No one wants to sit in a classroom for four hours on a Saturday to take a standardized test. Unfortunately, as a high school student, you’ll probably have to do it at least once. While some colleges are going completely test-optional—meaning that you can submit SAT or ACT scores if you want to, but it won’t affect your application adversely if you don’t—most colleges and universities are still requiring that students submit their scores from either the SAT or the ACT. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to skip the writing section.
So we agree that taking the SAT or ACT is about on par with going to the dentist for a filling when it comes to the amount of fun you’re going to have. (Is it terrible that I think I’d rather get a filling? At least they’re over pretty quickly.) But it’s important for you to understand the good that will come from taking the SAT or ACT the first time before you develop a complete mental block. There are beneficial things that can come from taking either test, and they’ll almost certainly help you in the future.
Here’s some full disclosure. I never took the ACT, but I took the SAT twice. I’d ostensibly been “studying” with the help of an SAT prep book, but I wasn’t taking it very seriously because I found the process boring and I thought I was too smart to have to study. Probably as a result of my lack of preparation, the first time I took the SAT, I bombed it. My mom gave me this withering look and said something about how I’d better revise my college list, then she signed me up for a prep class after school. When I took the SAT for the second time, my scores rose. A miracle! I edited my college list again.
While I recommend studying before you take the SAT or ACT for the first time, whether from flashcards, a book, or a prep class, there are still some things that you won’t be able learn until you actually sit down and take the test. Here’s two of those lessons:
1. Your scores will help you decide on match, safety, and reach schools. While your SAT or ACT scores aren’t everything when it comes to your college application (you’re more than your scores!), they do play a role in whether you’ll be a competitive applicant at a particular school. Typically, you should plan to apply to three different types of schools:
- A match school is one where your GPA and test scores fall within the average range for admitted students.
- A safety school is one where your GPA and test scores put you at the top of the pack or even above the average range for admitted students entirely.
- A reach school is one where your GPA and test scores are on the low end of the range for admitted students.
Depending on your SAT or ACT scores, you may want to adjust your college list, adding schools that you previously thought might be unattainable, or switching your safety school to one where you have a higher chance of acceptance. If you have time, you can also elect to take the test again; typically people do better the second time around.
Remember, your college list isn’t set in stone until you run out of time to complete the applications. If you schedule your first sitting of the SAT or ACT early (think early in the spring semester of your junior year), you’ll have plenty of time to take the test again in the late spring and/or early fall before you need to be 100% set on your college choices. Your list may shift each time you get your scores back, and that’s okay. You want to go to a school where you’re not the smartest one in the room, but not the one most likely to fall behind, either. Take your time and use all of the information at your disposal to find the right match. Than, apply away!
2. Your scores will help you determine what to study next. When you get back your score report, you’ll see that you have an individual score for each section of the test. You may find that you did really well in math, but that your English section wasn’t holding it’s own on the ACT, bringing your composite score down. Similarly, your math score may be low on the SAT, but your evidence-based reading and writing score much higher. Use this knowledge to your advantage and dedicate your time accordingly.
If one score lags way behind the others and you know you want to take the test again, spend the majority of your time studying up on that material. Don’t neglect the other sections entirely, though. While some schools do accept “superscores” and combine the highest score you received in each section across multiple tests, you’ll be better off maintaining, or even improving, the scores you got in other sections. If one section goes up but the others go down, your studying won’t go very far to improving your overall score.
If you simply want to improve your composite score, but not one section in particular, you’ve got quite a lot of studying to do (unless you just had a bad test day). Split your time evenly between sections and try to study in a variety of ways (quizzing yourself, flashcards, online tutorials, etc.) to help your brain better retain the information and techniques you’re learning.