Frequently Asked Questions
What is the purpose of the SAT & ACT exams, and when should I take them?
The SAT and ACT are used by colleges as one of the gauges for determining acceptance; most (but not all) colleges and universities accept both exams. In theory, since all students taking the SAT & ACT do so under standardized conditions, they are on a level playing field. Most 11th grade students take one or both exams one to three times; if they are not yet satisfied with their scores, they can take the tests again in the first half of 12th grade. We recommend that 11th grade students get trained and then take one or two of each test in the first half of the school year; if their scores on one test are significantly higher than on the other, they can focus future studies (in the second half of 11th grade and/or the first half of 12th grade) on their stronger exam. The testing companies aim for each of their tests to be at the same difficulty level and the exams are curved to compensate for scoring differences, so there is no one particular month in which the test is easier or harder. Ideally, students should take the test when they will be most available to do extensive studying and test prep. When selecting a test date, consider factors such as AP exams, athletic competitions, finals, amount of preparation and extracurricular activities.
Not typically. Most students take the tests two to four times, and most colleges look at the highest subscores from each of the sections. For example, if on the March SAT a student does well in Reading/Writing but lousy in Math and then, on the October SAT, does well in Math but lousy in Reading/Writing, most (though not all) colleges will look at the high Reading/Writing from March and the high Math from October -- this process has become known as "super-scoring." Many colleges will also accept results from the old version of the SAT that was retired in January 2016. Note that the testing companies do NOT average grades if a student takes the test multiple times, nor do most colleges...this is an extremely common myth. However, we do not recommend that students take multiple SATs or ACTs unless they have also increased their knowledge and skill levels between test administrations through additional training. Note that while students have the option to select which full test results the colleges receive, some colleges REQUIRE the reporting of all test results and failure to do so can lead to disqualification as a candidate for admission, so check with your colleges of choice before suppressing the results for any given test date.
Should I take the SAT & ACT once just to get a feel for the tests?
No. Before taking their first driving test, most students enroll in a driver's education course...they would never consider taking the test without training. You should never take an important exam inadequately prepared, and getting professional training for your first SAT and ACT allows more time to further enhance your test-taking skills should you later decide to retake the tests. If you have ever taken the PSAT, PLAN or PreACT, or if you’ve taken a Higher Standards practice exam, you already have a feel for the tests. Full practice exams are also available online, in high school guidance offices, and in the official study guides by the companies that make the exams.
What is the purpose of the PSAT, ASPIRE and PreACT exams, and when are they taken?
The main purpose of the PSAT exam is to give students practice on a test similar to the SAT; the ASPIRE and PreACT exams provide exposure to similar content as is found on the ACT using a broader range of questions. The tests are used to predict future SAT and ACT scores, respectively. In addition, a few scholarships (such as the National Merit Scholarship) are based upon 11th grade PSAT performance. Recently, the grades to which these exams are available have expanded from 10th & 11th to as early as 8th (for the PSAT) or 3rd (for the ASPIRE). Since in most cases the only exam that carries weight is the 11th grade PSAT, in our opinion it is overkill to put excessive time and money into preparing for the tests in earlier grades. Advance preparation for the 10th or 11th grade PSAT has value in that, by applying stronger test-taking skills on the PSAT, students strengthen skills that should lead to higher score increases on subsequent SAT exams. In Miami-Dade County, all public school students take the PSAT in October of their 10th grade year; most will elect to take the test again in 11th grade.
Should I elect to take the optional essay?
Yes. On both tests, the essay appears at the end of the exam, so it will not hurt your performance on the short answer sections that determine your main score. However, some colleges require the essay section to have been completed in order for your test scores to be considered. Unless you are certain that none of your preferred colleges require the essay, it is best to complete that section.
This depends upon your current scores and upon how much emphasis is placed on the SAT or ACT by your preferred colleges. Many colleges place heavy emphasis on standardized testing while others do not require the SAT or ACT at all. The SAT & ACT require some knowledge and skills not taught in high school, so if the exams will be an important factor to your preferred colleges, finding an effective prep course can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
One option is to purchase a college guide from a bookseller. You can also request an information packet from college admissions offices or you can visit the schools’ websites. Note that colleges annually reevaluate and change their admission requirements & policies regarding tests, deadlines and which sections they consider, so make sure any information you have gathered will be applicable during the year in which you seek admission.
In addition to price, schedule and location, there are several other factors to consider. Look for courses that group students according to previously-measured scores. The number of course hours is more important than the number of class dates. The instructor should spend the vast majority of class time teaching, not testing. Actual SAT and ACT questions should be incorporated throughout the course, and an avenue for making up missed classes is a definite plus. Since no course can guarantee that every student will reach his/her target scores the first time out, look for a guarantee allowing students to retake the course should they fail to achieve a significant increase. Most importantly, find out about the experience and track record of the instructor; it is irrelevant how many years the company itself has been in business or what the company’s average score increase is if those factors do not apply to the specific instructor with whom the student will be working. If possible, observe the instructor teaching -- if a student likes the teacher’s style and feels the instructor is knowledgable and effective, that student is more likely to learn.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a Science Reasoning section; on the other hand, though most problems on the SAT allow calculator usage, one Math section does not. The focus of the essays is also markedly different. The similarities, however, abound: both exams have four sections plus an optional essay; math concepts on both exams range from General Math through Trigonometry, though the tests have some differences in mathematical focus; both exams have similar grammar correction and reading comprehension sections. Depending upon their strengths and weaknesses, some students may do slightly better on one test than on the other, but neither test is inherently more difficult.
The SAT-2 Subject Tests are one-hour exams covering academic subjects in Mathematics, Literature, Science, Foreign Language and History. Up to three Subject Tests may be taken on one day, but students cannot take both the SAT Reasoning Test and the SAT-2 Subject Tests on the same day, so plan accordingly. Note that not all colleges require the Subject Tests, so confirm whether they are needed at your preferred colleges before registering to take any SAT-2 exams.
Recent legislative changes regarding the Florida Bright Futures scholarships have brightened the pot while maintaining the requirements. The Florida Academic Scholars (FAS) now provides 100% of tuition costs and a $300 book stipend at Florida public institutions, while the Florida Medallion Scholars (FMS) award provides 77% of tuition costs at Florida public institutions. Both scholarships require community service hours and a minimum weighted GPA (based upon specific core college-preparatory academic coursework): a 3.5 for the FAS and a 3.0 for the FMS. For the class of 2018 and beyond, the standardized test requirements for the FAS are currently 1290 SAT/29 ACT & the requirements for the FMS are 1170 SAT/26 ACT. Note that even test dates as late as June of a student’s senior year are still applicable toward the scholarships.
What special accommodations are available for students with learning disabilities, and how do I go about getting them?
There are a number of special accommodations that students can receive to compensate for various learning differences. The most common accommodations allow students 50% or 100% extra time. SAT and ACT score reports do not distinguish between standard and nonstandard testing, so the colleges will be unaware of any special conditions under which students took the exam. If you suspect you have a learning difference, do not hesitate to get tested; it is far better to be well-informed, and special testing accommodations in school and on standardized tests are meant to level a playing field that would otherwise be imbalanced against your favor. Note also that having been diagnosed with a learning disability does not automatically entitle you to special testing accommodations. The testing must be recent, the psychometrician needs to recommend the special accommodations, the student’s high school needs to be informed (a person cannot have a learning disability for SAT & ACT purposes but be free of that issue at school), an Eligibility Form must be submitted to the testing companies, and a number of other hurdles must be jumped. This approval process can take months and is not guaranteed, so start the process early. For additional guidance, you can call ETS/College Board at 609-771-7137 and the ACT Organization at 319-337-1332.
More questions? We’d be happy to answer them! Call Higher Standards at 305-969-2012.