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Spark's Guide to Standardized Testing

The SATs and ACTs are a rite of passage for every high schooler. These tests are a major part of college applications, so it’s important for students to do well on them in order to have the best chance of getting into their dream school.

Of course, that’s a lot of pressure! There’s a lot to figure out before taking the test. Which one is best to take? How do you prepare? What is the best time to take the tests? Hopefully, we can answer some of those questions here so your student is confident heading into the exam!

Which Test Should I Take?

Luckily, most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. This is great, because it means your student can take the test that plays to their strengths.

The SAT is made up of three sections – Reading, Writing & Language, and Mathematics. As of January 2021, there is no longer an essay section to worry about. The SAT will take at least three hours (with a couple of breaks thrown in), a long time to sit and test.

The SAT relies heavily on reading comprehension. Even the math section focuses more on your student’s ability to understand questions rather than on actual mathematical skill. In fact, the SAT provides a formula sheet – no memorization required! The SAT will also want students to closely examine reading passages and provide evidence-based answers based on the readings or from books they have already read in school.

The ACT is made up of four sections – Reading, Writing, Mathematics, and Science. There is also an optional essay section, which if taken does not impact your overall score on the ACT. The ACT is a slightly shorter exam, clocking in at just under three hours without the essay section, or three and a half hours with the essay. Still a long test, but may be a little bit easier to swallow.

The ACT tends to ask more difficult questions, but is much more straightforward than the SAT. There is much less pressure to interpret texts than on the SAT. The mathematics section tests broad mathematical knowledge, mainly focused on algebra and geometry (no formula sheet here!). The science section, rather than focused on scientific concepts directly, asks the student to use logic and reasoning to answer questions and understand passages related to scientific topics.

While it won’t hurt for your student to take both tests, here is an easy way to decide between the two. If your student has strong reading comprehension and excels in classes were constructing arguments and evidence-based statements are key, the SAT is likely to be the best choice. If your student is more of an analytical thinker, prefers problems to be neatly laid out and has strong math skills, the ACT is the test to take.

It’s also a great idea to check your student’s college preferences before signing up for either test. These tests can be expensive to take, so it’s a good idea to know if your student’s dream school puts more weight on a specific standardized test before signing up.

How Should I Study?

Three hours of testing, multiple different subjects spanning all of high school, timed writing; it’s enough to make anyone nervous! What’s the best way to make sure your student is prepared?

The first step is to take a timed practice test. Taking a 3.5 hour test on a weekend isn’t anyone’s dream day, but will be really helpful in the long run. It may not seem like it, but the length of the test is actually the most challenging part of the SAT/ACT. Without practice, your student could burn out in the middle of the exam – bad news for any student! Luckily, the ability to take long tests is a skill, and like any skill, practice makes perfect.

Both the SAT and ACT have official practice tests online. You may also be able to find additional practice tests with a little google-searching. Sit your student down for a full morning of testing. Make sure they have the full experience, breaks and all. It is a big time commitment, but a couple of full practice tests under their belt will help your student do well on the real one.

Once they have finished taking the test (and have had some time to relax, which is VERY important), have them sit down and analyze their results. If they missed a question, make sure they understand why they missed it, and how to find the correct answer. If your student understands what they did wrong, they are less likely to make the same mistake again. If this seems daunting, don’t worry! We have a full guide to typical testing issues on our blog that can help you navigate this key process with your student.

What is the Timeline?

The SAT and ACT are only offered a few times per year. Therefore, it’s important to plan carefully when it comes time to register. Too early, and your student may not be fully prepared. Too late, and your student may have to accept their results, good or bad.

The College Board, the organization that runs the SAT, recommends taking the test for the first time in the spring of junior year. By this time, your student has learned all of the content they need for the exam (hopefully!). A spring exam also leaves plenty of time to study and retake the tests if your student’s score is lower than they want. However, in my experience, it can be difficult to balance a full load of homework and a social life without adding in SAT/ACT prep.

Another route your student can take is to use the whole summer before their senior year to study and prepare for the exam. Then, your student will be ready to take the test in the beginning of their senior year, with a short time to spare to retake the tests if they want to bump up their scores. Of course, you may butt heads over whether or not summer vacation is a time for studying.

Even though it can cut into summertime fun, research shows that studying throughout the summer prevents summer learning loss. If your student does not continue reading, writing, or participating in activities requiring critical thinking, they may lose 20-50% of the knowledge they gained the year before, according to the Northwest Education Association. That’s a lot of information to lose! By continuing to study and revisit school material, even for just an hour a day, students maintain their academic skills and hit the ground running for their senior year. This will help improve their scores on standardized tests, and may even give them a boost in their classes.

Standardized tests are a big and scary part of college applications. However, they don’t have to be a mystery. We are here to help students with any content-based issues they might have. Let us know if you have any questions or sign up for an SAT/ACT Prep tutoring session!

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