Decoding Standardized Tests: Which Test Should You Take, and How Do You Study For It?

Should you take the ACT or the SAT? Eric Karlan has the answer.

Standardized test can be just as puzzling for parents as they are for kids. As your students endure endless hours of preparing for and filling in Scantron sheets for the PSAT, ACT, SAT, PSSA, Keystone, AP and SAT Subject tests, here is a quick five-question multiple choice test for you to see if you know exactly what the heck they are doing.

1. What standardized tests do most colleges require for the application process?
A) The SAT
B) The ACT
D) A or B


The correct answer is D: the SAT or the ACT. This is a crucial fact that too many parents and students do not realize. A student does not need to submit both the SAT and the ACT. They simply need to submit one or the other.

In fact, many colleges that require students to take the SAT as well as SAT Subject Tests will accept only the ACT without Subject Tests. Meanwhile, there is a growing trend to devalue the emphasis on standardized test scores, and many colleges are adopting a “test-optional” policy.

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2.  What is the best test for students to take for college admissions?
A) The SAT
B) The ACT
C) Whichever test the student scores higher on
D) Students should always take both


The correct answer is C: Whichever test the student scores higher on. Even before students begin prepping for their standardized tests, they should figure out which test is best for them.

Colleges look at the SAT and the ACT equally. There is a stigma that surrounds the ACT that it is the lesser test because it has historically been taken primarily in the Midwest and South. But last year, more students across the United States took the ACT than the SAT! And students from across the country apply to the top tier colleges in the country with only the ACT.

To prove my point: I grew up in Connecticut, an SAT-centric area like the Main Line. I had never heard of the ACT until a Brown University admissions officer recommended I take it. I applied to Penn and was accepted without ever taking the SAT in high school. Since founding my company, Ivy Experience, the No. 1 question I have been asked is “Are you sure it’s okay if my child only takes the ACT?” If you don’t believe me, call the admissions office of any college!

3.  What is the best test for my student to take?
A) There is no broad generalization that always holds true. Try out both to find out!
B) The SAT is better for English/History students; the ACT is better for Math/Science students
C) The SAT is better for students who like puzzles; the ACT is better for students who are good at school
D) The SAT is better for students with higher grades in school; the ACT is better for students with lower grades


The correct answer is A: There is no broad generalization. While many may argue that answer choices B and C have some merit, they do not universally hold true.

The SAT critical reading section does have a higher level of vocabulary and complexity in syntax; the ACT reading passages are accessible to all students. But that does not mean the writers of tomorrow should not take the ACT. In fact, doesn’t it make sense that someone strong in English would want to take advantage of potentially easier sections?

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Like the SAT, the ACT has a math section. But whereas SAT Math only goes up through algebra and geometry (that’s right, there’s really no algebra 2), ACT math covers algebra 2 and “trig.” (I use quotes there because if your child learned SOH-CAH-TOA in geometry, that covers at least two of the four trigonometry questions allotted to every ACT math test.)

And yes, the ACT has a science section, but students do not need to know anything about science. No biology. No chemistry. It’s just reading graphs and tables with “sciency” words in them. Replace all the words with familiar terms and the questions become much easier. (I have tested this idea with many students. It’s true!)

And while the SAT is more strategy-based and the ACT is more content-based—again, as a generalization—that does not mean students who like brainteasers will like the SAT. Some students simply like one test more than the other! There is no real explanation.

4. Why do students take the PSAT?
A) Colleges like seeing a student’s PSAT scores even though they are not required
B) They are required for high school graduation in Pennsylvania
C) They serve as excellent practice for the SAT
D) The PSAT is how students can earn a National Merit Scholarship


The correct answer is D: The PSAT is how students can earn a national merit scholarship. To read more about the PSAT and how it is evaluated and used, check out my MLT U post from this past January.

5.  Fill in the blank: studying SAT Vocabulary words is _________:
A) Paramount
B) Detrimental
C) Extraneous
D) Ancillary


The correct answer is C: Extraneous. And by the way, extraneous means “irrelevant or unrelated to the subject being dealt with.”

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Despite all of the websites that have word of the day, books dedicated to vocabulary and flashcards, spending hours memorizing lists of words for the SAT is a poor investment of time, energy, money and stress.

Having a better vocabulary is nice in life, and it certainly will not hurt on the test, but it is not crucial to success. It is much more “paramount” that students understand the meaning of the sentence or answer to the question on the SAT so that they can eliminate answer choices and pick the correct answer.

Think about it: if the student does not understand what’s being said or asked, even if they have a Shakespearean mastery of the English language, they are not going to correctly answer the question.

For more answers to standardized test questions, email Eric at or call (267) 888-6489.

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