ACT or SAT: Which test should your child take?

Good question, but if you’ve decided to take them you should feel confident that the assessments that you chose will put your best foot forward.

Standardized testing policies have evolved considerably since I wrote my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions, more than 10 years ago.  Today, applicants enjoy benefits that they did not back then, such as “superscoring,” self-reporting, and, with the pandemic, a largely test-optional landscape.  Advantages and disadvantages of the two major tests — the SAT and the ACT — have also become more transparent, something that allows parents and children to make informed choices about how to put their best foot forward.  With all of that said, which tests should your child take:  SAT or ACT?

Some families engage in what I described in my book as “over-testing”:  They take every test for fear that they will miss the one that gives them far superior results compared to the others.  While I understand the impulse, for kids applying to selective colleges and universities, their most valuable asset is their time.  Over-testing has opportunity costs.  First, it takes valuable time and energy away from other aspects of life that could make them stronger applicants to selective schools, such as their grades or extracurricular activities.  The time that your child spends studying for standardized tests could be better directed elsewhere.  Second, over-testing can raise your child’s stress level and detract from quality of life.  Creating a sensible standardized testing strategy, therefore, matters for your child, both from a college admissions and from a quality of life standpoint.

I advise my clients to take two steps to determine which standardized tests to take.  First, in choosing between the SAT and ACT, they should inform themselves about the differences between the two, both by reading about them and by taking a mock test for each.  Sometimes, students end up having a strong preference for one over the other, even if their scores on the two frequently look comparable.  Other times, the differing format and content can make a substantive difference in the score.  Make sure to inform yourself firsthand, regardless of what others have told you.

Second, I advise my clients to research testing requirements at schools that interest them.  In looking at data from a representative sample of about 75 schools, including Ivy, Little Ivy, Seven Sister, and HBCU institutions, several trends emerge:

  1. All schools accept and give equal weight to both the SAT and ACT.
  2. Most schools do not require the essay/writing component on either test.
  3. Many schools “superscore” the tests, meaning that they use the highest subsection scores to create the most beneficial standardized testing profile possible.
  4. With the pandemic, most if not all major colleges and universities are going test-optional for a second consecutive year.
  5. An increasing number of schools are allowing students to self-report their scores to avoid the expense of sending official score reports (with the caveat that students send the official report once they have accepted an offer of admission).

All of this means that your child’s standardized testing load will depend largely on the list of schools that, together, you compile.  That load could include no standardized tests at all, just the SAT or ACT alone, or even AP and/or IB exams.  The moral of the story is to pick wisely!  Educate yourselves on the different tests and on the requirements of the schools on your list.  Don’t be afraid to strategize about the college list with standardized testing in mind.  Standardized testing choices could impact your child significantly, both in terms of college results and quality of life those last two years of high school.

Rev. 05/16/21