Note: Many schools, including Bentley University, are not requiring standardized tests for the 2023 year.
For many high school students, required college entrance exams — also known as standardized testing — add a lot of pressure to the college application process. Although test scores are just one piece of the puzzle when applying to a school, they’re an important piece because some schools use them to evaluate how ready students are to take on studies at the college-level.
The most common exams, the SAT (administered by College Board) and ACT, are two different exams. Some students may score better on one than the other. Learning about the differences and similarities between the kinds of tests available may help ease some of the stress.
- Main differences:
- ACT includes science, SAT does not
- ACT has four required sections: English, Math, Reading, Science
- SAT has two main sections: Reading and Writing, and Math
- ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36, composite of all sections
- SAT scored on a 1600-point scale; can earn between 200-800 in each section
- SAT includes a math sub-section where a calculator cannot be used
- Both focus on algebra, but ACT has larger focus on geometry
- Main similarities:
- Essay portion is optional (some colleges require)
- Duration of exams is similar
- Both allow for accommodations like extended time or fee waivers, but you need to apply in advance; see your high school counselor for help
Here are tips to help navigate standardized testing: download them here!
Try out both tests. Instead of guessing whether the ACT or SAT is best for you, take a practice test for each and compare your scores. If you’re still not sure, there’s no harm in officially taking both tests to see how you do. In addition to free practice tests on the ACT and SAT websites (www.act.org and www.collegeboard.org), many high schools offer a free PSAT exam during sophomore and juniors years to practice for the SAT. The practice exam for the ACT is called the Plan and works just like the PSAT.
Note: The PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholars Program. If you score in the top 1 percent of test takers, you’ll be considered for a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship.
Explore test prep services. If you feel you need extra help, a search on the web will identify test prep services including in-person tutors and classes or online guided help. Most services require a fee, but Khan Academy is a free online resource that can link to your PSAT or SAT exam results through the College Board website to create individualized practice.
Consider taking the test more than one time. You can take the ACT and the SAT exams several times during the spring of your junior year and fall of your senior year, so you’ll have many opportunities to improve your score if need be. (Remember there is a fee to take the tests.)
Note: Many colleges super score, which means they’ll consider the highest section scores from each exam.
Take advantage of free score reports. According to College Board, you can send four free score reports to colleges every time you register for the SAT. After Test Day, you can still send four free score reports to colleges up to nine days after the test — after that there’s a fee for sending score reports, unless you’re eligible for an SAT fee waiver. ACT follows a similar process of four free reports and fee waivers.
Note: Some schools only require an official standardized test score from SAT or ACT if you are accepted. If this applies, you will likely be able to manually enter your score on the application and officially send the score once you are accepted.
Determine whether a college requires SAT subject tests. Some colleges and universities require one or more of the 20 tests offered in many different subject areas like history, math, science and English. The tests are just an hour long.
Explore whether a college is test optional or test flexible. There are schools that are test optional or test flexible, but this can be confusing as test optional schools come in many different flavors. It can be test optional for everyone, test optional for certain groups, like international students. It can be test optional unless you would like to be considered for a scholarship. Test flexible are schools allow you to submit other tests — such as Advanced Placement (AP) or subject tests — instead of SAT or ACTs. Be sure to read each school’s requirements carefully.
Does standardized testing still sound overwhelming? Keep in mind that schools look at many things when considering applicants — they like to see a complete picture of who the student is, so review everything from grades and courses to extracurriculars and letters of recommendation. If offered, an interview with an admission staff member or alumni will also provide an opportunity for you to share your story.
Schools also understand that high schools don’t offer the same programs; they have unique learning environments and opportunities for their students. Entrance exams apply the same standard to everyone, so universities can compare a student to standard results. But that doesn’t mean everyone is evaluated on the same scale. Many schools like Bentley will compare your scores to your peer group. Students who live in China will be compared with the standardized test scores from other students in China.
While standardized testing is important, it is more important not to try not to stress out too much about your score!