Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Standardized Testing

Written by Lisa Bleich and Stefanie Forman

Is it better to take the SAT or the ACT?

It makes no difference; both tests are equally accepted at colleges.  The only exception is that some accelerated medical school programs only accept the SATs.

What does test-optional actually mean?

If a school is test-optional, ACT and SAT scores can still impact the admissions decision, but they are not required when applying. It means they will rely more heavily on your academic transcript, course selection, rigor, etc. to determine your academic potential. Schools will not penalize students for not submitting test scores but will review them if submitted.  Test-blind or Test-free means that schools will not even consider or look at SAT or ACT scores when making decisions. The UCs (UCLA, Berkeley, etc.) are test-blind for in-state students only and test optional for out of state students.  Certain schools within Cornell University are test free.

So why should I still take the ACT or SAT if most schools are remaining test-optional for 2022 and even 2023?

Not all schools are test optional and if you can test well, they can only enhance your application. 

We recommend looking at the testing policies of your schools of interest and identifying what percentage of admitted students submitted tests.  If it is a higher number, then that tells you that this school still values testing. 

What are the major differences between the ACT and the SAT?

1. Length

The SAT is three hours, and the ACT is two hours and fifty-five minutes. After June 2021, the SAT 50-minute optional essay will be discontinued, but as of now, the ACT still has a 40-minute optional essay.

Below are charts outlining the timing of each section for both tests:

English: 75 questions/ 45 minutes
Math: 60 questions/60 minutes
Reading: 40 questions/35 minutes
Science: 40 questions35 mins
Writing (optional): 40 minutes
Reading: 52 questions/ 65 minutes
Writing and language: 44 questions/ 35 minutes
Math (no calculator): 20 questions/ 25 minutes
Math (calculator): 38 questions/ 55 minutes

SAT Time Per QuestionACT Time Per Question
SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading75 Seconds52.5 Seconds
SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English47.7 Seconds36 Seconds
SAT Math vs. ACT Math82.8 Seconds60 seconds
ScienceN/A52.5 Seconds

2. Subject content

The ACT includes a science section and the SAT does not. The SAT does test scientific skills through some of the other sections, but does not have a dedicated science portion.

The ACT science section does not test specific scientific knowledge – it tests the student’s ability to analyze charts, graphs, and tables.

The ACT has more straightforward questions compared to the SAT, which has trickier questions.

3. Scoring

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600, and the ACT will be scored on a scale of 1-36. It is also important to remember that you will only be scored for every correct answer that you give, and you will not be penalized for guessing.

4. Calculator vs. No Calculator

The ACT and SAT both include math sections. Each test covers algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, but the SAT also covers data analysis, while the ACT additionally covers probability, statistics, and pre-calc. An important difference is that the ACT does not allow a calculator for any of the maths sections. The SAT has one non-calculator section and one calculator section. Here is a helpful link that further explores the differences in depth.

How many times should I take the ACT or the SAT?

This all depends on the individual, but most students should plan on taking the ACT or SAT two to three times. If you get a score you are happy with the first time, then there is no reason to take it again, but we usually see students’ scores improve on the second test or third test.  

When should I take the ACT or SAT?

We recommend aligning your testing with your academic and extracurricular schedule.  Academically, it’s good to have taken pre-calculus or be in pre-calculus.  It usually takes 2-3 months of prep work before your first test, so decide which part of the year will accommodate an extra four hours of studying each week.  If you do a fall sport, perhaps you have more time in the winter to study, so you can plan on taking the February ACT or March SAT.  If you’re in a spring musical, then you should aim to take it in December before rehearsals get really busy.  The more time you can dedicate to the studying process, the better!

Will I be penalized for taking ACT or SAT multiple times?

No, most schools only consider the top scores and do not penalize students for taking the test multiple times.

Do I have to report all my scores?

It varies by school depending on what their policy is regarding score choice.  The most common options are below.

Highest Section Scores Across Test Dates.  Colleges will consider the highest score for each section of SATs (and in some instances the ACTs) to create a superscore.  The ACT will now also automatically send a superscore of the highest section if a student has taken it multiple times to schools, however not all schools superscore the ACT. Some schools will even combine scores across tests: for example, Georgia Tech will look at the highest scores between SATs and ACTs. Students still have the option to choose whichever scores they want to send with score choice.

Superscore or Highest Score Per Section. Once the scores arrive at the college or university, they will only consider the highest score from each section.  Here are some schools that adhere to this policy: Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Washington University in St. Louis, Princeton, and MIT.  The University of Michigan looks at the highest score per section for the ACT but does not recalculate a new composite score.

Single Highest Test Date.  In this scenario, colleges will only consider the single highest test score for a given sitting.  Some schools that follow this policy are The University of Wisconsin and Penn State.

All Scores Required.  For these colleges, students must send all their scores and the colleges will review them all. Some schools on this list include: Yale, Cornell, Stanford, The University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown.

Georgetown University

“Georgetown University does not participate in the Score Choice option available through the College Board. Georgetown requires that you submit scores from all test sittings of the SAT and ACT.

Georgetown is unique among top universities in the US in that it requires you to send every single SAT and ACT in with your application. Most schools that require all scores sent only want to see all ACT or all SAT scores.

 Rice University

While Rice doesn’t require students to submit all of their test scores, it’s strongly encouraged. Here’s the school’s policy: 

When reviewing SAT and ACT scores, we use the highest score from each section across all administrations. We encourage students to report all scores knowing that we will recombine the sections to get the best possible set of scores for each candidate.

University of Pennsylvania

Penn used to require all scores but has since altered its policy somewhat:

“Although we permit Score Choice, we encourage students to submit their entire testing history for both ACT and SAT exams.”

Yale University

“Applicants who have taken the SAT or ACT exam multiple times should report all scores from whichever test they choose to report. Applicants who choose to report scores from both the SAT and ACT should report all scores received on both tests.”

Click here for a recent full list of score choice requirements.

Click here for the SAT Score Choice FAQs

Do schools superscore the ACT?

The ACT just launched an automatic super score policy, meaning that they will send your best score from each section as a superscore to colleges.  However, just because ACT has a new policy, not all schools agree.  Some schools will take the highest scores from each section to create a new composite ACT score, but many do not.  Click here for a full list of schools that superscore the ACT.  

Are AP scores more important now that there are no longer SAT Subject Tests? If you include these test results as part of your application, some schools will consider them only in light of how they might benefit your review. It is probably not beneficial to send AP scores that are lower than a 3 and for the most select schools, lower than a 4 or a 5.  It is better not to report the scores than to report a low score.  Students do not need to send their official AP exam scores until they have matriculated at a given college. 

Most schools do not use AP scores for admissions.  In fact, The University of Washington readers do not even see the scores in the application. However, according to Rick Clark, Dean of Admissions for Georgia Tech, colleges are increasingly relying on purchasing names of students who took the AP exams as a means of recruiting students. 

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