Taking standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are required for admission to most colleges, but can be a source of anxiety. This section contains guidance on whether the SAT or ACT is right for you, along with advice on how to relax about the testing process and perform well on these tests.
Happily, if you’re a Duke TIP participant, you have an advantage if you took the ACT or SAT as part of our 7th Grade Talent Search! While many of the students in the classroom may be nervous about taking the test for the first time, you know what to expect since you took it in middle school. So, don’t worry about having any first time jitters!
If you are taking the SAT, don’t miss this special blog by Duke TIP researcher Matt Makel. His blog is full of details about the SAT, as well as advice about above-level testing in general. Check it out!
Should you take the ACT or the SAT?
When it comes to testing, the first question to answer is: which test you should take? The ACT and the SAT are the two options available to most students, but which one is best for you?
Which test is for you? It depends. As a first step, you should figure out whether you’ll have to take one over the other. Some colleges will only accept a particular test. In general, though, most four-year schools accept both the ACT and the SAT. If that’s the case for the colleges you are applying to, or if you don’t know which colleges you’ll be applying to yet, then decide based on which test better matches your strengths. Here’s how:
- The tests are of equal length, but the SAT is divided into more sections, and you’ll move back and forth between content areas instead of doing all the math and then all the English, etc.
- The ACT includes questions on science and trigonometry, while the SAT doesn’t.
- Some experts believe the SAT is slanted toward students who are strong in the language arts and that the math sections are easier than those found on the ACT.
- The ACT does not test vocabulary, which may make it a better choice for students weaker in the language arts.
Both Kaplan and the Princeton Review have helpful guides for the differences between the tests, and the College Board (which administers the SAT) and the ACT both have detailed descriptions of their exams that will help. Use their information to pick the one that best fits your strengths and testing style.
Understanding the New SAT
Here are a few of the biggest changes that the College Board made to the SAT as of March 5, 2016:
- There will no longer be penalties for wrong answers.
- The essay will be optional.
- There will be no more sentence-completion questions.
- There will be four answer choices instead of five.
- The vocabulary words will focus on words you are likely to use regularly, instead of obscure terms. However, students will be tested on the context and different meanings of those words.
- Math questions will involve multi-step operations.
- The recent changes to the SAT mean that taking this test will require fundamental critical thinking and analysis skills, not last-minute cramming. Preparation will be key to doing well on the new SAT.
The College Board has a helpful, in-depth guide of all the changes that were made. The most important takeaway, though, is that the new SAT aims to better test what you’ve learned so far and what skills you’ll need to succeed in the future.
The best thing you can do to prepare for the test day is relax the night before.
Cramming is useless: these tests are designed to measure knowledge you have accumulated over years of schooling. Last minute studying only stresses you out for little or no gain. So play sports, enjoy a game night, go to a movie, or hang out with friends instead—whatever it takes to clear your head and take your mind off the test while leaving enough time for a good night’s sleep!
Before the Test
Here’s some more advice on how to prepare for test day:
- Get a good night’s sleep on the day before a test. Just be sure to set your alarm and have a backup alarm set just in case.
- Eat a healthy but light breakfast in the morning. You need energy, but a heavy breakfast may make you groggy. Make sure you have protein and slow energy release carbs. Avoid sugary foods because they can crash your energy in the middle of the test.
- Be sure you have everything you need before you leave home, including a calculator with good batteries (if allowed), extra pencils with good erasers, a watch if you think it will help you pace yourself, and your admissions ticket and photo ID, if needed.
- Try to get there 15 minutes before the test starts and go to the bathroom before you enter the exam room. Every minute counts during these tests!
- Know that you will be nervous. Everyone is. You will always encounter at least a few questions that throw you off. Resolve to shake them off and move on.
- Stay positive and, if you start to feel nervous, take a few deep breaths to relax until you feel calmer.
During the Test
Here’s some advice on how to stay calm and focused during the test:
- Look through the test quickly when you first get it, and start thinking about how to budget your time.
- Many people like to do the easiest problems first to ensure they earn as many easy points as they can. That may or may not work for you.
- Read the entire question carefully before you answer. If you make assumptions about what the question is before you answer, you could end up falling into a trap.
- Take an educated guess at what seems like a hopeless question: eliminate any answers that are illogical and choose the best from among your remaining choices. Neither the ACT nor the SAT penalizes you for a wrong answer.
- Write and mark your answers clearly. You want to make sure your answers are counted and legible!
- If you don’t know how to begin even answering a answer, skip it. Come back to it later and give it your best shot. Subsequent sections of the test could help you answer the question.
- Ignore anyone who finishes before you. They are irrelevant. Focus on finishing your own test to the best of your ability.
- If you have time left over, look over your test for missed questions. In general, change your answer only if you realize you misinterpreted the question: first answers are usually the correct ones. Flag careless mistakes and proofread any essay or short answer questions.
- Double check your identifying information so you get credit for your test.