Some students may be questioning whether they need to take standardized tests, given that “test optional” has become more widespread during the last few years. Be aware that test optional does NOT mean test blind, where scores are not recognized or viewed during the admissions evaluation process. For example, California public universities have moved to test blind; all applicants are evaluated using all criteria EXCEPT test scores. This is NOT the case for test optional schools, where students are evaluated based on ALL criteria submitted, including test scores if sent. Those test scores, meanwhile, can be an important differentiator in the application process.

Just look at the data: many test optional schools report higher admission rates for students who submit test scores than the non-submitters. Data also reveals that the average GPA for students who choose not to submit their scores is higher. Without an ACT or SAT score to review, admissions officers must place more weight on other aspects of the application. 

As such, standardized test scores remain an important factor, and perhaps a critical component, in the admissions decision process. In addition to offering insight into a student’s academic preparedness (or perhaps making a student more competitive), a strong SAT or ACT score may also create the opportunity to earn merit scholarship money. If deciding to go “test optional” may sound like a great option – because you don’t have to test or do test prep – be advised that this should only be used as a safety net or last resort if a student cannot produce a viable score for submission. Also, know that many schools, including state universities in Florida, still require a test score as part of the application process. 

How do you decide which standardized test to take? There are multiple factors to help you decide, and here are a few of the similarities and differences between these two tests.

  • Both tests are accepted by all colleges, and there is no preference or advantage to submitting one test over the other. ACT or SAT – submit the stronger score (a Concordance Chart compares the SAT 400-1600 score to the ACT 1-36 score)
  • Both tests are offered seven times each year, so there are many opportunities for students to test.
  • Both tests have multiple sections, several of which are broken into multiple passages.
  • Both tests do not penalize for incorrect answers. It’s always in your best interest to guess.
  • Both tests offer accommodations for students with disabilities or diagnosed learning issues – most common are extended time and extra or extended breaks (must be applied for and approved by testing agency) 


  • The sections are in a different order. 
    • ACT – English, Math, Reading, and Science in that order
    • SAT – Reading, Writing and Language (almost identical to ACT English), Math without calculator, and Math with calculator in that order
  • Math – The ACT Math section consists of 60 multiple choice questions. The SAT has two sections of math, one with no calculator and another with a calculator. The SAT also has 13 “free response” questions, with no multiple-choice options. 
  • The ACT has a Science section, which is really more of a reading comprehension and data/graph interpretation exercise rather than a test on science concepts. The SAT does NOT have a dedicated science section but does have 4-6 charts, graphs, or diagrams within the Reading and Writing and Language sections that vaguely resemble ACT Science questions. 
  • The timing on the ACT is less generous. For example, the ACT Reading test is only 35 minutes for 40 questions, while the SAT is 65 minutes for 52 questions. The level of difficulty, however, is often perceived as “easier” or more straightforward on the ACT, but students have to hustle through the passages!

When should students test and which one should they take?
Much of the decision on when to test will depend on a student’s math level. Completing Algebra 2 is optimal, and having some Trigonometry or Pre-Calculus is helpful, particularly for the ACT. Factors such as a student’s involvement in athletics, academic competitions, theater or other time-consuming extracurriculars may dictate when to test. You want your student to have adequate time to prepare – practice and prepping with a seasoned tutor can make a huge difference in the scores. Students who are occupied with other activities may be better off testing at certain times of the year, when their focus and efforts can be maximized. Some students will test during the fall or winter of their junior year, while others would benefit from waiting until mid to late spring of that year. Again, both tests are offered seven times each year, and there is no advantage to testing too early. 
There are also numerous factors to help determine which test to begin to focus on. Taking baseline tests can offer valuable guidance, meaning that a student can take a full practice ACT and SAT (or PSAT) and then we will compare scores. When recommending ACT vs SAT, we consider subscores, time management, and perceived potential for score improvement based on academic success and grades. A student’s baseline test answer sheet may even provide insight into which test may be better – sometimes strengths and weaknesses are apparent to a trained professional when reviewing the bubbled-in and scoring patterns.
How can students get their best scores? Usually test scores and confidence improve over time, so practice, practice, practice. Often, students will prep for 2-3 months prior to their scheduled ACT or SAT. For students engaged in structured test prep with a tutor, their consistent completion of homework assignments can lead to a greater feeling of comfort and familiarity, with test questions often seeming predictable (it’s exciting when a student remarks, “I knew that type of question would appear on the test!”) It’s recommended that students also take full proctored practice tests after a certain number of tutoring sessions, or at least timed sections. This can give a more accurate measure of a student’s progress and potentially a better representation of their scores beyond tutoring sessions and homework practice. Also, the simulated testing experience, with its built-in marathon of 3+ hours, will hopefully help alleviate some of the stress or anxiety that testing may create.   
Bottom line: Find the test that’s right for you/your student, commit to a test prep plan, and the results will follow!

Laura Clarkson, Milestone College Advisor