Frequently Asked Questions
What is the new SAT and when was it put into effect?
The College Board, the organization that makes the SAT, decided to come out with a new SAT that launched in March of 2016. Most of the material on the old SAT is found on the new one, but there are also some significant differences:
The new SAT uses the scoring system The College Board used prior to 2005. The test is scored out of a 1600 and only has two sections – one for math and one for verbal skills. These two sections are each scored out of an 800.
There is an optional essay, which does not factor into the score a student earns on the verbal section. For this essay, students have 50 minutes, an amount of time that is twice as much as what students used to have.
Unlike the old SAT, the new one does not have any guessing penalty for selecting an incorrect answer
The new SAT is three hours long, 45 minutes shorter than the old test. However, this duration of three hours doesn’t include the 50 minutes students have for the essay.
The test asks about vocabulary words that mirror what are found in college and professional settings. No more looking at a question and wondering the meanings of words like “treacly,” “picayune,” and “munificent.” In contrast, there is an emphasis on identifying how words with multiple meanings are used within specific contexts.
The new SAT largely focuses on algebra and data analysis while presenting far fewer geometry questions than what used to be found on the test. Students are not allowed to use a calculator for about a third of the math questions.
There are fewer sections, but they are longer relative to what was found on the old SAT.
Bottom line: The College Board has redesigned the SAT in such a way that it is a lot like the ACT.
What are the important, basic facts about the ACT?
The ACT is scored out of a 36 and mostly consists of four multiple-choice sections, which pertain to English, math, reading, and scientific reasoning. The ACT also has a 40-minute essay which the maker of the ACT doesn’t require but which most selective colleges require from their applicants.
It’s important to note that the “scientific reasoning” section is almost entirely about reasoning and very little to do with science.
In terms of scoring, a student can earn a maximum of a 36 for each multiple-choice section, and a student’s four multiple-choice scores are averaged into what’s known as a composite score. Unlike what is the case with the SAT, colleges often put more of an emphasis on a student’s overall score for the ACT than they do on the individual scores.
How important are the SAT and ACT in terms of applying to college?
These tests are very important. Colleges place a big emphasis on the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings. These rankings take into account the median SAT scores for math and reading, as well as the median ACT composite scores, of the students making up schools’ incoming freshman classes. “Median scores” refer to scores within the 25th to 75th percentile of students who are accepted, and selective colleges usually don’t accept a student whose SAT or ACT scores fall below the 25th percentile. That means students, under most circumstances, need to score above a college’s 25th percentile for the SAT or ACT to have even some shot of getting into that school and should aim to score above the 75th percentile in order to help maximize the chances of getting in.
Do colleges view the SAT and ACT in equal lights?
Absolutely. Contrary to what many people assume, the ACT is not an alternative test for students who don’t feel comfortable taking the SAT. Neither test is objectively harder than the other. Some students do much better on one; some do much better on the other.
You can always take an SAT score and find its equivalent on the ACT, or vice versa. If you’re interested in doing so, you can look at these conversion tables:
How do I decide which test to prepare for?
Hands down the best way to figure out which test to get ready for is to not only take a full-length practice test for both the SAT and ACT, but also to make sure those tests were actual exams recently given by the actual test-makers. Doing so will give you the most accurate sense of where you stand. As part of that process, you should make sure to take each test in one sitting. Also, do yourself the favor of taking your practice tests under the same circumstances. If you take a full-length practice SAT after playing a championship lacrosse game that you woke up at six a.m. for and then take a full-length practice ACT the following weekend after a beautiful night’s rest, you’re not going to get a clear measure of which test you’re better suited for. Instead, take one test on a weekend morning after getting a good night’s sleep, and, then, do the same thing for the other test the following weekend. Finally, be sure that you’re taking the tests under test-day circumstances. Get up, eat a good breakfast, and take the practice-test in one sitting in a quiet room at home.
When should I take the SAT or ACT?
This is a very important question. The answer depends on who you are and the point at which you are in high school.
If you’re in your freshman year: Don’t take either test unless you’re a super high-flyer. The math on the SAT goes up until 9th grade math, so in all likelihood you’re still learning math you’ll need to know for the SAT. The math on the ACT includes all the concepts on the math for the SAT and some other ones, including some related to trigonometry. As far as vocabulary, the vast majority of high school freshmen haven’t learned enough vocabulary words to do really well on the sentence completions for the SAT. Furthermore, freshman year of high school is a huge transition for most teenagers. Given they have to make big adjustments on various levels, they’re usually not in a frame of mind that’s conducive to getting ready for a test that helps determine where they’ll go to college. It’s almost always better to wait, get acclimated to high school, and then focus on getting ready for the SAT or ACT.
Sophomore year: Even though most students start preparing for the SAT or ACT during their junior year, there’s much to be said for many students doing most of their preparation for the SAT or ACT over the summer after their freshman year and then taking it at the beginning of their sophomore year. There are four big reasons why:
As long as you have time in your schedule and are willing to focus, the summer is an ideal time to study for one of these tests. There’s no weekly homework from school to take care of, so assuming you’re not at sleep-away camp or exhausted from a full-time job, you’ll have circumstances that lend themselves to getting ready.
With a summer to study, you can easily know all the material for the SAT or ACT by the beginning of your sophomore year.
Junior year is not an ideal time to study for the SAT or ACT. It’s the school year with the most pressure, because colleges put the biggest emphasis grade-wise on how students perform their junior year. It also tends to be the school year in high school for which students get the most work.
If you get the score you want during your sophomore year, you’ll have a much less stressful junior year than you would otherwise.
Junior year: If you can’t take the SAT or ACT as a sophomore, I recommend you start preparing the summer before your junior year as long as you have the time and energy needed to do so. If not, then as soon as your schedule allows.
Here’s another important factor to keep in mind:
AP Exams are only offered in May, which means if you’re taking even one AP exam in a particular school year, you should do everything you can to arrange your schedule so that you don't take the SAT or ACT for the first time in May.
When and how do I sign up?
Once you’ve decided on a test date, you should register as far in advance as possible to maximize your chance of getting to choose your preferred test site. Ideally, you live close to your high school and will get to take it there. If your high school is far away or isn’t available, select the closest site possible and make sure you’re familiar with the location before test-day, even if that means going over to the location well before the day of the test in order to make sure you know the lay-of-the-land. The last thing you want is to get lost the morning of the test, so do yourself a big favor and make sure you’re familiar ahead-of-time with where you’re going.
To sign up for the SAT online
Go to the College Board Website at http://sat.collegeboard.com/register/
Click on “Register” towards the top right of the page
If you haven’t created a College Board account, you’ll need to create one.
Pay $52.50 (they are fee waivers for families who qualify)
Receive your confirmation
To sign up for the ACT online
Go to the ACT website at http://www.actstudent.org/regist/
Click on “Online Registration” in the middle of the page
Create an ACT Account if you haven’t already
Pay $54.50 if you want to take the essay or $38 if you don’t
What’s the process for getting extra time?
The College Board provides three types of accommodation for students who qualify for extra time. Some students receive what’s known as time-and-a-half (50% extra time), some receive double-time (100% extra time), while some, under very rare circumstances, receive 150% extra time. It is important to note that The College Board allocates extra time per section rather than allow students with accommodations to determine how long they’ll spend on each section (this stands in contrast to the policy of the maker of the ACT). Additionally, The College Board allows, under certain circumstances, extra and extended breaks, taking the SAT on a computer, as well as accommodations for students who have trouble seeing and hearing. All families seeking accommodations need to get approval from the College Board. A family tends to have a smoother process if it seeks an accommodation through a coordinator at its child’s school. The best way to go about this task is to have the school’s coordinator send an online request to The College Board’s program called Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). The coordinator should go to this website to submit the request: https://www.collegeboard.org/students-with-disabilities/ssd-online.
The approval process takes about seven weeks, and all families seeking accommodations need to provide a significant amount of documentation in order to receive approval. To learn more about what documentation is needed you can go, here: https://www.collegeboard.org/students-with-disabilities/documentation-guidelines/disability-documentation
The accommodations that the ACT offers in terms of extended time are somewhat different than the ones offered by the SAT. Like the SAT, the ACT provides 50% extra time to some students while offering additional extra time to other students. However, the ACT also allows students who qualify for extra time to determine how much time they’ll spend on each section of the test. As far as submitting a request for 50% extra time, a family and a school official must fill out and present a form that can be found, here: http://www.act.org/aap/pdf/ExtendedTimeNational.pdf. Families applying for additional extra time need to fill out this form: http://www.act.org/aap/pdf/SpecialTestingRequestForm.pdf.
How long will it take to get my scores back?
The College Board typically sends out online score reports two-and-a-half weeks after a given test, while the makers of the ACT typically send out online score reports ten days after a test was given.
How many times should I take the test?
Most of my students take their respective test twice and benefit from doing so. What often happens is they’ll take their test the first time and become really relieved when they see that they’ve improved by hundreds of points (or in the case of the ACT, the equivalent of hundreds of points) since the time we started working together. Given that they’re already pleased with the scores they have on the board, they go into the test the second time feeling very relaxed and even more confident than were before. Add in some additional studying and students almost always continue to go up when they take the test a second time.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “But isn’t it more impressive to do really well having only taken the test once?” There are two important things to keep in mind, here. First, no matter how well you do the first time, there’s a very good chance you’ll do even better the second time around. Second – and just as importantly – the vast majority of colleges do not require you to send all your scores. You could, theoretically, get a 1600 the first time you take the SAT, a 2300 the second time, and then apply to Harvard with only a mention of the 2300. Most students don’t have anything to lose by taking the test more than once.
There is a handful of schools, however, that requires applicants to send all their scores. This handful includes Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, University of California schools, Rice, Stanford, and Yale.
What is super-scoring?
Super-scoring refers to taking a student’s best score from each section of a test after he or she has taken the test more than once and adding together those best scores. Many, if not most colleges, allow you to send them only your super-score for the SAT after taking the SAT multiple times, while a smaller, yet still significant number of colleges allow you to only send your super-score for the ACT after taking that test more than once.