SAT vs. ACT — or none of the above?

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Willamette University

Deciding on a standardized test can take some thought. 

Years ago, colleges on the coasts preferred the SAT while the Midwest leaned toward the ACT. Today, institutions nationwide accept both tests, so the decision is largely yours. 

Check if the college is test-optional. A growing number of colleges have decided to focus less on standardized test scores. 

Willamette University, for instance, became test-optional after finding an academically rigorous college preparatory curriculum is often a stronger predictor of success than a standardized test. When you apply, you can choose whether those scores accurately reflect your ability and potential.

The best thing a student can do is focus on their day-to-day work and GPA, said Willamette Senior Associate Director of Admission Sue Corner

“I would never want a student to spend a significant time preparing for a standardized test that could otherwise be spent on daily coursework for us,” she said. “That’s really what translates into a success at Willamette.” 

But can a standardized test score increase your chances of being accepted by a college? 

The answer is yes, but only if your score adds dimension to the application and/or if it falls within the upper or middle-range. Anything below the midpoint could impact financial aid amounts. 

Let your academic strengths guide you. Are you better at scientific reasoning? Gravitate toward the ACT. Do you like more reading and writing? Consider the SAT. Otherwise, the length of time and subjects covered are similar (essays are optional for both, too.) 

Test prep is recommended. Spending a lot is not. It’s easy to think expensive test preparation is key to perfect test scores, but it’s not necessary. Consider accessing excellent SAT resources — for free — through Khan Academy. Corner is a “huge advocate” of this online education resource because it partnered with The College Board, which administers the SAT, to provide accessible test preparation for students everywhere. No equivalent resources exist for the ACT.

If you take the PSAT through Khan, it will examine your scores and create a personalized study plan based on your strengths and weaknesses to help you prepare for the next pretest or the official test, she said. 

Several school districts also offer free pre-tests for the ACT or SAT, and some even offer the official tests for free. 

For retakes, less is more. If you’re not satisfied with your score, re-taking the test over and over rarely results in a significant improvement, said Corner. The biggest point gain students typically see is between the first and second test, she said. Beyond that, the change is minimal. 

Next SAT deadline

Register by Feb. 14

Late registration: March 3

Test date: March 14

Next ACT deadline

Register by: Feb. 28

Late fee required: Feb. 29-March 13 

Test date: April 4

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