Everything Your Teen Needs to Know About the SAT and ACT

College and those dreaded tests are just around the corner.


When it comes to college prep, it’s never too early for your high schooler to start thinking about taking the SAT and ACT. But getting to know the ins and outs of each test can be overwhelming. Should your teen take both? What’s the best way to prepare? How important are they in the grand scheme of things? Read on for answers.

What’s the difference?

Questions on the SAT are evidence- and context-based, and focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem solving, according to StudyPoint, a national in-home tutoring service. The math test has two sections: one taken with a calculator and one without. The essay’s focus is analytical writing.

Questions on the ACT are more straightforward, sometimes long and typically more challenging to decipher. The ACT also has a science section and allows students to use calculators when taking the math section.

Is there an advantage to taking one instead of the other? Both?

“All colleges and universities accept both tests,” explains Dana Karas, director of counseling for Franklin Township Public Schools. “Since the College Board is located in our backyard (Princeton), the majority of New Jersey students take the SAT. However, due to a five-year initiative to promote the ACT, New Jersey has seen an increase in it. Since test preparation and formats are different, students are encouraged to take both.”

Yuri Nava, a guidance counselor at Riverside Poly High School in Riverside, CA, agrees. “By taking both, students can discover what kind of tester they are and the test they’re more comfortable with,” Nava says. “That’s the one they’ll do better on.”

How does scoring differ?

The SAT tests reading/writing and math, each section scoring on a 200-800 point scale. Composite scores range from 400-1600. In 2016, the maximum score was changed from 2400 to 1600 with the goal of creating equity and opportunity for all students. The ACT tests English, math, reading and science, scoring each section 1-36. Composite scores reflect an average of the four scores. 

How heavily do colleges weigh scores?

“At Rutgers, we look at [SAT] scores between 1040 and 1270, [which is] the middle range that half of regularly admitted students fall within,” says Craig Westman, vice chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University-Camden. However, he adds, “We take a holistic approach and consider high school GPA, especially grades in the core subjects of math, English and science, the senior year transcript and AP courses. We also look at the type of course that brought down a GPA. If this class wasn’t a core subject, [it’s] less important.”

Nava says the weight of SAT and ACT scores depends on the school and a host of other factors. “You don’t know from school to school how heavily these scores will be measured,” he says. “As counselors, we see kids get in whose test scores aren’t so good...On the other hand, STEM (science, technology,  engineering and math) students must adhere to higher standards.”

Which NJ colleges don’t require SAT or ACT scores?

According to fairtest.org, which is dedicated to ensuring fair standardized testing for all students, more than 900 schools nationwide don’t require the tests (although some do require scores for certain programs, or when minimum GPA and/or class rank isn’t met), including these NJ colleges and universities: Bloomfield College, College of Saint Elizabeth, Drew University, Eastwick College, Montclair State University, Pillar College, Rabbinical College of America, Rider University, Rowan University, Saint Peter’s University, Stockton University, Talmudical Academy of New Jersey, Thomas Edison State University and William Paterson University.

Are prep classes a must?

Prep classes are really helpful, says Nava. They acquaint students with the format of the tests, assess areas of weakness and provide practice sessions to help students improve their proficiency. The more comfortable students are with testing, the better they’ll likely do.

How do I know which prep class is right?

There are a few test prep options and formats: weekend boot camps, traditional courses and online courses. There are four big test prep companies: Kaplan, Princeton Review, Khan Academy and ACT. To level the economic playing field, Khan Academy’s SAT prep courses are free and recommended by the College Board. Princeton Review offers free online and in-person practice tests for the SAT. ACT’s online prep course costs $39.95 (onlineprep.act.org) and Kaplan offers a $50 Rapid Review for the SAT. “Schools connect with test prep organizations in their local areas to provide additional supports [too], often at a reduced rate,” says Karas. When’s the right time to prepare?

“Some students begin prepping to take the PSAT during their first year of high school,” says Nava. That’s probably because the PSAT, administered during sophomore year, qualifies students for national scholarships. But most wait until tenth grade to start prepping.

When will my high schooler take the tests? How many times should she take them?

Tests are first given during the second semester of junior year and continue through December of senior year. Students can retake the tests, but have to pay each time they do. The SAT is $47.50 plus $17 for the essay; the ACT is $50.50 plus $16.50 for the essay.

“Most NJ school counselors would encourage their students to take the test no more than three times,” says Karas. “Without intervention and additional supports, scores don’t change that significantly. Also, due to test duration, students lose interest and momentum, and therefore don’t perform as well.”

—New Orleans native Karen B. Gibbs is a freelance writer specializing in lifestyle and education.

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