Standardized test scores from the ACT or SAT tests provide college admissions officers comparable, quantitative data when assessing a prospective applicant’s ability to succeed in college.  Test scores are just one of several factors taken into consideration, however. The student’s overall high school grade point average, along with her course selections are more heavily weighed, as they show performance over a longer period of time.  Although standardized testing continues to be controversial— and more  than 850 colleges have joined the growing trend to make test reporting optional,—planning  and preparing for these tests helps to maximize college options.

Since the ACT and SAT are accepted by virtually all four-year colleges in the United States, there is no need for students to prepare for both, yet the numbers of ambitious students taking both tests has risen over the years.   Although the SAT was established long before the ACT, and tends to be more popular on the East coast, last year, for the first time the number of students taking the ACT exceeded those taking the SAT.  One of the reasons for the increasing popularity of the ACT is the fact that twelve states, including Colorado, now pay for and require all high school juniors to take the ACT.

While the SAT tends to test aptitude and reasoning skills, the ACT is more of an achievement test,  that assesses knowledge of material learned in school.  Both tests take less than four hours, but students often find it challenging to complete the ACT in the given time.

One of the main differences between the two tests is that the ACT has a science section that tests the student’s ability to critically read graphs and research summaries; therefore, it does not test science knowledge.  There are score reductions  for guessing the wrong answer on the SAT, while there is no penalty for guessing incorrectly on the ACT.  Writing assessment is mandatory with the SAT, but optional with the ACT. The ACT has an Interest Inventory that helps students with interests and career options.

Practice tests for both the ACT and SAT are available in a variety of books, online, or through test prep providers. Students should plan ahead; it is ideal to start taking the official tests during the junior year.  They can take the test a few times if wanted and then choose which test scores to report to their colleges.  Although taking practice tests is one of the last things the typical teen would want to do, she’ll benefit by gaining familiarity with the layout, by practicing pacing, and by reviewing areas or concepts of weakness. This, in turn, will likely lead to greater self-confidence, less test anxiety, and improved scores and college choices.

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit www. launchphase2.com/ or call 720-340-8111 to learn more about coaching for college bound students, and success coaching for college students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit www.towardcollegesuccess.com to read excerpts and to follow her blog.