So many tests, so little time. When it comes to standardized testing for future college applicants, there are some decisions you have to make before fall of Senior year in high school to help you maximize your options when the time comes to apply. But there are ways to "work smarter, not harder."
When we talk about which tests to take, we realize that these are moving targets because of changes on the test side of the world, particularly on the SAT side. The fact that the SAT has been in flux recently informs the advice we give. Here's our advice for anyone who plans on applying to selective four-year colleges in the U.S. We assume you're still in the planning stages, so that would be 11th grade in the U.S. 12-year system.
1. Plan on taking the SAT or the ACT
It's true that more and more colleges are going "test-optional," meaning that they are no longer requiring the SAT or the ACT from applicants, although you can still submit scores if you choose to. You might end up applying only to test-optional schools, or you might end up with a mix. Or you might turn out to be really good at the tests, in which case a good SAT or ACT score would still work in your favor even if they're not required.
Many students don’t apply to a list of schools that is 100% test optional, so as you're planning ahead, you need to have one of those tests under your belt. Then the question becomes which one to take.
2. Take a diagnostic SAT and diagnostic ACT
Do take diagnostic SAT and ACT tests because there’s no way to predict whether you are going to do better on the SAT or ACT or equally well until you’ve taken a practice test of each in timed conditions. Every test prep company in the world will do this for free as part of the sales process, or it will be the first thing you do once you sign up for test prep.
For the ACT, take a look at the free diagnostics offered by ArborBridge (or any test prep company you like).
For the SAT, take a practice diagnostic test through Khan Academy. Because the SAT has changed recently, test prep companies have to simulate practice questions for the new SAT — they can't rely on real questions from the older tests. From our perspective, that's less than ideal. At this time, Khan Academy is only test prep organization that has access through College Board to real practice questions written by the College Board (the makers of the SAT), and it’s all free.
3. After the diagnostic tests, pick the ACT or the SAT and stick with it
If the SAT is demonstrably your better test, run with it. Otherwise, stick with ACT.
Sometimes parents push back because they don’t want to spend the time on all that diagnostic testing. We'd like to persuade you that this tip translates into “work smarter, not harder."
We don’t suggest you prep for both tests longer term. Spending some time up-front on both diagnostics allows you to pick the test you're better at and then focus your test prep around it. Parents usually have a bias in favor of one test or another (often based on their own experiences many years ago), so this tip is also designed to help parents get out of the bias.
If you do equally well on both diagnostics, then commit to the ACT because it gives you the option of avoiding subject tests. Parents and kids love to hear that, because it means fewer tests longer term (many colleges don't require SAT subject tests if you take the ACT). If you can take the ACT and call it a day, that's great news.
There are still a few schools that require the subject tests even if you take the ACT, but it still gives you lots of options if your subject tests don’t come back particularly strong. Do plan on taking at least two SAT subject tests to keep your options open.
4. Include the Writing portion of the ACT / SAT
Fewer and fewer colleges require the Writing section, but if you want to preserve all options, it's still a good idea to take it, for now.
We'll continue keeping an eye on developments in SAT- and ACT-land, and also on the best test prep options as students and test prep organizations adapt to the new SAT.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.