The real deal behind the SATs and ACTs

For decades, families of college-bound students have focused on the SATs or ACTs, believing that the “right” score will secure them a place at their desired college or university. And, conversely, they’ve feared that a less than stellar test performance spells doom. But the college admissions process is complex. It’s time to take a closer look at the role played by a four-hour Saturday test.

Both the SATs and ACTs have been widely used since the 1960s. Their purpose is to evaluate and compare student performance in an objective and measureable way. College and universities receive the test scores and use them in their decision making process. But the weight that the tests carry varies.

Keo Oura Kounlavong-Sabath is the director of College Counseling at Harrisburg Academy and a member of the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling (PACAC) and National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). She also once served as the associate director of Admission at Lebanon Valley College. She explains that, “The majority of colleges will state that they have a holistic review process and that they look at the applicant’s entire application and strive to see them beyond test scores. Some colleges have fully embraced this philosophy and they have joined the movement of being test optional.” In fact, according to, more than 950 colleges and universities now are “test optional” or “test flexible,” including many in Pennsylvania.

But just because a college is “test optional,” does it really mean you shouldn’t send the scores? How can you be sure your child won’t be judged suspiciously for the omission?

“Families often forget that the name of the office they are contacting during this process is the Office of Admission, not the Office of Denial,” says Kounlavong-Sabath. “Admission staff are trained to consider an applicant in the most positive manner possible during review.” She says that she’ll advise a student not to send her SAT or ACT scores to a test-optional school if “the student struggles with standardized tests but their academic transcript tells a different story, it shows a student who excels in the classroom and maintains a consistent academic performance or has made great strides in improving their grades. In this circumstance, the essay and visiting the college are important in the application process.”

There are also institutions — like Penn State, which had to process over 70,000 applications for Fall 2016 — that will continue to rely on the tests to assist them in their selection process, says Kounlavong-Sabath. “The SAT and ACT aren’t going anywhere for a while and for many students the tests will continue to be a part of their application process.”

When, and how often, to take

Parents and students can look at test-optional admissions as a bit of a relief valve on the pressure cooker of the application process, but not as a reason not to take the test. Many schools, or programs within them, still require SATs or ACTs. Even for test-optional institutions, good scores can help with admissions. And then there is the access that high-scoring students can gain to scholarship money.

Michele Sarver is a mother in York who says that was the experience for one of her children, although she cautions that not every student gets the same results. Sarver says that among two of her kids, she had completely different experiences. One got scholarship money; the other, with high scores and ranked within the top 10 in her class, got none.

“I have worked with students who have great grade point averages, a strong resume with community service, leadership, athletic involvement and were turned down based solely on an SAT score,” says Kenneth Coble, the guidance counselor serving approximately 200 students in grades pre-K through 12 for the Christian School of York. He says this happens “when a particular program like pre-med or engineering requires a certain SAT score or subject test score. In these cases, the college or university uses scores as a filter, automatically eliminating some applicants based on SAT score.”

So just when should students take their SATs or ACTs? Most students across the Midstate take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also known as the National Merit Qualifying Scholarship Test (NMSQT), in the fall of 10th grade; they may also take it again in 11th grade. Coble says that all of their students, plus homeschoolers that participate, take the PSAT in both 10th and 11th grades “as a way for us to prepare them for standardized testing and so that we know how they may perform on the SAT.”  The Harrisburg Academy students also take the PSAT tests in both 10th and 11th grade, after taking the PSAT 8/9 test in ninth grade.

For the SAT and ACT, our experts advise students to take them at least once in their junior year — Kounlavong-Sabath highly recommends in the spring in order for them to have had as much time to gain the academic knowledge they need in the classroom — and then again in the fall of their senior year.  Both she and Coble say that students should allow themselves a maximum of three tries on a test.

“The first time is to gain exposure to the test,” says Kounlavong-Sabath. “The second time is to improve, and the third is if they feel they have really prepared and want to try and improve their score one more time.  For admission application purposes, seniors should not take either test later than November.”

Is one test preferred?

Is one test better than the other? Not necessarily. According to Coble, “As far as the SAT versus the ACT, I do not recommend either test [over the other]. If a student has struggled with one of the tests after a couple of shots at taking it, then I would suggest trying the other test.”

Kounlavong-Sabath says that the test choice depends upon the student’s learning style and testing preference. “I encourage students to try both tests — practice tests online are fine — to see which one they are more comfortable with,” she says. “Both tests now assess what a student has learned in school and how they do on the tests often depends on where they are in their own high school curriculum. Neither test penalizes a student for guessing, and students generally have a strong feeling about one test versus the other. The tests are trying to assess the same academic preparation, but they just ask the question differently. Students that prefer questions that are more straightforward will most likely prefer the ACT. Students that are able to understand or puzzle through to an answer within context will prefer the SAT.”

Finding one’s comfort level with the tests takes practice and preparation. And any amount of preparation is better than none, according to Kounlavong-Sabath. “The key point to understanding test prep is that the student is the one who needs to be dedicated to practicing for the test,” she says. “This doesn’t mean sitting and studying for hours on end, but rather spending 15-30 minutes a day on practicing a test question. The best test prep accounts for the fact that we as humans have to learn something, forget it, then relearn it in order for us to retain the information.

“Motivating a teenager to be consistent in his or her test preparation is tough,” she continues, “but I recommend if you can’t convince your student to put in that much dedication, he or she needs to be at least familiar with the testing format (they are very different) of each test and understand general testing taking strategies.”

Whether your student ultimately choices the SAT or ACT, and favors studying online through the free College Board’s Khan Academy partnership or ACT’s practice or you go ahead and hire a tutor, Kounlavong-Sabath has some final words of advice: “Four years of consistent academic performance trumps a four-hour test.”

Stephanie Giese is a freelance writer who lives in York with her husband, Eddie, and their three children. More of her work can be seen on her website,


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