Capstone College and Career Advising

Deciphering the ACT/SAT/PSAT maze

February 4th, 2014 by

SAT, ACT, PSAT – nothing strikes fear in the heart of a college-bound high school student like those letters. Even the very best and brightest students may get stressed about these college admission tests, because they fear that low test scores may doom their chances of getting into the school of their dreams.

First, this isn’t true. Although test scores are certainly an important component of the college admissions process, good grades, a strong essay, and a well-rounded extracurricular life can help make up for scores that are lower than you’d hoped.

Second, all college admissions tests are not the same. Each is structured a little differently, so you may do better on one or the other. (Luckily, most colleges accept either the SAT OR the ACT.) You really should start looking into these tests long before senior year, so you can create a plan for prepping for and taking them.

ACT: The ACT is designed to test what you’ve actually learned in school. Test questions tend to be straightforward and easier to understand, but they also test more advanced math concepts, including trigonometry. The test also includes longer reading passages. There are no deductions for wrong answers, so if you’re good at “educated guessing” you may do better on the ACT. The ACT has four more test dates scheduled this school year; the next one is December 14.

SAT: The SAT, by contrast, is designed as an aptitude test; the questions test your critical thinking and verbal abilities, not necessarily specific facts. Unlike the ACT, wrong answers are penalized, so it’s often better to skip questions rather than make an educated guess; some students find this stressful. However, there’s no science section, and the math section is not quite as advanced as the ACT. There are five more SAT tests scheduled this school year, with the next one coming up December 7.

PSAT: This is the baby sibling of the SAT. Given just once each year in October, it’s often dismissed as simply a practice test taken by high school juniors, because the resulting scores are not typically considered by college admissions offices. However, it’s valuable practice. Your resulting score will tell you if you’re ready to take the SAT, or whether you need a test-prep course and more practice tests before sitting for the real thing.

Also, PSAT scores are used to identify students for the National Merit scholarship awards. Even if you don’t win one of these awards, many corporate and university scholarship base their awards at least partly on your PSAT scores. Skipping this test could cost you some cold, hardcash.