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College Admissions Testing: Common Questions Answered

Testing used in the college admissions process (the SAT and ACT) has always been a hot topic, more so now with an increasing number of colleges making test-optional policies. In an effort to shed light on this credential, we have put together a list of common questions and answers related to standardized testing.

Q: Are there major differences between the two tests? Do colleges prefer one over the other?

A: The major differences between the SAT and ACT center around timing and content. The Princeton Review maps this out in an easy-to-read graphic. Colleges who consider standardized testing in their admission process do not have a preference for either exam, nor do they expect students to sit for both.

Q: Tell me about practice testing. What opportunities and resources are available? Do you recommend preparing ahead of time?

A: There are three main types of preparation:

·         Official Practice Tests: The two official practice exams are the PreACT and the PSAT. At Saint Mary’s, sophomores take the PreACT and juniors take the PSAT in October. Both are administered by the parent companies of the exams. Scores from these exams are not shared with colleges. However, the PSAT is used as an official entry point into the National Merit Scholarship Competition (NMSC). More information about the NMSC is available here.

·         Unofficial Practice Tests: A wide variety of unofficial practice exams is available. Because timing is one of the most challenging parts of the exams, we recommend that students choose a timed practice exam. Using unofficial practice tests is not required, but some students may find them helpful. For example, juniors who don’t remember their PreACT well may want to take a timed practice ACT before deciding on which of the two exams to focus their efforts on.

·         Preparation: Since the main purpose of practice testing is the practice itself, it is not necessary to prepare ahead of time. It is also important to remember that Saint Mary’s classes provide students with the knowledge needed to perform well on these exams.

Q: When should students sit for their first official SAT or ACT exam? How can students figure out which of the two tests to take? Should they take a specific test preparation class? Are there any you recommend?

A: We recommend that students take their first official SAT or ACT test in March of their junior year. This gives them time to get scores back and make plans to retake the test before many of the early application deadlines, should they desire to do so. Students interested in being recruited for a sport should check in with their assigned college counselor, as recruitment may shift the testing timeline a bit.

Test preparation services come at a variety of price points and levels of time commitment. Before signing on, students and parents should be clear on what is involved. College Counseling maintains a list of trusted resources on our website. The most effective time to prepare is one to two months before sitting for the official test.

Q: Please explain the terms “test optional,” “test flexible,” and “test free.” Where can I find the most current information on testing policies at colleges and universities?

A: Let’s start with definitions and examples of the different policies:

·         Test Optional: Students are given the choice whether or not to submit test scores. In making this decision, we recommend students compare their scores to the published ranges on college websites. Here is an example from the University of Vermont (scroll down to the Admitted student profile). There are now more than 1,700 colleges that are test optional for students entering college in the fall of 2023.  

·         Test Blind/Test Free: Even if students submit test scores, colleges will not consider them as part of the admission process. Popular examples include the University of California and California State University systems.

·         Test Flexible: Colleges that are test flexible are usually also test optional. Basically, this means that if a student wants to submit scores but feels like an AP score represents them better, they can submit that instead. The University of Michigan and University of Rochester are two well-known test-flexible colleges.

For students entering college in the fall of 2023, the fairtest website is a reliable and reputable resource. Colleges that use various iterations of test optional, test free, or test flexible usually announce their policies for the next class (those entering in the fall of 2024) in the Spring.

Q: The various forms of “test-optional” feel like a trap. Are colleges really serious about it? Can we trust it?

A: Colleges who continue to adopt test-optional, test-blind, or test-flexible policies have made those decisions based on carefully mined data and MANY meetings over many years. While the majority of test-optional policies were introduced as a result of COVID lockdown, colleges and universities have been discussing them for years.

Colleges want students and families to have the correct information, and trust is an essential component of the relationship between college admission officers and high school counselors. So when a college says “test optional” or “test blind,” they mean it.

Q: Are there any trends and changes related to testing you have heard about? What is your take on them?

A: We’ve noticed two major trends:

·         Test-optional policies will continue. We anticipate that colleges that adopted test-optional or test-blind policies as a result of the pandemic will continue to use them. Our colleagues at colleges tell us that many of the colleges that went test-optional, blind, or flexible learned that they could still make admission decisions they felt were in the best interest of students and their institutions.

·         The SAT is going digital. Beginning in 2024, the SAT will be administered on a digital platform at a school-based site. It is unclear whether sites in the Portland area will transition to this fully-electronic method of testing as soon as it is offered. Early notes about this new version point to a shorter test (2 hours and 14 minutes compared to 3 hours currently). Scoring will remain the same, with a maximum score of 1600, or 800 in each section. The new digital version enables the College Board to offer each student a unique test and the use of adaptive questioning. In addition, the digital version is more easily scored, so results are anticipated within days as opposed to weeks. Our office is working to gain a better understanding of the digital SAT and will pass along our notes once things are clearer.

Submitted by Karlen Suga