Everything you need to know about taking the SAT and ACT....starting with the most important tip: PLAN AHEAD! Check to see if your uni choices require it, start practicing, schedule your first seating, and then start looking at everything else those applications require.
Most universities will require you to take an admission test as part of the application process, either the SAT Reasoning Test (aka the SAT I or simply the SAT) or the ACT.
Registration and reporting is done online: the SAT details are on the College Board website and the ACT details are found at www.actstudent.org. More competitive universities may also want you to take SAT Subject Tests (known as SAT IIs until 2004) - these are discussed on the next page. Almost all universities accept both the ACT exam and the SAT but it may be harder to find ACT testing centres in the UK.
Here is a departure from the norm that you should be aware of: it is not a common practice, but some schools (e.g. NYU) are now accepting predicted marks from external exams (A-levels, IB, etc) in place of SAT/ACT scores. If you opt to rely on your exam predictions to get you in, then it’s very important that you deliver on the results. Offers can be withdrawn if performance fails to meet expectations! While US schools tend to be far more flexible than those in the UK, the possibility does exist to lose your offer if you don’t match predictions.
Dealing with the SAT and ACT Exams
Don’t worry too much. You are an international student and, although you need to be within desired ranges, most colleges will not expect you to do as well in these exams as Americans. Any American with the hope of applying for a prestigious college has been training for the SAT or ACT (or both) for years, coached through courses, put through numerous practices and schooled to within an inch of their lives.
Universities understand that our academic background does not, for the most part, incorporate standardised testing. The average British student writes his way through school – essays for GCSE, more essays for AS levels, yet more essays for A-levels – and is less familiar with ticked boxes and filled bubbles (the standardised testing process of SATs and ACTs). Providing GCSE, AS-level, and A level (or IB or Pre-U) predictions are of a sufficiently high standard, slightly lower scores on these American exams are, if not discounted, partially excused.
The tendency amongst many Brits is to dismiss such multiple choice testing as ridiculous. Yet for the indefinite future, every international student with aspirations to American colleges has no option but to submit to these exams, regardless of their academic background.
Competition for the prestigious American universities to which most British students aspire is fierce, and standardised testing is a significant hurdle that all must leap. You will need scores of over 600 (out of a possible 800) in each of the two sections of the SAT for your application to even be considered at the top institutions (and most Ivy League schools are looking for scores of over 700, or a total of 1400+ across the two sections). For the ACT, this hurdle for the top tier schools is a 32 (out of a possible 36).
As entrenched as the SAT and ACT are, they are nonetheless continually trying to be more relevant. The SAT recently went through a complete overhaul - the inaugural sitting was in spring 2016 – and the ACT is also tweaked on a regular basis. Most of the changes attempt to level the playing field (especially for students who can’t afford private test-prep tuition) and make the assessment more in line with the basic skills and knowledge that universities want students to have.
Among the more selective colleges and universities (a small but influential slice of American higher education), there’s a tension between improving entrance exams and reducing their importance in the admissions process. A growing number of institutions are now test-optional, no longer requiring SAT or ACT scores – some 850+ according to FairTest (The National Center for Fair and Open Testing).
The cold hard facts
Plan ahead! Here's what you need to do...
Advance Registration. You need to register at least two months in advance of the exam date, possibly earlier if you want a seat at a particular testing centre close to home. (And, trust us, you don’t want to travel too far - the test starts early in the morning.) Seats do fill up rather quickly so don't wait until the last minute. The easiest way to register is online at www.collegeboard.org; go to www.actstudent.org for the ACT. The process is lengthy but simple and reserves you a seat and paper for a specific date.
(Note: the College Board test registration process involves a seemingly endless number of pages asking all sorts of questions about your background and interests. For the most part, you do not have to answer these – just click on ‘Continue’ at the bottom of each page whenever you want to skip them.)
Payment. There is a charge for taking these exams – around $90 USD, including international fees, for the SAT or the ACT. This can be paid online when registering.
Location. SATs are offered half a dozen times a year at a surprisingly large number of places around the UK so it’s pretty easy to find a near-ish test centre. All sites are listed on www.collegeboard.org. The ACT is administered five times a year and is building a base in the UK but at this point is only offered at 17 locations (and not all sittings at each site). The locations and dates are listed on www.actstudent.org.
Timing. Unless you are aiming for a nervous breakdown, don’t take the SAT at the same time that you're sitting your secondary school exams. (Also, you cannot take the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests on the same day.) The SAT and the ACT are challenging for many Brits, and it's best to find out what they're like early on, especially since you can take each test more than once. You should start to prepare for this the year after your GCSEs and, ideally, take it for the first time in the spring of your lower 6th year (Year 12 of 13).
Note: the SAT Reasoning test in May is the only sitting throughout the year when students outside the US (that’s you) can request a full 'Question & Answer Service'. This means that, in addition to the usual online score report, you can receive by mail a copy of the full test booklet (all the actual questions) and a report including your answers and the correct ones. Be sure to request this if you sign up for May – it’s part of the registration process and costs less than $20. It will be invaluable as a study tool for any subsequent sittings.
Repeats, re-sits and re-grading
You can take SATs and ACTs repeatedly with no penalty – a situation many A level students long for. Even better, there has been a change in how many exam sittings students have to show colleges on their applications.
Universities used to be notified of all the SAT grades you had ever achieved, not just the sparkling 1600 (a maximum 800 in both areas) you got in your latest attempt, so it looked distinctly strange if your early scores fell out of the range your university hoped to see.
Since 2009, students have been able to use Score Choice on the College Board website to choose the SAT test sitting dates they wish to have sent to a school – unless the uni has specifically requested that all sittings be reported. In either case, however, schools will look at your best score for each section (Reading/Writing and Math), even if each personal best was achieved on a different date (e.g., best Reading/Writing in October testing, best Math in December).
All scores from each of those dates will appear, but colleges do tend to count the top score for each section. This is often referred to as your ‘Super Score’. Of course, if there is a huge gap between your best and worst in one section, nothing can stop the admissions office from raising an eyebrow, but supposedly they accept the best scores as an indication of what you’re capable of achieving.
For the ACT, you can select the test date results that you want to be sent to universities, and they will not release any others. But they will send all scores from that date as a set; there is only one composite score reported for each sitting. So you cannot combine individual subject scores from different sittings to create a composite ‘super score’ for the ACT.
Now although ACT says they only report the test date that has been designated by the student, there is nothing to stop the university from asking you for others (ditto for the SAT).
Caveat about the above: unis change admissions requirements all the time, so this information could change before the ink is dry. It cannot be repeated enough - check and recheck requirements for the unis you're interested in.
Despite all of the above re-testing opportunities, it is much better to invest time in practising beforehand - there are lots of test preparation materials, prep courses and tutors available. (See the References & Links Section.) Common sense should tell you when to quit. Some Brits find that one attempt is, in fact, enough to secure a satisfactory grade, while others take it three times.
Getting the results
The dreaded results are available by phone or on the web around three weeks after the exam. When you register for the exam, you have the option of sending your scores directly to colleges of your choice. If you don’t know where you wish to apply, just leave this blank. When you make up your mind later, it’s easy to go online again and send the official copy of the results to the colleges you are looking at. But if you have your heart set on a particular college from the word go, sending the scores directly will save you time and trouble (and possibly fees) at a later date.
Don’t worry about losing your results – they will be stored online indefinitely, as long as you have an ACT or SAT account.
The Format of the 'New SAT'
A brand new version of the test was launched in 2016 and is meant to be more aligned with the content you're studying in school and with the skills that universities want you to have. It’s still a very long multiple-choice test covering Reading, Writing and Math – but the structure is markedly different from the previous version (which your older sibling may have taken).
For one thing, the previous version had three subscores; the revised test now only has two: one for Reading/ Writing combined and one for Math. The score range for each of the two sections is 200 to 800, which are added together for a composite score ranging from a dismal 400 to a perfect 1600 (versus the previous maximum of 2400).
As before, there is an essay, but now it's optional (at the end of the test) and scored separately. Some universities may still require that students submit an essay score, so if this is the case make sure you have taken the essay portion at least once.
Here's what to expect in content...
The Math section
The Math section of the new SAT focuses more heavily on algebra and data analysis, and less on geometry. It also includes a few advanced concepts not seen on the earlier SAT (largely pre-Calculus), along with some questions that ask you to apply mathematical reasoning to situations in business, science or the social sciences. There are two multiple-choice sections: one is 55 minutes and allows the use of a calculator, and the other is 25 minutes and must be completed without a calculator.
The Reading section
There is one Reading section (65 minutes) comprised of long passages to analyse (similar to the old SAT), along with ‘evidence-based reading’ questions. The student is first asked to answer a question about the passage and then to locate the line from the text that supports the answer. Vocabulary is no longer tested in stand-alone sentences, but is now presented in the context of passages (and – hallelujah! – will not include the old, obscure SAT words).
The Writing section
The Writing section will test many of the same concepts covered on the old SAT – so make sure you know how to properly use verbs, pronouns, punctuation and idioms. But, in a departure from the old version of the test, you will have to edit full passages and choose words that best capture an author’s tone or argument.
For the optional essay, students will be given a reading passage and asked to analyse the author's evidence and arguments.
Good news – there is no negative grading, so there is no penalty if you want to guess! (Just don’t do this on every question.)
Even more good news - the College Board has recently partnered with the US-based Khan Academy to offer free online test prep. Practice questions and video tutorials are available on the College Board website.
The Format of the ACT Exam
The ACT is a multiple-choice exam that measures English, Mathematics, Reading and – unlike the SAT – Sciences Reasoning.
It also has an optional Writing (short essay) section. The ACT is given five times a year at several locations throughout the UK but the number of sittings at each test centre may vary, so be sure to check the ACT website (www.actstudent.org) well in advance of the test to determine which sites are available for the date you have in mind (or vice versa).
Scoring the ACT
On each of the four ACT test sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) you will receive a raw score. This raw score will be converted to a scaled score from 1 to 36, and your combined score will be the average of your four scaled scores. Thus the highest you can get is a 36, which is equivalent to a 1600 on the SAT. While there are always exceptions, the very best unis will be looking for a 32 or higher.
Importantly, not all unis require a Writing score, but the most selective schools will designate ‘ACT with Writing’. The Writing score range is from 2-12, and this is not averaged into the composite score for the others subjects on the ACT. In autumn 2015, the Writing section (short essay) shifted focus from classic persuasion to more argumentative in nature. The latest version will ask students to evaluate multiple perspectives and write about whether and why they agree in whole or in part with any of them.
Like the revised SAT, the ACT does not penalize you for wrong answers. This doesn’t mean you should always rush through all the questions – make sure you give them the time they deserve – but it does mean that you should leave an answer for every question.
Fear not - help is on hand (for a fee...)
As the number of Brits interested in applying to US schools has risen, so have the resources available on this side of the pond to help make sure you achieve your personal best. There are a variety of options for students who decide they need coaching. These range from hours of one-to-one customised tuition to group courses offered on weekends and school holidays.
Or do it yourself...
In reality, you may find the best way of improving your scores is simply to practise multiple-choice tests in timed conditions. It is quite feasible to prepare for the SAT or ACT on your own, using a range of readily available study guides (see Reference section). So buy a practice book with a number of different sample tests and back-of-the-book answers, grab a stopwatch and get down to work.
Or, do one of the free online sample tests offered on the ACT website (www.actstudent.org) and the SAT website (www.collegeboard.org), which also has details about how to download an app for the "SAT Question of the Day". If you start this series of daily questions early enough, you will have seen just about everything the test covers by the time you take it!
Words to the wise:
GET THESE EXAMS OUT OF THE WAY.
There are two reasons for this. First, if you are a Shakespeare buff who gladly burnt all your maths textbooks after the rigours of GCSE, the SAT or ACT math section may inspire panic.
Don’t let it. Face this dreaded test – and the additional tutoring you may require - as soon as possible after the actual maths GCSE. In this way you can put your extensive knowledge of quadratic equations to good use before it flies forever. Just don’t forget your calculator!
Second, even if your heart is set on the US, your A-level exams are still important - to you, to your parents, and to American universities. You do not want to be taking SATs at the same time as AS/A levels, vital coursework or mock examinations.
As the SAT (and, to some degree, ACT) exams are offered so regularly it is easy to schedule them for a relatively fallow period. And once you’ve done them, you’ll have the reassuring knowledge that you have at least got some solid exam results behind you as you head into the A levels.
Take a timed practice test in advance. Three hours of checking boxes (actually, filling in bubbles) is very different from three hours of essay writing. It may feel as if you have masses of time, but it rushes past deceptively quickly.
In The Test Room
People customarily arrive for their SATs with around 25 different pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, etc. Truckloads of stationery may be excessive but do make sure you have a few spares. And in case you’re wondering what on earth a no. 2 pencil is – an HB will suffice. You will be allowed to use a graphing calculator in one of the Maths sections. (A guide to acceptable models is provided on the test websites.)
Most importantly, do not forget your picture ID – they won’t let you into the test room without it!
Once you’ve started your exam, you’ve GOT to keep going. Each question is worth the same number of points, so there is no sense in spending hours on one problem only to run out of time on five you could have knocked off easily.
With a few exceptions, each section of the test gets harder as you move through it. If you are faced with a question you think you can’t answer, try to eliminate the options that are definitely wrong. This will narrow your choices. Go with your instincts. If your instincts have chosen this precise moment to vanish, move on. Just make sure you leave the corresponding bubble blank.
When you’re taking these multiple-choice tests, make sure you don’t make the fatal mistake of accidentally skipping a question on the exam paper and carrying on in the same place on the answer sheet. Filling out twenty-five answers in the wrong bubble is easy to do and will be catastrophic for your score. As you go, check to be sure that your answers are in line with the questions.
If English is Not Your Native Language...
You may have to take the Test Of English As A Foreign Language (TOEFL). This is true even if you have spent years studying in the UK. It doesn’t make sense, but sometimes they still make you do it. If this is the case, go to www.toefl.org for further information.