For the college-bound unschooler, one single Saturday morning dominates the calendar: test day. Many of us harbor unhappy memories of standardized tests and stark, quiet classrooms; others have never filled in the dreaded bubbles. Is taking the SAT really the beast that teachers and friends made it out to be?
Whether or not you take a standardized test like the SAT or ACT is a serious question, but don’t give it more weight than it’s due. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists over 800 colleges and universities that don’t require either test for admittance—if you’ve been taking community college courses, you might even be able to transfer in.
Today, colleges often consider one of two tests as a big part of your application package: the SAT and the ACT. Which test you take doesn’t matter as long as your scores accurately show your skill. Take a practice test or two and, based on your score, decide whether the pros of testing outweigh the cons. If your scores get increasingly better with study and are in the 60+ percentile range, taking that Saturday morning exam is probably a good idea. Otherwise, skip it and focus on your transcript.
But which to register for? Let’s compare the tests, starting with the dreaded SAT. The SAT is primarily a reasoning test, throwing you tricky word problems and complex reading passages. An analysis essay is also required. If you’re good at reasoning, writing, and logic, the SAT is probably the best option for you.
The ACT, unlike the SAT, attempts to test breadth of learning by checking your familiarity with scientific data, shortening the time for answering questions, and requiring advanced mathematics skills. There are two major differences in the way the tests are set up: the ACT essay is optional, not mandatory, and the required portion includes an additional section, the Science Reasoning section.
If, after study and practice, both the SAT and the ACT rub you wrong, remember that the third option remains open. Although going test-free may complicate applications for prestigious schools or scholarships, the importance of standardized testing decreases every year. Theological seminaries and art schools are the most common test-optional schools, but some big names are beginning to realize how one-sided and overly competitive the standard entrance tests are. Bard, Holy Cross, DePaul, Ithica, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Texas at Austin are all among the schools across the country that welcome applications regardless of test scores. Every year the options grow.
Which test you take (or whether you test at all) is entirely dependent on what you feel comfortable with. I have a strong background in logic and english but am about average on mathematics, so I prefer the SAT. Someone who has pursued advanced math and science may perform better on the ACT. Collegeapps.about.com has helpful guidelines for how the tests differ, as does the Princeton Review and NPR. If you do choose to take a standardized entrance exam, remember that with a little studying you’ll be more prepared many other applicants. Study hard, grit your teeth, and remember that a score of 1300 will not destroy your college career any more than a 2300 will fill your pockets for life.