College Consulting Tips Post

SAT Score Choice, and SAT vs. ACT: What Do the Recent Policy Changes Mean to You?

Today I'd like to share my thoughts on the SAT's new "Score Choice" Policy.  There have been a number of conflicting opinions expressed on the topic lately, so I plan to take this opportunity to clear up some common misconceptions and give you my two cents.

A quick summary for those of you who are not familiar with the change:  this summer the College Board (maker of the SAT) announced that it would be implementing a policy called "Score Choice" for both the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests.   Instead of including all of a student's SAT and SAT Subject Test Scores on its official score reports, as it used to do, the College Board will now be giving students the option to "cherry-pick" their best SAT scores and send only those scores to colleges.

ACT Inc., the maker of the ACT, has had a similar policy for many years, which is part of the reason why the ACT has been steadily increasing in popularity.  (Although many of the most selective colleges have an implied preference for the SAT, nearly every college will accept scores from either test.)  Students who struggled on the SAT, or those who were fearful of scoring poorly on the SAT and having the score included on their "permanent score report," have often opted to take the ACT instead.    A high school junior could take the ACT 5 times, for example, scoring 26, 27, 27, 29, and 30, and then request that ACT Inc. only send the score of 30 to colleges.  As far as that college knows, this student could have scored a 30 on his/her first try!

There is no denying that the ACT remains an attractive alternative to the SAT for many students.  However, taking the ACT instead of SAT is a sometimes risky decision--if a student from an "SAT state" (generally speaking, any state on the west coast or east coast) were to submit ACT scores but no SAT scores with his/her application, then many colleges will simply assume that the student's SAT scores were sub-par.  And colleges are also well aware that the ACT scores they receive are often cherry-picked--thus, they know that an ACT score likely represents a "personal best" instead of an average score.  Finally, those "in the know" in the test-prep and college admissions businesses understand that the ACT is a somewhat easier test than the SAT.
Despite these potential pitfalls, however, many students have still chosen to forgo the SAT for the ACT, mostly because of the ACT's Score Choice option.  However, now that the College Board also offers a version of Score Choice, SAT scores can be more fairly compared to ACT scores, which should result in more students taking the SAT.  At the very least, more students will likely start submitting SAT scores in addition to ACT scores.

If you ask me, SAT Score Choice represents a welcome and long-overdue change.  It alleviates much of the pressure for students with test-taking anxiety, and it allows students to take the SAT earlier in their high school careers as a way to accurately gauge their test-prep progress.  Yes, there were certainly financial motives behind this decision, and yes, it also raises important questions about educational equity (critics argue that poorer students who cannot afford to take the test multiple times will be at a distinct disadvantage).  And I would argue that the College Board should address the latter issue by offering scholarships for an unlimited number of test administrations per student.  Yet overall, it is a move in the right direction.  Those at the Harvard Admissions office seem to agree:

Of course, this policy is not without its detractors.  A few schools (Stanford, for example) are openly protesting the change, and some have already announced that they will require applicants to report all SAT scores, Score Choice be damned.  And in fact, the College Board is now quietly allowing some colleges to bypass the Score Choice system:

The uproar we hear from certain admissions officers only confirms the suspicion that I have had for years:  that even though most colleges will tell you that they "take" your best SAT scores, many of them will actually consider all of your SAT scores when evaluating your application.   Their stance against is SAT Score Choice, while finally betraying their true intentions, is nothing if not hypocritical.  If you have claimed for all these years to only consider a student's best SAT scores, then why would you care if the lower scores were hidden from your view?

Ultimately, the protestations of a few scattered colleges are simply delaying the inevitable--the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are quickly becoming tests of "personal bests,"  just like the ACT.   This is how that vast majority of colleges have been interpreting SAT scores for the last few years anyway.    

Consequently, there is no longer any compelling reason to take the SAT only once.  First of all, the practice you will get from taking the test several times under real testing conditions is invaluable, especially if you order the College Board's "Question and Answer Service" (available 3 times a year) and review the results afterward with a qualified private tutor.  Secondly, while the SAT is mostly a test of preparation and skill, there is also an element of luck involved.  Thus, the more "rolls of the dice" you are given, the better your chances of obtaining a personal best SAT score.

So what does this all mean for you?   It means that you should start testing early, and keep testing often, beginning as early as your sophomore year.  Also, I recommend that you prepare for and take both the ACT and the SAT, in order to keep your options open.  Ideally, students should start preparing for the SAT and ACT in the summer before junior year, and should start taking official SATs and ACTs no later than September or October of that year.  You don't have to go overboard and take every single SAT or ACT that is administered (you are unlikely to earn your personal best scores until the spring of your junior year or the fall of your senior year), but unlike years past, you no longer have to be afraid of taking the SAT as a "progress report."   

Sincerely Yours,


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