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  • Jamie Wallace

To Test or Not to Test...

Updated: May 22

Testing in a Test-Optional world.


Should you take the SAT or ACT this year?


More and more colleges are extending their test-optional status for the class of 2022 who will be applying to college in Fall 2021. If you are a junior should you take the tests? Assuming you can.


The short answer is if you are a junior or rising senior and can safely take the test, take it. (With the exception, noted below.)

The most important question is: Can you take the test safely?


Registration for the tests has been disrupted by the repeated canceling of tests. Current juniors should be given priority so they have an opportunity to take the test at least twice before the application deadlines in the fall and winter. The second part of this question, “can you take it safely” is the most essential part. If you cannot safely take a test, don’t. It is that simple. Do not plan to drive hundreds of miles or to another state. If the test is offered nearby, and it is not canceled, my advice, go ahead and take the test.


If you cannot register or if they cancel the test and can’t reschedule, accept it.


Last year colleges across the country figured out how to admit and evaluate students without test scores. As it is, test scores are only one factor in the admissions decision. It is a data point. The colleges have shown that they can make admissions decisions without that data point if either the data point is not available, or the student declined to submit it. Some colleges have already extended their test-optional policy for another couple of years. Other colleges are still figuring out how they will react. The University of California does not require the tests. The consensus is that most of the selective and highly selective colleges will continue to be test-optional for this year's juniors who will be applying in Fall 2021. (See: https://www.getsmartforcollege.com/post/covid-s-impact-on-college-applications)


The drawback to not submitting test scores is that some colleges are using them to determine merit aid, course placement, and certain scholarships. Other colleges like Macalester and Carleton have gone test blind. They won’t even look at the scores if they are submitted.


The exception to the general advice is for students who have never performed up to their academic abilities on standardized tests. If the tests don’t show the intelligent, capable person that you are, then in 2021 don’t bother taking the tests. Give yourself a break and pour your energy into your academics.


Which test should you take?

There are many articles and books written about the differences between the SAT and the ACT. According to Tom Ehlers of Method Test Prep and Method Learning, the question comes down to your math and English abilities.


If you are strong in math and can review Algebra through Algebra 2 and Geometry: take the SAT. It has two math sections.


If you are stronger in reading comprehension, grammar, and English, take the ACT. It has only one math section. The science section is basically reading comprehension and the ability to understand graphs.

  • ACT test questions tend to be more clear and straightforward, but the SAT recently revamped its tests to bring its question style closer to the ACT format.

  • Timing: the ACT requires you to answer more questions in a shorter period of time. However, the questions tend to be more straightforward than the SAT.

  • Suggestion: take a timed practice test in both the SAT and ACT and see which appeals to you. This is better than using a practice book. Students need to experience the time limits.

  • Take both the SAT and ACT to see which test appeals to you more, there is a difference.

  • There are a number of ways to take practice tests. High schools offer them. There are online resources ranging from free Kahn Academy , ACT , to low cost: $25/test from organizations like Method to more. Google SAT or ACT practice tests or diagnostic tests.


When to take the test?


Basically, the tests are an evaluation of basic skills in both English and math. The math covered is up through Algebra 2, so plan to take the test soon after completing Algebra 2 so the algebra and geometry concepts are relatively fresh. The English section is grammar and reading comprehension which if your school has done its job properly you should have mastered by the end of 9th grade.


The tests are offered several times during the year, but only some of the test dates offer a copy of the test and answers so you can see exactly what you got right and wrong. It costs around $20, but is well worth the investment.


  • SAT: Question and Answer Service, available only March, May, October test dates

  • ACT: Test Information Release, available only December, April, and June

So, take the test when you can get the results, then assuming you plan on taking the test a second time, skip the next test date and sign up to take it again. Why wait? Because the answer key may not appear by the time of the immediately following test date. Use the results either on your own to study for the next test, or to provide to a test tutor so they can understand which concepts were difficult for or that you made mistakes on. If can't schedule for one of the listed test answer tests, look for full-length practice tests with scoring online.


Should I prepare for the tests or use a tutor?


Test preparation can help you master the content, help you brush up on forgotten equations, or solidify your reading comprehension. That’s 80% of the test. The other 20% of prepping will help you with test strategies and recognizing patterns aka “tricks.”


What type of learner are you? Are you self-motivated? Will you set aside the time to go through a structured test preparation schedule to improve your scores? Or do you need help and guidance? Only you can answer this question.


There are a number of inexpensive and free resources from companies like Method Test Prep. Both the SAT (College Board) and the ACT also offer free resources.


Summary, take the test if you can. If you can’t or standardized testing doesn’t work for you, then don’t. The overall takeaway is, do what you can, then stop worrying about it. This year colleges found that around 50% of students submitted scores. There was no appreciable difference between acceptance offers for those who did or did not submit scores.


Remember to breathe.

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