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Should Your Kid Take the SAT, ACT or Both?

Experts weigh in on both college entrance exams.


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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 some answers.

What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT?

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, one without. The essay’s focus is on analytical writing.

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

Go to studypoint.com/ed/act-vs-sat for a comparison.

Is there an advantage to taking one over the other? Both?

“All colleges and universities accept both tests,” explains Dana Karas, director of counseling at Franklin High School in Somerset. “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 Carrete, 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,” Carrete says. “That’s the one they’ll do better on.”

How does scoring differ?

SAT tests English, math and reading on a 200-800-point scale. Composite scores range from 400-1600. In 2014, the SAT was revamped with the goal of creating equity and opportunity for all students. That’s when the maximum score was changed from 2400 to 1600.

ACT tests English, math, reading and science, scoring each section 1-36. Composite scores reflect an average of the four scores.

Go to compassprep.com/comparing-act-and-new-sat-scores for more on the difference in scoring.

How heavily do colleges weigh scores?

“At Rutgers, we look at [SAT] scores between 1060 and 1260, [which is] the middle range that half of regularly admitted students fall within,” says Craig Westman, associate 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 was not a core subject, [it’s] less important.”

Carrete 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 are not so good...On the other hand, STEM students (science, technology, engineering and math) must adhere to higher standards.”

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

According to fairtest.org, more than 900 schools nationwide do not require the tests, including these NJ colleges and universities: Bloomfield College, Drew University, Montclair State University, Pillar College, Rabbinical College of America, Rowan University (SAT or ACT scores may be required but are considered only when minimum GPA and/or class rank is not met), St. Peter’s University, (SAT or ACT only required for some programs), Talmudical Academy of NJ and Thomas Edison State University.

Are prep classes a must?

Prep classes are really helpful, says Carrete. They acquaint students with the format of the tests, assess areas of weakness and offer practice sessions to help students improve their proficiency.  The more comfortable students are taking a test, the better they’ll 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.

Reviews.com offers a thorough analysis of the big four test prep companies: Kaplan, Princeton Review, Khan Academy and ACT.

To level the economic playing field, the Khan Academy’s SAT prep course is free, and Kaplan’s ACT prep course is  just $39. “Schools connect with test prep organizations in their local areas to provide additional supports [too], often at a reduced rate,” says Kara.

When’s the right time to start preparing?

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

When will my high schooler first 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 $45 plus $12 for the essay; the ACT is $42.50 plus $16 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 do not change that significantly. Also, due to the 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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