Why the SAT and ACT Still Matter in College Admissions

I have yet to run into a student who looks forward to sitting for the SAT or ACT with eager anticipation. These tests are anxiety inducing for most students. I admit, I get it. There is the weight of your future attached to these tests that can leave even the most confident student feeling a bit unsure.

In 2020, it seemed these tests might be finally making their exits from the college admissions process. Colleges went test optional due to all the uncertainties caused by pandemic shutdowns. Many experts predicted this was the beginning of the end for testing for college admissions.

And, yet…

Some schools refused to drop their testing policy including the entire Florida Public University system and Georgetown.

Then, some of the most highly selective colleges in the nation began to roll back their test optional policies. MIT was one of the first when they reported in 2022 that they would return to requiring test scores.

Recently, we have seen another batch of highly selective schools rolled back test optional including Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown.

Just a few weeks ago, University of Texas Austin also announced that test scores will be required in 2024/25 admissions cycle.

Schools such as Boston College, University of Connecticut, Harvard, Princeton, and UPenn have only committed to test optional for another year or two. At that point, they will reevaluate.

What this means for current high school students

We are still in a volatile time for testing requirements at colleges. As colleges continue to get record numbers of applications and the announced test optional policy periods end, I predict that we will see more colleges return to requiring test scores for admissions.

To ensure you have the most possibilities open to you when you reach your college admissions cycle, you should plan to prepare for and sit for the SAT and/or ACT. Having strong test scores will mean you are not limited to only test optional and test blind colleges when it is your time to apply.

When should you be testing

Students should plan to sit for the exams during their junior year. The fall of junior year is preferable because you will have test scores to inform your list building that should happen during the spring of your junior year.

All students should be done with testing no later than August of their senior year. I rarely see seniors make substantive improvements to their test scores in the fall of senior year. They are much too busy with rigorous coursework, college admissions work, and life as a senior to put the focus necessary on testing to return strong scores.

Test Prep Matters

It matters a lot! I recommend utilizing the services of a reputable test prep company to help you gain confidence in your testing ability, to learn the logic of the exam, and to master tricks and tips to help you get the very best scores you can. While it is possible to self-study for the exam, it requires a lot of self-discipline to schedule in daily test prep and to decide what type of prep will be most effective for you.

Test prep companies organize your study time and focus it on your needs so that you can gain the best scores possible with targeted study. Prep companies can also help you decide which exam matches up better to your skill set and will return the highest scores for you.

Colleges that require test scores do not care which exam – SAT or ACT – you take, so you should go with the exam that will return the best scores in the fewest number of sittings.

What about the Digital SAT?

As if all of this was not fraught enough, the College Board introduced the Digital SAT in 2024. The first digital exam in the US was March 9. Moving forward all SAT and PSAT exams will be digital.

Students should become familiar with Bluebook – the platform of the Digital SAT exam. You also need to become very familiar with the built-in calculator of Bluebook. The College Board just released 2 more full-length practice tests to Bluebook last week adding to the total number of practice tests available to you. You don’t want to waste precious minutes of your exam trying to figure out a calculator and how Bluebook works. You can go to the College Board website and download Bluebook. If you choose not to do formal test prep, you need to schedule in time during your self-study to become proficient with Bluebook if you choose to take the SAT.

One big positive with the Digital SAT is that the exam is one hour shorter than the paper-based test. For those with better things to do on a weekend morning than hang out inside sweating through a standardized test, one less hour of exam time is a welcome change.

Will the ACT Remain Paper-Based?

The ACT is now offering a computer-based exam in select U.S. cities. The time-length of the exam will remain the same (unlike the SAT which is an hour shorter in the digital version). For now, a majority of ACT testing will be paper based.

How do I know when my scores are good enough?

Every student is different and every college that requires testing has a different range of what they consider strong scores. It is smart to do some research on colleges of interest to you to learn their testing policy and to see what the score range is for the middle 50% of accepted students in the last application cycle. For your top colleges, you will want to look at each individually and to be near the top of the middle 50% or over to have competitive test scores for that college.

Can’t I just keep taking the ACT and/or SAT over and over again until I get great scores?

Have you ever heard the street definition of crazy? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Just taking the exam over and over again without a significant test prep plan in place before your first exam and in-between exam dates is how I define crazy. It is very unlikely you will significantly change your score without concentrated study beginning 8-10 weeks (or more) before your first exam. Failure to do this will likely return subpar scores and waste your valuable time and money.

If all of this leaves you wondering what to do, I am here to help! Reach out to me at [email protected] to learn how I can help you navigate all aspects of college admissions.