When Should You Take the SAT and ACT?

If you are planning on trying to earn a National Merit Scholarship and apply to highly selective colleges and universities, the following general test schedule might be a good fit for you:

  • Take the SAT in August or October of your Junior year–this will help you be well-prepared for the PSAT in October of your Junior year. Since you have one chance to do well on the PSAT for National Merit Scholarship consideration, a “dress rehearsal” with the SAT will be extremely helpful. You may also want to try taking the PSAT as a sophomore for additional practice.
  • Take the ACT in December of your Junior year. This test date has a Test Information Release available so that you can analyze your test questions and answers.
  • Evaluate your PSAT scores and December ACT scores so that you can determine if the SAT, ACT or both tests would be the best fit.
  • Take the ACT, SAT, or both in the spring of your Junior year. Most students improve the second time they take the test, so it is a no-brainer to try the tests at least a couple of times. Consider taking the March or May SAT because of the Question and Answer Service; you can get a copy of your test booklet and answers. Also consider the April or June ACT, since those dates offer the Test Information Release.
  • Take the ACT or SAT again in the summer if needed. If your scores are not quite where you want them to be, try the July or September ACT, or the August or October SAT. Keep in mind that many schools superscore (take the best score from each test section), so you may want to try to improve your weaker test sections. Ideally, if you can have your testing complete by the time you start applying to colleges, you will be much less stressed.

Please keep in mind that the above timeline is a general suggestion, and many other factors should influence when you take the tests. Here are some other things to consider:

  • Does your state offer in-school ACT or SAT tests? If so, you may want to focus on being well-prepared for those test dates. You will get to take the test during the school day in familiar surroundings, possibly giving you an enhanced opportunity to perform well.
  • Is a certain time of year less busy for you because of decreased extracurricular commitments? If you are a fall athlete, perhaps you should focus your preparation on the winter tests. If you have a busy spring, try to get your testing done in the winter.
  • Are you being recruited for sports? Coaches often like to have your test scores as early as possible. You may want to move your testing timeline up a bit if recruiters would prefer that you do so.
  • Are you only applying regular decision? Many students want to weigh different financial aid offers and want more time to consider possible schools. If so, you do not need to have your testing complete until December or January of your senior year.

I hope you found this helpful. If you have questions about the best test-taking timeline for your particular situation, please reach out to us and we would be happy to help.

ACT and SAT Similarities and Differences

Should a student take the ACT, SAT, or both? In general, it is advisable for students to try each test at least once to see how it goes. This table outlines the most important similarities and differences between the ACT and SAT so you know which might end up being a better fit.

ACTSimilaritiesSAT
FormatFour Sections: English, Math, Reading, Science

Optional Section: Writing
Both take about 4 hours to complete Four Sections: Reading, Writing & Language, Math Without Calculator, Math With Calculator

No Essay Section
ScoringScored between 1-36. Composite score is an average of the four individual sections.Both tests are graded on a curve.Reading and Writing & Language Section is half the score, and Math is the other half. Each section is scored between 200-800, with a total composite score between 400-1600.
TimingNeed to read about 200-250 words per minute to complete Reading section. Need to do each math question in about a minute. Both tests offer extended time accommodations to students who qualify. Need to read about 100-150 words per minute to complete Reading section. Need about 1-1.5 minutes to complete each math question.
ContentHas a stand-alone science section. Important to memorize math formulas, and from a broader array of topics, like matrices and logarithms. Both test reading and grammar skills, math through pre-calculus, and graph analysis skills. Has evidence-based questions on the reading. Some math formulas are provided. Math focuses more in-depth on the fundamentals of algebra and problem solving. No science section, but graph and data analysis throughout the test sections.
Who Prefers?Students who are able to complete the ACT typically prefer it. Also students who have extended time are usually able to comfortably read all the material. Students who have performed well on the Pre-ACT.Students who have good reading comprehension, grammar knowledge, and math skills tend to do well on both tests. Colleges throughout the United States will accept either the ACT or SAT. Students who like more time to complete their work. Also, students who prefer more in-depth analysis questions (like word problems and evidence-based questions on the reading). Students who have performed well on the PSAT.

Mini Blog FAQ: Why Do I Have to Take the ACT?

The ACT is a test that is currently used by colleges and universities across the United States to judge students’ college readiness. It is one of many criteria used by admissions officers to decide who will be admitted. It is also a graduation requirement in some states and school districts. The SAT is a similar test that is used in a similar way. Colleges and universities that require an admissions test will accept either the ACT or the SAT so students can choose which one is the better fit for their skills.

Read more on figuring out which test is a better fit for you.

ACT Testing Update

A little over a year ago we posted a blog about a very exciting announcement from the ACT. The company had decided to begin offering students the opportunity to retest individual sections of the ACT. Students were elated- gone were to be the many long mornings taking the entire ACT; instead, they looked forward to taking the full test only once and then focusing on just a few sections for improvement on test dates thereafter.

Unfortunately, this change was postponed. With the global pandemic closing many test centers, the ACT was struggling to find enough seats for even just the students who needed to take the test for the first time. Individual section retakes simply could not be prioritized when some students couldn’t take the test at all.

The fallout from that situation is still felt in many locations as large backlogs of students who haven’t been able to test try to make up for lost time. Due to this and other concerns the ACT has once again postponed the implementation of the individual section retakes, saying in part


“ACT will not be rolling out section retesting in the 2021-2022 school year. We plan to use insights from our efforts to offer this feature as we enhance and innovate new product offerings. Though there are merits to this enhancement, we have renewed our commitment to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to take the full ACT test.”

https://www.act.org/content/act/en/new-act-options/section-retesting.html

On a positive note, however, the ACT has begun super scoring for students. Students who have taken the test multiple times will see a super score on their score report. This score takes the best section scores that the student has across multiple test dates and reports it as one single composite score. If, for example, a student takes their first test and gets a 25 on reading and a 20 on math and then takes a second test and gets a 20 on reading and a 25 on math, the super score will be calculated using the two 25s and ignoring the 20s.

Students who are applying to schools who accept super scores can use this to their advantage! The students will still have to retake the entire test each time, but they can focus their energy on just one or two sections with lower scores since they know that their previous good scores in other areas will be reflected in their super score no matter what.

Of course, if you would like some support in making a plan for taking the ACT then get in touch! We’re happy to discuss  your specific situation and help you prepare!

-Michal

Latest Changes to the ACT, SAT, and Test Optional Colleges

With so much in the news about changes to college testing and admissions, I have heard the same questions from many clients. I wanted to pass along the very latest and best information that I have about the SAT, ACT, and test optional policies.

How have the ACT and SAT changed their upcoming dates?

• ACT just announced that they will have test dates on June 13th and July 18th. If there is a need to move the test date because of local health conditions, the June test would be moved to June 20th and the July test would be moved to July 25th. Despite much speculation that the summer ACT tests would be cancelled, they are on track to go ahead.

• SAT announced that they are cancelling the upcoming June SAT date, but will have a total of 5 national test dates for the fall with sufficient capacity to test all students who wish to do so. There will be an SAT each month starting in August. Additionally, the in-school SAT that was cancelled in the spring will be offered in the fall.

What if the country is still locked down in the fall and it is unsafe to take the SAT and ACT in person?

• Both SAT and ACT will make online, at-home versions of their tests available this fall should it be necessary. At-home tests have already been made for the GRE, GMAT, SSAT, LSAT, and AP exams. Should they make the online tests available, I believe they would simply keep the test as it is in its current format, but have virtual proctoring, test session recording through a computer’s camera, and browser lockdown to prevent cheating. More details about the precise format of the online tests will be forthcoming.

I have heard that many colleges are going “test optional,” and that my child now has the option to not submit SAT and ACT scores. Does this mean I don’t need to have my child take the SAT and ACT?

• “Test optional” does not mean “test blind”—if you can take the ACT and SAT to improve your application, it is definitely in your interest to do so even for test optional schools. Only 21% of all the 5,300 U.S. colleges/universities are test optional, and only 10% of the top 20 nationally-ranked universities (U.S. News & World Report ranking) are test optional.

• Only two schools in the United States, Hampshire College and Northern Illinois University are test-blind—they will not consider ACT and SAT test scores in any way. All other colleges in the country will consider test scores when making admissions decisions.

• The University of Chicago, the most highly-ranked test optional University, actually saw its admissions rate decline to 6% and its average SAT scores improve after going test optional. Their admissions website encourages “students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential.” Only about 10-15% of University of Chicago applicants choose to not submit their test scores. https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/first-year-applicants

• For the University of California system, temporarily being test optional this year “does not lower the bar for admission, but accommodates the real barriers students have faced as tests have been cancelled and classes have moved to Pass/No Pass grading. Admissions to UC campuses is highly sought after and will continue to be just as competitive.” Submitting test scores can support students’ “statewide UC eligibility, application for certain scholarships, and help them fulfill some University graduation requirements.” https://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/response-covid-19.html

• If you are able to take the SAT and ACT, do so early and often.

o Grades may hold less weight in admissions decisions than in previous years since many high schools are instituting “pass/fail” or no grading for the 2020 spring semester.

o Students who would traditionally have impressive extracurricular accomplishments from the spring and summer will not be able to showcase their talents as they normally would.

o Students may be unable to make college visits to demonstrate interest in schools, and do in-person interviews.

o Accurate letters of recommendation may be more difficult to obtain since letter writers may not have the same level of personal contact with students that they normally would.

o As always, the more objective information you can provide to a college about your solid academic qualifications, the better your chances of admission. Taking the SAT and ACT is one of the easiest ways to make this happen.

–Brian Stewart

Free Local Activities for Summer Break

I was recently in a library here in central Ohio working with a student. As the student completed some practice problems I was watching the other folks coming and going from the library and saw a dad with his daughter come in to check out some books. The girl was maybe in 7th or 8th grade and I was excited to see her in the library- more kids should be reading over summer break! However, then I saw what the dad was checking out: every test prep book in the building.

Now, I’m the first to admit that the summer is a great time to get ready for the ACT and SAT tests, but students (especially students that young) should also have time to be themselves, explore their interests, relax, and do things they wouldn’t have time for during the school year. They need to recharge their batteries! That doesn’t mean they can’t learn- but the learning doesn’t have to be as structured as multiple hours of test prep every day! Many parents enrich summers by paying for lots of camps and activities, but parents whose budgets don’t allow for that may find enrichment more difficult. Here is a list of summer activities in the Columbus area where are free (or mostly free) to enrich your students’ summers.

Science:

1.                 Park of Roses
2.                 Franklin Park conservatory (Free the first Sunday of each month)
3.                 Educational Programs through Columbus Metro Parks

Social Studies:

1.               Find as many historical markers as possible
2.               Visit the Shrum mound
3.               Visit historical cemeteries
4.               Tour the Ohio Statehouse/ Ohio Supreme court (you may have to pay for parking)
5.               Attend Cultural Events (Asian Festival, Greek festival etc)

Art/Literature:

1.               Columbus Museum of Art (free on Sundays)
2.               Grandview Art Hop
3.               High Street Art Hop
4.               Tour the Thurber House (free on weekdays)
5.               Shakespeare in the Park (at Schiller park)

General:

1.              Check out programs at local libraries and community centers
2.              Ask an adult friend if you can shadow them for a day

Outside Columbus day trips:

1.               Great Seal state park (find the great seal)
2.               Hocking Hills nature hike
3.               Air Force Museum (Dayton)
4.               Great Serpent Mound (you pay for parking)

What free activities are you doing with your kids this summer? Let us know and we’ll add it to the list!

 

 

Taking the Online Version of the ACT—Pros and Cons

For the past few years, the state of Ohio has paid for all juniors to take one standardized test for free in the spring. Generally, schools in Ohio (with a few exceptions) have chosen the ACT as it is the student-preferred test in Ohio.  Over the past few years, an increasing number of schools have been offering this test only through an online portal.  With this trend increasing every year, it is a good idea to understand the pros and cons for online tests.

Pros:

The first advantage to the online test is that there is a timer on the screen. Since time management is such an issue for many students who take the ACT this is very nice.  However, timing is manageable by any student with a watch, so this is not a huge advantage. Similarly, there is a built-in calculator if a student doesn’t have one of his or her own. However, if the student is unfamiliar with the layout of this calculator, it can be as much a hindrance as a help.

A second advantage can be that many students might prefer working through a test on a screen if that is the format with which they are most familiar from school. Many schools now use tablets instead of paper versions of textbooks. For students who go to a school like this, an online version of the ACT may be more familiar.

The third and biggest pro for the online test is the speed with which test results come back. With online grading, it is just a matter of a few days before students can access their results. However, even with paper tests, ten to fifteen days is the most the majority of the students wait. I don’t think that is a big enough difference to justify switching to online tests.

 

Cons:

The cons are far more numerous. The biggest con that I see is the inability to write on the test. Many of the strategies that students find the most helpful involve interacting with the test instead of just looking at it. On the science and reading especially, circling, underlining, and writing on the test are enormously helpful. When schools decide to do online tests, they are taking away this resource from the students. When students are exhausted from this test, being able to write on the test so that they don’t have to remember everything can give their brains a bit of a break! While the online test does have some resources to cross out answers and highlight text, this is not going to be as quick or as natural as a paper test and does have limitations. In addition, students can expect a learning curve on the first part of the test until they are comfortable with the tools in the online portal. The best way to address this is to become familiar with the online portal prior to the test. We’ve included a link below that contains more information form the ACT.

Another big strategy that helps students maximize their scores is being able to do the easy questions first or skip questions and go back to them later. While the ACT online does all it can to make this easy, it still is tougher than with a paper test, which means that many students won’t focus on getting all the easy points first. Instead, they’ll do the questions in the order they are presented, often resulting in wasted time. Students may need to be reminded that the best strategy is to skip to the easy questions to start out with. They should practice doing this so that it feels more natural on the test.

The screen itself can also cause issues. Many students associate screens with entertainment. When students study with screens in front of them they are often flipping between what they should be doing and Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, music, and other distractions. While this certainly won’t be possible on the ACT, students have come to associate screens with distractions. Because of this, many students have concentration issues when they are looking at screens.

In addition, technical issues may be an issue for select students. Paper and pencil are fairly impervious to technical issues. In a school where every student is issued a computer, there is going to be a good handful of students who may not have their computer fully charged on test day. There can also be issues with internet connection, power supply, software etc. While some of these issues can be easily resolved, others can’t. Keep in mind that an easily solved issue is still going to cause stress for the student—something that should be avoided at all costs. Students who are bringing their own computer to the  test should do all they can the day before to make sure it is in good working order- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Another issue with screens is that many school issued computers are chrome books or other similar computers that have tiny screens. This can lead to issues with being able to see all the information at once (on the reading and science) and just overall makes it more difficult to interact with the test. If possible, request to take the test on a laptop brought from home or in a computer lab. The worst that can happen is that they say no!

Finally, as any optometrist will tell you, staring at a screen for three and half hours can cause physical issues. While students may say that “they’re used to it,” they probably don’t often stare at screen for that long. Even if they don’t realize it, they likely look up and around quite often to rest their eyes. On the ACT, all these mini-breaks can really add up to time lost.

In short, if your school is considering an online test you should, if possible, request a paper test. If you absolutely can’t get a paper test, prepare for the difficulties of online testing by using this resource given by the ACT

https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/Preparing-for-Online.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0e78F_CW6MhyIFX3835GZf1XWQ1QBt7brJTTc7L4aSeJVMeCVagIJfiP0

 

This will allow you, at the very least, to become comfortable with the program prior to test day!

Best of luck!

Michal Strawn

A Range of Difficulties on Standardized Tests

After taking the SAT or ACT students will often complain that the test was tougher than what they practiced for. They will also often say that it was easier than they expected. However, these observations don’t necessarily mean that student scores will go up or down. On the contrary, a test isn’t helpful to colleges trying to gauge a student’s ability if the test isn’t consistent. In order to ensure consistency in score the ACT and SAT curve scores according to the difficulty of the specific test taken.

So what does the mean for students taking the test? Well, first of all, students should do a wide range of practice from the easiest things they can find to the toughest.  Practicing a wide range of difficulties will allow students to be ready for anything.  This will hopefully allow students to remain calm on the test no matter what is thrown at them.

Second, students need to remember to stick to their strategies regardless of the difficulty. The temptation with easy tests is to zip right through it. However, this leads to simple, small mistakes; the curve on the easier tests makes those mistakes costly. Conversely, students need to make sure to stay calm on the tougher tests. Mistakes on those really difficult questions won’t count against them as much, but panicking will cause more mistakes. Having strategies in place and sticking to those strategies will help students maximize their scores on both ends of the spectrum.

In the end, students need to remember that they can’t control what is on the tests. They can only control how they react to it. Through careful and deliberate practice, students can ensure that they react in a calm manner which will allow them to live up to their potential!

The Grade/Test Score Gap

One of the most common comments I hear from parents during the tutoring process is that their students get good grades. Parents are confused as to why ACT or SAT scores aren’t on par with their student’s grades.  I also often hear the reverse from students who talk about friends and classmates who “seem dumb” or “have horrible grades” and yet do very well on standardized tests. The reason behind this is that most standardized tests are testing things that aren’t reflected in grades or directly taught in school. This makes sense though, since if the tests and the grades reflected the same things then colleges wouldn’t require SAT or ACT scores and would just look at student grades!

The issue for colleges is that different schools and even different teachers within schools have different grading criteria. Everyone knows that some teachers are an “easy A” while other teachers really make students work for good grades. How, then, are colleges supposed to compare two different students who have been in different schools with different teachers?

This is where the tests come in. Take the ACT for example. The first two sections of this test are fairly content based. They test how much students have been paying attention in English and math classes. Consequently, a student who does poorly in these subjects can improve their subject level understanding through hard work and thus improve their score (given that they have enough time). Students who have achieved good grades through cramming or other non-long-term learning solutions (like making sure they have easy teachers) may struggle with the content.
Despite being content exams, many people don’t realize that these exams are also testing other skills that are not explicitly taught in school. The math, for example combines many forms of math that students have learned over time forcing them to employ critical thinking skills to solve problems in new ways. Many teachers only test one math concept at a time so this is a struggle for many students. The English asks students not just to proofread for grammar and punctuation but also for understandability and clarity of message- another thing that students don’t often practice in school.

The second two portions of ACT test are not so much content based. They test quick reading comprehension and scientific comprehension. Many students read well enough to get by in school but have to put a lot of effort into all assignments. These students work very hard and long hours to ensure that reading is completed and understood. The standardized tests set a time limit, though, so that students who have good grades through hard work don’t have the time to complete the tests. Naturally good readers- students who have for the past ten years been ignoring classes to read a novel under their desks- excel.

The science has similar issues. When students in school don’t understand scientific information, they ask the teacher who explains it to them.  This doesn’t allow them to develop the skills they need to digest scientific data as required by the ACT. On the test, students are presented with information and concepts they’ve never seen before and, instead of having someone explain it, they need to figure it out by themselves- and quickly! Students who do well in science classes may still not have the skills needed to succeed.

In short- getting good grades does not mean that students have developed the quick critical thinking skills that colleges want and that these exams test for. Students need to take classes that will challenge them to develop critical thinking skills. They need to learn to read and understand complex questions quickly- not the simple to-the-point questions that are often asked in schools. Mostly, they need to read every day from an early age so that their reading comprehension skills are advanced enough for them to quickly understand each passage and every question.  These are the skills that will lead to high test scores.

ACT Academy: Friend or Foe

Recently, the ACT released a new practice tool called “ACT Academy”. This is their response to the SAT pairing up with Khan Academy. The ACT realized they too needed to be offering free online prep or they would risk losing students to their main competitor: the SAT. Khan Academy is well known for having excellent review of concepts and for being one of the best free online instructors available. The ACT, however, in a rush to create and release this new product, has fallen short of that mark.

The wonderful thing about Khan Academy is that it isn’t just practice tests. It offers comprehensive review of concepts through video and practice. The ACT has tried to duplicate this success. While the ACT’s practice tests are great resources which students should be using, the review process through video and practice has a few problems. The practice questions do not always reflect concepts and wording used on the test. In addition, the answer explanations are often brief. In some cases, there is no explanation at all but merely a video which explains the concept but not that specific question.

In addition to the review (which I do not recommend) and the practice tests (which I do) there is also a section on strategy for the test. This section is by far the worst part of ACT Academy. The strategies appear to be written by someone who hasn’t taken the test since they were in high school twenty years ago. The suggested strategies include one that asks the students to compete a passage every 11/2 minutes. Anyone who has worked with students or taken this test recently will know that timing every thirty seconds is something most students don’t want to have to worry about during a high-pressure exam. The strategies page is also riddled with typos which indicates that not a lot of thought was put into its creation.

In short, while the practice tests on this website are a great resource, the review and strategies offered are not up to par with the ACT’s usually high standards. Likely this is because the ACT rushed to release the Academy more quickly than they should have. In all likelihood as time passes they will fix many of the issues, but for now it is best to stick to more tried and true methods of preparation such as taking official practice tests or working with an experienced and trusted tutor or instructor.