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College Admissions Exams: SAT and ACT Info

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Pep rallies, football games, school plays, yearbook meetings … your high school years can be pretty busy! On top of all the classes, homework and extracurricular activities, the majority of high school juniors and seniors are also prepping for college. In addition to thinking about possible majors and figuring out which schools seem to have potential, you need to get ready to apply to college. If you fall into that category, you’re going to have to take the SAT, the ACT, or both.

The SAT and the ACT are standardized tests that are used for college admissions purposes. Both tests supposedly determine your knowledge of basic subjects, and most colleges and universities use your scores from one or both tests, along with your application and essays, to make their admissions decisions.

Basic SAT Information

The SAT Reasoning Test is owned, published, and developed by the College Board, a non-profit membership association consisting of nearly 6,000 schools, including colleges and universities. The College Board claims that the SAT measures the literacy and writing skills that are needed for college, and the SAT is one of the College Board’s best-known programs. Although its official name and scoring systems have changed over the years, the SAT has been in existence since 1901. The most current version of the SAT was developed in 2005.

The SAT is made up of three sections: critical reading, math, and writing. Each section is scored on a 200-800 point scale, and you’ll also receive two “subscores,” as they are called by the College Board, on the writing section of the SAT. The subscores include a multiple-choice score from 20 to 80, and an essay score from 2 to 12.

These scores are all combined into one final SAT score. As the College Board explains, your “raw score” is calculated by adding points for correct answers and subtracting a fraction of a point for wrong answers. Skipped questions do not count for or against your score. The College Board then calculates your “raw score” into your “sealed score,” which is where your score of 200-800 points comes from.

Your overall SAT score, out of a possible 2,400 points, can be compared against other students’ results and if you take the test more than once, you can compare your own results from test to test.

The SAT is offered seven times per year. The test is broken up into ten timed sections and three short breaks, for a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes. (Special accommodations can be made for students with disabilities to extend the time limits.) You will need to register to take the SAT, and pay $45 to take the test. Fee waivers may be available for low-income students. On the day of the test, you’ll need to bring your admission ticket, a photo ID, number two pencils, and a calculator. You should be able to view your SAT scores online within three weeks, but it may take up to six weeks to receive a paper report in the mail.

The SAT has been the subject of various criticisms, many claiming that it is a biased test, but the majority of colleges and universities use your SAT score along with your application.

Basic ACT Information

The ACT is created and owned by SAT, Inc. The company is considered to be the College Board’s biggest competitor. The ACT is slightly newer than the SAT— it was released in 1959 in order to compete with the SAT.

The ACT is currently comprised of four multiple-choice sections to test your knowledge of English, math, reading, and science. It also has an optional writing test which consists of a short essay. The English section has 75 multiple choice questions, 60 math questions, 40 reading questions, and 40 science questions; along with the optional writing section should you decide to take it.

The highest possible score you can earn on the ACT is a 36.

The ACT is offered six times throughout the year, and it takes just over four hours to complete (including instructions and breaks). The additional writing section adds 30 minutes to the test time. The ACT costs slightly less than the SAT. The basic ACT fee (without writing) for the 2009-2010 school year was $32, but if you opt to take the writing potion your total test fee during that school year was $47.

The ACT is more common in the Midwest and the Southern states, while the SAT seems to prevail on the East coast and the West coast. The ACT is gaining popularity as more and more institutions are deciding that the SAT is partially biased. Most colleges will accept ACT scores along with your admissions applications, but it’s recommended that you check directly with the schools you’re interested in because many also require the SAT as well.

Preparing for the SAT and ACT

The best way to prepare for the SAT and the ACT is to take challenging courses throughout high school. The College Board offers a practice test that many students take during their sophomore year of high school called the PSAT.

It’s typically recommended that high school students take the SAT and ACT during the spring of their junior year, although many take the test a second time during the fall of their senior year. There are many different SAT and ACT prep guides available, and even practice tests available to help determine your areas of strength and weakness before taking the real test.

Should you receive a score that you are not pleased with, you can always take the tests again, but all of your official test scores will show up on your score reports: your lowest score doesn’t disappear. Your SAT or ACT scores definitely play a part in determining your college admissions status, but they are not the sole deciding factor in whether or not you get accepted into college.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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