I have a confession to make: I’m definitely not a fan of these entrance exams for college admissions.

I know I help prep students to take the ACT and SAT exams, so that might sound strange. I’m happy that I can do my little part in helping kids figure out how to “beat the test,” though – to jump through those hoops so they can get that major stressor over with and move on to other, more important admissions stuff.

Regardless of my feelings about these tests, they’re required to get into college. So let’s be productive about this and discuss how to figure out which test your teen should focus on.

To start out, let’s take a short quiz:

  1. True or False: Most colleges in the U.S. require the SAT for admissions.
  2. True or False: Students in the Northeast should take the SAT, and those in the Midwest should take the ACT.

The answer to both of these questions is…False. But these are the two misconceptions I hear most frequently from parents. They hear it from friends or even their teen’s school, the latter of which I find more than a little alarming. The truth is: both the SAT and ACT are used by every college in the U.S. for admissions, so your teen can take one or both of them.

So, which test is best?

Let’s pretend you’re entering a competition to win $100,000. You have the choice of competing against others to either a) ride a unicycle 100 feet or b) ride a hoverboard 100 feet, but you’ve never done either of these things before. Which one would you choose? You might be pretty uncertain. A good way to go about deciding would be to try each of them, see which one “feels” better or comes easier to you, and then train your butt off on that one thing to win that sweet, sweet cash.

Same goes for the SAT and ACT. Since your teen can “win” at college admissions with either one, it makes sense to try each exam to see which is a more comfortable fit and which he or she performs better with, and then focus on preparing for that specific test. Ok, you’re paying – not winning – the $100,000 with this one, but the prize is admissions. You get the point.

There are a couple of ways to try ’em out.

1. The ACT and the College Board (the folks who create the SAT) each release practice exams for students. Your teen should definitely, definitely download those exams to print out and take. The key here is to make sure the testing area is distraction-free, that the test is taken all in one sitting and that your student accurately times him or herself. Even better, you administer the exam. The closer you can make this to what will be experienced on testing day, the more accurate results your teen will get. The tests are each about 3.5 hours long, so you’ll need a nice chunk of time for this.

2. The ACT and SAT are given multiple times throughout the school year. I recommend to parents that they register their high schooler for an official exam early on for each test (typically in the winter of their junior year). All, or almost all, of the content that is needed for the exams is learned by then, and that first crack at them in the testing center itself is the best “dress rehearsal” ever. Your teen will then have the experience of taking the test in the anxiety-ridden testing environment with an official proctor, knowing he or she will have more opportunities to take the test later on. This gives a particular advantage over other students who are sitting for the exams for the first time in the spring and have more anxiety going into it, not knowing what to expect.

Then, compare scores.

Whichever test your student comes out strongest on in the end is the one I recommend that he or she continues to prep for. That focus will really allow for great gains on a future official test date.

Remember…YOU choose which test scores to send colleges.

Your teen should take the exam more than once for this reason – there’s absolutely no harm in taking an exam, because it won’t automatically reflect on the college application unless you say you want it to. Your teen should definitely have more than one exam score to choose from.

Hot Tip: NEVER enter college names on forms when registering for the SAT and ACT! They’ll ask which colleges you want to send the scores to. Since you don’t know how your kid will do on the test that day, you need to be able to see those scores before deciding which schools to send them to. That’ll come later on when your teen’s applying to specific schools.

Has your student already taken one or both tests? Which one did they prefer? What other common misconceptions have you heard about the tests? Leave a comment below!

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