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Common Misconceptions about the SAT and ACT

Over the years, as the co-founder and test-prep consultant at Potomac Oak Tutoring, I've heard quite a few misconceptions about the SAT and ACT. Here is what every family should know about the ACT/SAT test-prep process:

Do colleges prefer one test over another?

No. All four-year universities accept both. Colleges do not prefer one test over the other.

Is it true that once I know strategies and tips, I can do very well?

While strategies and tips can make a significant difference in a student's score, both tests assess students primarily on the fundamental skills of reading, writing, math and data analysis. That's why colleges place such a great weight on them. We estimate that scores are made up of 80% skills and 20% strategies and tips.

Can you “study” for the SAT and ACT?

"Studying" is a very misleading word. You can study for your history test by memorizing dates and names. The SAT and ACT require very little memorization. Instead, the SAT and ACT assess students on skills and are therefore more akin to practicing a musical instrument or a sport. The more you practice, the stronger your skills become. Just as with developing any set of skills, improving reading, writing, math and data analysis skills takes time.

Is it a good idea to take the SAT or ACT early to get it out of the way?

It is certainly true that more and more parents are starting to take the SAT and ACT earlier. It is common now for students to take their first test between August and October. If a student is planning on getting started during the summer, it makes sense to take it then, as explained below. However, studies show that the best scores almost always come out at the end of junior year. The reasons are simple: students are a little older and their fundamental skills of reading, writing, math and data analysis are stronger at the end of junior year. So, if you are looking to take it early, go for it! However, keep an open mind to taking it at least once at the end of junior year if you don’t quite hit the scores you want.

Can I take the SAT and ACT as many times as I want?

We do not recommend that students submit more than 3 scores to colleges because colleges traditionally have frowned upon students taking these tests more than 3 times. However, the ACT allows students to delete scores. The SAT no longer reports how many times a student has taken the test on the score report. However, after a certain point, re-taking the test is unlikely to yield higher scores. Also, some schools do ask for students to submit "all" their scores, which is taken to mean either all ACT or SAT scores (not all scores from both tests). While colleges really have no way of confirming how many times a student has taken a test short of contacting the student's guidance counselor, it is something to be mindful of when creating a test-prep plan.

What are my chances of improvement?

As a general rule, the biggest score improvements come on the first test, after the students become familiar with the format, test-taking tips, and time management strategies. After that, the more students take the test and the higher they score, the more difficult it is to sustain the same rate of improvement on future tests, but it is generally still possible for students to “boost” their scores a couple of points on the ACT and 40 points or so on the SAT on the 2nd and 3rd tests.

When should I be done with testing?

Students should aim to be done with all their testing by the summer of their incoming senior year, which is when many students will be working on their college applications. The most popular early action/early decision deadlines are in the beginning of November so the August SAT and September ACT of senior year are still viable options (the October ACT and SAT can also still work for early action, although not all colleges may accept scores from those test dates.

Should I take the Writing (essay) portion?

Students should always sign up to take the SAT and ACT essay portions. While not required or recommended by many colleges, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

When can I expect to get my scores back? It generally takes about 2 weeks to get the scores back for the multiple choice sections of the ACT and 3 weeks to get the scores back of the multiple choice sections of the SAT (essay scores generally take longer). However, for students with accommodations who take the test over multiple days, the scores usually take between 4 - 6 weeks to be released. After scores are released, please let us know how the student does, as we’ll be able to share our thoughts with you about the scores!

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