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Standardized Tests and College Admissions Strategy 2023

More colleges are test optional, and the SAT is changing. What does this mean for you?

The college admissions process is changing, and some of the biggest changes involve standardized tests. More and more schools are test optional, requiring neither the SAT nor the ACT. In addition, the SAT is changing, becoming a digital, adaptive test. But what does that mean for you?

Let’s start with test-optional policies.

How have testing policies changed?

Most schools are test optional now, though most of those schools will consider test scores for students who submit them. Some schools, such as the University of California, will not even consider SAT or ACT scores for admissions or financial aid. Still, for most students, a good SAT or ACT score will help them get into their target schools and earn better financial aid packages.

Why have the policies changed?

The SAT and ACT have always drawn a lot of criticism, but things really changed during the pandemic. Lots of SATs and ACTs were canceled in 2020, and many test takers were shut out of testing entirely. It would have been unfair to insist that applicants take tests that simple weren’t available, so many schools waived their testing requirements.

Even when SATs and ACTs were available again, schools tended to stay test-optional, in part because of competitive pressures. Being test optional increases the number of applications a college receives and therefore decreases that college’s acceptance rate, and that helps colleges because the rankings give colleges points for being more selective. Going (or staying) test optional also earns media attention, and colleges like to be in the news.

There are also plenty of honest criticisms of the tests. Many argue that the tests don’t measure what really matters for success in college and that they are unfair to different groups. But the widespread changes in testing policies didn’t take place until 2020, when many students couldn’t take the tests. Once that happened, it was hard to go back.

Do students need to take the SAT or ACT?

Sometimes. If at least one of your target schools requires an SAT or ACT score, then you’ll need to take one of those tests. Either one will do. But if none of your target schools requires the SAT or ACT for admission, then you don’t have to take either one. Even so, there may be good reason for you to take the SAT or ACT anyway.

Should I take the SAT or ACT even if I don’t have to?

Short answer: you owe it to yourself to see if one of these tests can help you. A good score will definitely make your application stronger, and in a competitive admissions environment, you should take every chance you can to stand out from the crowd.

Even if your GPA is strong and you have lots of APs and other accomplishments, test scores can provide an edge. Because of grade inflation, your high GPA may be less impressive than you think it is. A GPA over 4.0 sounds great, but it doesn’t mean as much when the other applicants also have similar grades. And lots of people take lots of APs and have impressive accomplishments. But test scores are different, because everyone takes the same test, and so your test score is a great opportunity to distinguish you from other applicants.

Also keep in mind that if your credentials aren’t so great, a test score could be a great equalizer. If you’re a junior, it’s probably going to be hard to dramatically increase your GPA. But the tests give you a chance at a fresh start.

The SAT and ACT are meaningful predictors of success in the first year of college, and high scores are strong evidence that you’re ready for college work. Technically, if a school is test optional, they shouldn’t hold it against you if you don’t submit scores. But a strong score can still help you, and so you should at least investigate the tests to see if they’re likely to help you.

Think about your application with and without your best possible test score. Which is stronger?

Now let’s look at the different tests so you can see which one might be best for you.

What are the differences between the current SAT, the new SAT, and the ACT?

First, let’s compare the two paper-based tests: the current SAT and the ACT. These tests are similar, but there are important differences. Here are the big ones:

o The ACT is more straightforward, but more time-pressured. The current SAT has more time per question, but the questions are more subjective and trickier.

o The current SAT is 1/2 math, whereas the ACT is 1/4 Math.

o The current SAT has more algebra, statistics, functions, and longer word problems.

o ACT Math is more straightforward and has more geometry and pre-algebra.

o The ACT has a science reasoning section, which is basically reading comprehension with graphs.

o ACT English and current SAT Writing are very similar.

Some people do much better on the current SAT, whereas others are better off on the ACT. But lots of people will do about as well on either test, and that makes sense because there’s a lot of overlap between the tests.

The new digital SAT, though, really is different.

· It’s a much shorter test (about 2 hours), it’s administered on computer, and it’s adaptive, which means that questions get harder if you’re doing well and easier if you’re not doing well.

· The College Board has said that the new SAT will test the same skills, but we’re already seeing some differences.

o Long reading passages will be gone, replaced by shorter passages with one question each.

o SAT Reading and Writing have been merged, so you’ll see both kinds of questions in the same section.

o The vocabulary is getting harder, some questions are testing more advanced critical thinking skills, and we’re even seeing questions on interpreting poetry, which is definitely new.

o The Math on the new SAT is pretty similar to the math on the current SAT, but now you’ll be able to use a calculator throughout the test, and the interface will provide a graphing calculator that will make many questions much easier.

Do colleges prefer one test over the other?

No. All the colleges that accept one of these tests will accept the others, and they don’t prefer that applicants take one of them instead of the others. They just want to see a good score.

Should I take all of them?

No. It’s better to put all of your focus into one and do your best. There are rare circumstances in which it’s better to start over with a new test, but you should really try to figure out which one is best for you and stick to it.

So which test should I take?

First, figure out which test will be available to you when you’re ready to take it. Everyone will be able to take the ACT, but the new SAT will be available internationally in 2023 and in the US in the spring of 2024.

· In the US, rising seniors (graduating in 2024) will choose between the current SAT and the ACT. Students taking the test outside of the US will be able to take the new SAT in 2023, but students inside the US will take the current SAT during all of 2023.

· Rising juniors (graduating in 2025) will have three options.

o They can take the current SAT during the 2023 calendar year.

o In the spring of 2024 or later, they can take the new SAT.

o At any point, they can take the ACT.

· Rising sophomores and younger students (graduating in 2026 or later) will choose between the new SAT and the ACT.

Next, pick a test to investigate. Generally, people who are better at math should look at the SAT first, because that's half math. But some of those math people get frustrated with the SAT's odd Reading questions. People who want to avoid math should give the ACT a look, but remember that instead of all that extra math you're getting Science Reasoning, which can also be challenging.

Don’t worry about picking the “right” test at first. Just start somewhere.

Note that the 2023 PSAT will be a digital test, and so if you’ve got a shot at a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll want to prepare for the PSAT in that format. The good news is that preparing for the new PSAT will also help you prepare for the new SAT.

How can I find out if the SAT or ACT is likely to help me?

Start with a practice test. Just make sure it’s an official, released test and not a test produced by a test prep company like Kaplan or the Princeton Review. Some of those tests are pretty close to the real thing, but some aren’t, and you want to be sure you’re getting an authentic experience.

Start with one test, either the current SAT, the new SAT, or an ACT. (Note that students in the US won’t be able to take the new SAT until the spring of 2024, so if you’re graduating in 2024, stick to the current SAT or the ACT.)

The College Board offers free, official practice tests for the current and the new SAT. You can find them here:

Here’s a link to a released ACT:

If these links don’t work or if you want more tests, please reach out to me and I’ll help you find more.

When you take the test, stick to time limits and try to take it in one sitting. If your test is on paper, print it out. Don’t take a paper-based test on computer, as all of the scrolling will make it a less authentic experience.

How do I analyze my practice test performance?

If you’d like some help figuring out what your practice test performance really means, please reach out to me. I’d be happy to help you make sense of it. If you want to figure it out yourself, ask these questions:

· Where would this score put me in the application pool for my target colleges? Look at the scores of accepted students and see if your score is competitive. (But don’t panic if it isn’t. There’s time to improve.)

· Can I do better? Are there points I can gain by being better prepared?

· Where did I lose points? In particular sections? Did I run out of time? Did I make a lot of careless mistakes?

· Did I understand what the questions were asking? Have I seen these types of questions before?

· If I’ve taken both the SAT and the ACT, which feels better for me?

Pay attention to your score, but also think about your chances of doing better, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’d like an expert opinion.

If your initial experience tells you which test is best for you, then you can stick with it. But you may also want to take a different practice exam and compare the results. One test from each should be enough to tell you which test is best for you, but sometimes the answer is clear after only a single practice test.

After you’ve chosen a test, identify a target test date and set up your test preparation plan. And if you’re looking for help with that plan or have a question that isn’t answered here, please reach out to me at or 207-242-5075. Even if you’re not looking for private tutoring, I’d be happy to help out however I can.

Best wishes in the admissions process and beyond!

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