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Which to Pick: SAT, ACT, or Test-Optional?

In the ever-changing college admissions landscape, knowing what standardized test to take, if any, can be difficult. More than 1,800 colleges and universities went test-optional for the 2021-2022 college admissions cycle. The UC System, along with almost 200 other colleges, has decided to go permanently test-blind or test-optional. Other colleges, such as MIT, have reverted to being test-required.

For students that are looking to apply to colleges that accept standardized test scores, a “good” score on the SAT or ACT can add another dimension to their application. Both the SAT and ACT are of relatively equal difficulty and serve as a demonstration of a student’s “college-readiness”.

But which test should you take, if you take one at all? The SAT and ACT vary from each other in terms of content, structure, and timing. Some students will be better suited to one test over the other.

In recent years, it has become popular to take both tests and compare them. From there, students will either choose to focus on the test they scored better on, the one they preferred taking, or will choose to persist with both and split preparation time between the two tests. While not bad ideas, there are ways to make test prep more efficient and effective.

The fact is that, over time, most students will score comparatively better on one test than the other. Honing in on one that best suits a student early will allow a student more time to specialize. With college applications ballooning -- highly selective colleges saw a 25% increase in applications since 2019–20 -- and admissions getting more competitive, that extra specialized preparation time can lead to small score increases that make big differences. So instead of hoping that 6 hours of ACT + SAT testing will yield an accurate, unexhausted decision, more families are using a student's cognitive profile to determine which test is better aligned with their strengths.

For example, the ACT can be considered the “faster-paced” of the two tests. On average, you get 50.5 seconds per question on the ACT as opposed to the 70 seconds you get on the SAT. As such, students found to have faster processing speeds and visual-motor speeds are often better suited for the ACT. Additionally, students with good spatial perception will have an advantage on the ACT due to its heavy inclusion of charts and graphs in its science section.

On the other hand, students with strong cognitive flexibility and verbal reasoning should consider the SAT. Though it has fewer questions, the difficulty of the SAT reading comprehension section is greater than that of the ACT. This makes students with firm reasoning and language skills a good fit for the SAT.

The question of test-optionality can also be influenced by cognitive profiles. Each profile provides predictive score analytics for both tests. If the highest predicted score a student has does not meet the score ranges of the colleges they are applying to, that could be a good indicator to forgo testing and focus on other elements of their application. Having a student do 8 months of test prep only to go test-optional is an inefficient use of time and money that can be avoided by making the test-optional decision earlier.

Though standardized testing can be stressful, it remains an important part of college admissions. Neurocognitive evaluations can help simplify the process by clarifying how to proceed with testing and give you the leg-up you need to put your best foot forward in your application.

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