Frequently Asked Questions – SAT/ACT

After working with almost 7000 students, we’ve seen it all! In the process, we’ve collected valuable information that will hopefully simplify the process. Knowing information about the tests is almost as important as knowing information in the tests! So here are the questions we’re most often asked:


What is new about the SAT?

  • While still scored out of 1600, the SAT is now presented in a digital format.
  • The digital SAT is shorter than the old paper/pencil format, and it has four modules: two Reading/Writing modules and two math modules.
  • The test is adaptive, which means that the accuracy earned on the first Reading/Writing module determines which version of the second Reading/Writing module a student is given.  The better a student does on the first module, the harder the questions are on the second module.
  • The same occurs on the math section: the better a student does on the first module, the harder the questions are on the second module.


What is the ACT?

  • The ACT is an alternate to the SAT and is now accepted at all colleges and universities that accept the SAT. A perfect ACT score is a 36.
  • An average score is around a 21.
  • The test is about longer than the digital SAT, but the paper/pencil format may feel more familiar to students than the digital format of the new SAT!


How many times should my child take the test?

  • We recommend students take each test twice during high school—once in the spring of junior year and once in the fall of senior year.
  • Taking the March SAT/April ACT, followed by the August SAT/September ACT, allows students the opportunity to superscore sections, avoid taking these tests during finals at the end of junior year, and receive scores back in time for any early college application deadlines.  (Early deadlines are typically November 1.)
  • When planning your child’s actual test schedule, make sure to leave time for an “off” day, i.e., if your student doesn’t perform as well as expected, whether due to illness, distraction, or bad test environment, it’s important to have a backup test date. Though this will mean the student will end up taking the test three times, it ensures that a bad test day won’t have devastating effects.


What is the best way to study?

  • Some students prefer to learn on their own, either with paper and pencil or online practice. Another type of learner enjoys the camaraderie of a class setting, while still others prefer individual instruction.
  • In all learning environments, two things are crucial to student success. First, students should have a strong rapport with the teacher. Without this connection, studying for standardized tests becomes another chore. Second, students should use materials prepared by the company which makes the test, NOT the company offering the prep. This ensures students are practicing with actual test questions. It’s analogous to sports: soccer players will improve if practicing on a basketball court, but not as much as they would if practicing on a soccer field!
  • Remember, students who practice under test conditions will do better on test day than students who don’t. Similar to the example above, a soccer player who needs to play a 60-minute game would not benefit as much by scrimmaging for only 15 minutes, whereas playing in a 60-minute scrimmage would be VERY helpful!


How much will my child’s score improve?

  • Depends on who you ask and where their starting point is!
  • Some companies issue a practice test, and then judge improvement based on that score as the starting point. This method allows companies to market score increases of 300+ points. But if the practice test they offer is not made by the maker of the test, it’s not a valid comparison.
  • The most objective way to judge SAT progress is to compare an actual PSAT or SAT test score (before prepping) to an actual test score (after prepping). Though the ACT offers a pre-test, known as PLAN, most schools are not yet offering it. Students would have to take an actual ACT prior to prepping to judge progress accurately.
  • Nothing can replicate the stress related to sitting in a big room with hundreds of other test takers, so it’s important to use genuine test scores for comparison. Nationwide, most students only go up 30 points on the SAT and 1 point on the ACT. If a more-than-average increase is needed, then so is more-than-average studying!


If my child takes a test more than once, how will colleges decide which score to use?

  • Remember, colleges want to look good when ranked by third parties, such as magazines or websites. It is to their advantage to use your child’s best scores.
  • For the SAT, most colleges combine a student’s best score from each subject, even if the best score for each subject occurred on different dates. For instance, if a student scored highest in math during the spring and highest in reading/writing during the fall, most colleges would combine those three scores when evaluating a student’s application. So even if colleges can “see” all test scores, they will usually use the best and not the rest!
  • The ACT is now allowing students to superscore test dates, and this superscore is now included on score reports from ACT.  While in prior years colleges did not superscore the ACT, the majority of schools now accept an ACT superscore.


Can the SAT and/or ACT offset low grades?

  • NO!  GPA and course rigor are the most important factors in an application.
  • AFTER those two factors, test scores are typically the next biggest factor.
  • Optional scoring has made the precise impact of scores difficult to determine, but based on the acceptance rates of the students we’ve taught, submitting scores seems to provide a great benefit to the application.


How do I know which test is best for me?

  • Compare your percentile score from each. (In other words, you have to take BOTH to know.)


Why take March SAT and April ACT?

Lots of reasons!

  • By waiting until March, it gives you seven extra months of math, vocabulary, and literature.
  • By completing the first round of testing from both the SAT and the ACT, students steer clear of AP exams, finals, and SOL’s.

Obviously, there are a lot of things you need to know to successfully guide your child. If you’re confused, that’s good news…you have now officially completed step one of the standardized testing process! Having completed the most difficult step (the first one), you’re well on your way to success. You CAN get through northern Virginia’s test prep frenzy without losing your mind! More questions? Contact us.