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SAT or ACT? Test Preparation Advice for College Bound Students

August 7, 2010

Standardized Test Answer SheetTo SAT or ACT:  that is the question for many college-bound high school students: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of College Board multiple choice questions or to take arms against a sea of American College Testing assessments and by opposing pass them?

Ok, perhaps that isn’t quite what Shakespeare had in mind, but the SAT / ACT standardized tests play an influential role in college admissions success.  Parents and students alike lose sleep over these evaluation tools used by colleges and universities across the country.  The goal of this article is to provide practical advice for parents and students and covers the following topics:

Before answering the SAT or ACT question, you need to decide whether or not you need to take either test.  Depending on where you plan to attend college the answer might be neither (a sampling of local and national college requirements are shown below). recommends, however, that you keep your options open by taking either the SAT or ACT, and to prepare for those tests by taking the PSAT and PLAN (the pre-tests for the SAT and ACT respectively).  The most competitive colleges typically require additional testings (the SAT Subject Tests or the ACT writing component).  It’s important to know where you intend to apply – and what those colleges require. SAT and/or ACT results can also play an important role in merit scholarship awards – doing well on your SAT / ACT might be the difference between attending the college of your choice or falling back on an alternate.


Local and National Colleges SAT or ACT Required?
St. Mary’s College of California Yes (ACT with writing optional)
University of California – Berkeley Yes (+ SAT Subjects Tests or ACT with writing)
Stanford University Yes (ACT with writing)
San Francisco State University Yes if GPA <3.0
Santa Clara University Yes (ACT with writing optional)
California College of the Arts Recommended
Mills College Yes (SAT Subject Tests rec., ACT writing opt.)
California Institute of Technology Yes (SAT Subject Tests; ACT writing optional)
California Institute of the Arts No (talent-based criteria)
Pepperdine University Yes (ACT with writing)
Thomas Aquinas College Yes (ACT with writing optional)
University of California (UC) – Davis Yes (+ SAT Subjects Tests or ACT with writing)
Harvard University Yes (+ SAT Subjects Tests or ACT with writing)
Yale University Yes (+ SAT Subjects Tests or ACT with writing)
MIT Yes (+ SAT Subjects Tests or ACT with writing)

St. Mary’s College of California Sr. Associate Director of Admissions Gina Meneni advised in a interview that students take both the PSAT and PLAN pre-tests in their sophomore  year to assess which test better suits them.

To all incoming sophomores – set aside time to prepare for the SAT and ACT preparation tests: the PSAT (Preliminary SAT) and PLAN (pre-ACT).  Preparing for and taking these tests offers you an opportunity to gauge where you stand before taking the actual tests in your junior year.  Preparing for these tests will also give you a head start on preparation for the SAT and ACT because the pre-tests are similar in format.  The PSAT also makes you eligible to win a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship award. recommends preparing for standardized tests start at least 8 weeks prior to the test – ideally more.  Cramming is not an effective path to a higher score – doing well on standardized tests is as much about familiarity with the test structure, effective time management and “muscle memory” as it is about knowledge and facts.

PSAT / PLAN Test Preparation for Sophomores

  • Important PSAT dates / deadlines and fee information for 2011 are available here.
  • The PLAN is typically administered in the late Fall / early winter (dates not available at the time of this writing – contact Dublin High School Counseling for details)

Prior year actual PSAT tests are available for purchase for $3 each (click here) or you can start right away online (click here).  Sample questions for the PLAN are available here.  Las Positas College offers an excellent 3-hour PSAT prep course for $49 – more details available here.

There are numerous courses, private tutoring, online tests and books available for all standardized tests (entire aisles of book stores are dedicated to the topic).

Just like the PSAT / PLAN, the best way to prepare for the SAT / ACT is to practice.  The best way to practice is with actual tests from prior years (10 actual SAT tests from prior years are available here and 3 prior year actual ACT tests are available here).  There is also an inexpensive ACT Online Prep course available from ACT (read more…). Practice taking the test under the same conditions of the actual test (that means in one sitting, timed and at the same time of day of the actual test).  Because time plays such an important role in most standardized tests it is important to gauge progress in taking the test quickly – having time left over to check your answers vs. running out of time.  Establish a baseline by taking an actual prior test end-to-end – emphasize in particular areas of weakness or where you ran out of time.  Then take multiple actual tests end-to-end leading up to the official test date.

SAT / ACT Test Preparation for Juniors

If you can afford an SAT or ACT prep course that’s also a good idea.  Prep courses can be helpful because doing well on multiple choice standardized tests is a skill involving time management and taking advantage of the test format (example: it’s easy to forget that in multiple choice tests the answer is always right in front of you, on the page).  Las Positas College also offers an SAT prep course (details available here).  Ames Seminars offers a PSAT Prep Seminar at Dublin High School. There are numerous other options available and, like the PSAT / ACT, aisles of books promising higher test scores. There are even online SAT prep courses such as that offered by Knewton (a provider of online courses).

For the 2011-12 school year Dublin High has selected Revolution for SAT prep (parents of Dublin High students should have received information earlier this summer). SAT prep classes are being offered on the DHS campus starting August 20 (for the October 1 SAT – enroll here) and September 24 (for the November 5 SAT – enroll here). A practice SAT exam session is included.

The best motivation to do well on these tests is to avoid having to take the test again… but if you don’t do as well as you expect you can re-take the test multiple times.

And if you have a philosophical problem with standardized tests in general – their value and effectiveness in evaluating students… well, that’s a debate that will likely continue long after you’ve graduated from college.  The reality for now – and for the forseeable future – is that the SAT and ACT are here to stay.

Additional resources:

  • An instructive article in the New York Times (available here) provides practical guidelines on how the SAT and ACT can be better suited for different types of students.
  • A summary of Dublin High School’s Academic Rankings, including the SAT and ACT results, is available here.
  • Visit’s College Primer for Parents for more college preparation information.
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