are found in the math sections: the SAT is more algebra-intensive than the ACT and contains two math sections, one of which forbids use of a calculator.
The most significant difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the latter contains a science section, something not found on the SAT. This causes some students who struggle in science class in school to opt for the SAT, but Sandweiss urges caution. “The majority of the ACT science section isn’t really testing knowledge of concepts covered in high school science courses. Instead, the bulk of the questions are primarily testing the ability to interpret data presented in graphs and tables. Once kids realize this, they tend to become much more comfortable with the science section of the ACT.”
Myth 4: It’s impossible to prepare for the ACT/SAT.
Many students feel overwhelmed by the SAT and ACT exams. The questions are broad, and studies have reported conflicting results as to the effectiveness of preparation. Sandweiss has seen the statistics, but 21 years of experience has have steeled his belief in the process. “The reason it can work is very simple: standardized tests must test the same material over and over again, and they test this material in predictable ways,” he says. “We help people in two ways: by helping students to develop a better grasp of the concepts that are tested, and by showing them how to manage each section of the exam more efficiently. Which questions are faster and which ones are slower? What does a typical wrong answer look like? Where are the traps and the shortcuts? And to a significant degree, we help test takers recognize their habits and weaknesses.”
Approaching the college years is a daunting task for hopeful students, and shaking off unfounded information is the first step in better understanding how to approach standardized testing. Sandweiss believes that success occurs when students realize that they must undergo a different type of learning process. “The skills that you need to be successful in high school are not the same as the skills that you need to be successful on a standardized test.”
Sandweiss Test Prep is a local, independent company with over two decades of experience providing high-quality test preparation and admissions consulting services to families in the Puget Sound area.