The ACT and SAT tests have been a major part of the college admissions process for decades. But a lot has changed in recent years, and there’s now a huge decision that parents and students need to make about testing when they’re planning for college.
Students now need to decide whether to take the ACT or SAT at all, and there are some big implications for what this decision can mean for your academic and financial future.
What’s Changed with College Testing
Here’s what’s changed with college testing over the past few years and why parents and students now have such an important decision to make:
- Many colleges have made ACT or SAT test scores optional for admissions consideration.
- Other colleges have made the ACT or SAT optional for the next 1-2 years due to problems with testing access, scheduling and administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. They may resume requiring test scores or continue to make them optional once this temporary period ends.
- Some colleges have permanently eliminated test scores from their admissions process.
Why You Might Opt Out of College Testing
Bypassing college testing might be worth considering for students in a few categories:
- Those who aren’t good test takers and are worried about getting a low score
- Those who don’t want to spend a lot of time and money preparing for testing
- Those who are concerned about the fairness or impact of test scores on their future
The Risks of Not Taking the ACT or SAT
If you don’t take a college entrance exam, there are three big risks everyone should keep in mind:
- Not getting a scholarship
- Hurting your chances of admission
- Having colleges change their testing policy
You might be sacrificing the potential of a good test score to help your chances of admission. It might also mean giving up a potential scholarship because many colleges, states and other programs still award merit scholarships to students for outstanding test scores.
Also, COVID-19 came along, and many colleges made sudden changes about testing because they had no choice. But we don’t know what they’ll do in the future.
Some colleges might revert back to requiring test scores for admission, and we don’t know how sudden that might be and how much warning parents and students will get. If one of those schools is on your list, you could be caught off-guard, especially if you’re in the class of 2023 or 2024, when we might see an end to these temporary changes in test requirements.
This is why it’s so important for parents and students to understand how ACT and SAT testing works these days, what’s changed, and how your decision on testing could potentially impact your academic as well as your financial future.
The good news is that it doesn’t take long to get up to speed and learn everything you need to know to start planning and make the right decision. To help you get started, I’ve created this Complete Parents’ Guide to College Testing, so let’s jump in and take a closer look, starting with a quick refresher on how college testing works these days.
How College Testing Works Today
The ACT and SAT are the two most common college admissions tests, and they’re both available across the country. They’re designed so each student who takes the ACT or the SAT takes the same standardized test. This way, colleges can compare their scores and compare one student to the next, regardless of differences such as grading structures at their high school or other factors that can vary from place to place.
Students used to take either the ACT or SAT depending on the schools where they were applying. Schools in the Midwest typically used the ACT, and colleges from other regions used the SAT.
These days, all colleges who still consider test scores as part of their admissions process now accept either an ACT or SAT score. But not all colleges require a test. In recent years, many colleges have made test scores optional, and some have eliminated testing from their admissions process entirely.
We’ll talk more about this and how it might impact your student’s college plans shortly. For now, let’s stay focused on testing and how it works. After all, testing is still a requirement at many colleges, and even if it’s optional, it can still boost your chances of admission and maybe even a scholarship if you get a good score.
When your student takes the SAT or ACT test, they can have their scores sent to the colleges where they are applying for admission, although there is a small fee of around $8 per school when you request this service. There is also a larger overall fee to take each test. But lower-income families can potentially qualify for fee waivers or discounts.
Both tests are offered on select Saturdays and Sundays at certain times of the year, and both charge a fee. To find out more about test registration, scheduling, fees and other details, you can visit the official websites for the SAT and ACT.
Going Test-Optional and What It Means for Your Student
The SAT and ACT tests have become a source of controversy over the years, due to a realization among many colleges that a test score is not always effective at measuring a student’s college preparedness and aptitude. There have also been many concerns about the fairness of testing for some students, and there have been concerns about the amount of focus some high schools and their students put on preparing for these tests instead of regular classroom learning.
As a result, many colleges and universities have been rethinking their testing requirements in recent years. Hundreds of colleges have chosen to stop requiring an SAT or ACT score for admissions consideration, although most still accept and consider scores as part of the process if you submit them. Other schools abolished college testing from their admissions process, and they won’t accept or review scores as part of their decisions.
As all of this was happening, COVID-19 came along, which caused a complete mess with college testing and forced more schools to temporarily or permanently stop requiring test scores.
Due to the pandemic, the SAT and ACT tests were delayed and later rescheduled, and many test centers had to close down or severely limit their capacity during the pandemic. This made it very difficult for many students to schedule and take a test. Some even traveled to other states in an effort to take the SAT or ACT, only to discover that the test center had suddenly closed, and they couldn’t take the exam.
Consequently, many colleges chose to make the SAT and ACT test optional for admissions for the next one to two years, depending on the school. Others went ahead and permanently eliminated their testing requirement.
Today, there are hundreds of schools that no longer require the SAT or ACT for admissions, and some students might be able to apply to college without having to submit a test score. It all depends on which schools you want to attend and what their testing policies are. But it’s a big decision to make, and you need to make sure you understand all the implications before you make it.
Deciding to Take a Test or Not
Depending on your situation, you have a few options for how to deal with the SAT and ACT.
If you’re applying to a school that requires an SAT or ACT test score, then you’re going to have to take the test. But make sure you know for sure that the school still requires a score, and make sure you know how much it might help or hurt your chances of admission and for getting a merit scholarship for a good score. That may determine how much time, money and effort you’re willing to spend on trying to prepare for the test.
If test scores are optional and you’re not confident that you’ll get a good score, you might want to bypass the test. You might also bypass the test if it’s optional and you’d prefer to save time and money by not having to study and prepare, or you’re concerned about the fairness of the test. Of course, if the colleges on your list don’t consider test scores at all, then you might not need to take a test at all.
However, before you decide not to take the SAT or ACT test, be very careful about this strategy.
Even if testing is technically no longer required at some colleges, they may give your application a boost if you provide a score and especially if it’s a good one. Additionally, certain institutional scholarships may still be based in part on test scores, which could impact your student’s eligibility or qualification for free money to help pay for college.
Also, since so many colleges temporarily changed their testing policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plan for the possibility that they could reverse those decisions and start requiring test scores again. We don’t know how much notice they will give students if they reinstate testing requirements, so if there are a schools on your list that fall into this category, you may want to take this into account in your decision.
Even if your student doesn’t yet know the colleges where they’re going to apply, they may need to go ahead and start planning and studying for the SAT or ACT, just in case. It’s always important to plan ahead and know when you’ll need to take the test and when you’ll need to register.
Students can start taking practice tests as early as their sophomore year, and they can take classes, purchase software, and even hire tutors to help them prepare. If they register to take a test early enough, they can also leave time to take the test again in case they need to improve their score before they start applying to colleges.
Developing Your College Testing Plan
If you decide to plan for the SAT or ACT and take a test, you’ll need to answer several big questions.
1. What test scores are needed at the colleges on your list?
It’s critical to do your research and find out whether test scores are required or accepted, and what your score will need to be at the colleges on your list.
You can get data on what the typical scores were for accepted students at nearly all colleges by visiting Big Future or College Navigator. If your high school offers access to Naviance software, it also offers historical data on test scores and admissions at many colleges.
Of course, you can also go directly to each college’s website to find out about their test score ranges and requirements for admissions, and you can often find information about how test scores might impact merit scholarships by visiting their scholarship pages.
If you happen to visit a particular campus or talk to an admissions advisor at a given college, you can also find out a lot of good information on test score requirements and how test scores impact admissions and merit scholarships.
2. How many times will your student take the test?
Sometimes students will take a test once, and they’ll be done. This one-and-done scenario often works well if your student is good at taking tests and gets a good score on the first try. It can also work in cases where your test score isn’t all that important, or the score requirements are lower at the schools you’re targeting.
However, some students may take the test two, three or more times to try and get better scores. But they’ll need to find two or three test dates that work for them so they can register, plan and prepare accordingly. Since tests are only administered around seven or eight times per year, figuring out all the right test dates and how to fit them into your schedule can be a challenge.
3. What will your student do for test prep?
There are many options available for test preparation, including free resources available online and resources available at all high schools. Plus there are numerous paid resources such as classes, tutors, books and software to help you study, take practice tests, and improve your potential scores.
Some students choose not to do any prep at all, but that’s probably not a great idea unless you’re very confident you’ll get a good score or at least a score that’s high enough to get you into your desired schools. Even if you’re sure you’ll get a good score, if there’s a chance for you to score higher, that can potentially increase your chances of admission or help you qualify for merit scholarships.
Choose wisely, and take a free practice test online or at your high school to assess where you are and how much you potentially can or need to improve.
4. What if your test score doesn’t meet a college’s requirements?
Let’s say you’re planning to apply to several colleges, and the typical ACT score of an admitted student at these schools is a 25 to 30. What if your student takes a practice ACT test or an official test and gets a score of 20?
Ultimately, if your score doesn’t meet a college’s requirements, you have two options:
- Try to improve your score by registering to take the test again and doing extra studying and preparation.
- Change the colleges on your list so your score is a better fit for their admissions requirements.
These two options involve some major decisions, so this is why it’s so important to try and get your preliminary test scores as early as possible, whether it’s through a practice test or an actual exam.
Starting early will help give you more time to prepare for additional tests if you need to take them, and it will give you time to recover from an unforeseen problem if one occurs. It can also help you choose the colleges you’re going to consider and those you’re going to visit as you narrow down your list.
If you have some inkling of where you stand, it helps you figure out how hard you’ll need to work to get to where you want to go.
One way to do this is to take the PSAT or pre-SAT, or a practice ACT test. These are often available at many high schools as well as available online, through test prep companies, and other sources.
When you take these practice tests, they’ll usually give you a score, and some of them will also include a report with predictions of what your official score is likely to be once you take the official test. This accounts for what you might learn during the time between your practice test, which you might take as early as your sophomore year in high school, and your junior year, when you take an official test.
Understanding Test Scores
As you’re getting started with your test planning, it’s important to understand SAT and ACT scores, how they work, and how students typically perform.
This will play into many aspects of what you’ll potentially need to do—from taking practice tests and figuring out how many times you’ll want or need to take the test, to how much studying and preparation you’ll do, and whether you’ll invest in resources to help you along the way.
How SAT Scores Work
The SAT test is divided into two sections:
- Evidenced-based reading and writing
Students can earn a score between 200 and 800 in each of these sections, for a total composite score of 400 to 1600 points on the entire SAT.
The SAT exam has changed its scoring methods in recent years, so be careful about looking at historical data and how these sections and tests have been scored. Data sets from recent years aren’t consistent, so focus only on data from the last year or two.
How ACT Scores Work
The ACT test is divided into four subjects: English, math, reading and science. You get a score between 1 and 36 on all four subjects, and then those four scores are averaged into a composite overall score between 1 and 36.
Finding SAT and ACT Score Data for Specific Colleges
Once you understand how SAT and ACT scores work, you’ll want to determine what scores are needed to get accepted at the colleges on your list, whether test scores are required, and what scores might be needed for merit scholarships. This should be part of the research you do in developing the list of colleges you’re considering.
For example, if you go to Big Future or another website where you can find data on the composite SAT and ACT scores of accepted students, you might find out that the middle 50% of accepted students at a particular school had a composite ACT scores of 28 to 32 or a composite SAT score of 1250 to 1460. That means roughly 25% of students had scores below that, and the other remaining 25% scored above those levels.
Websites such as Big Future will also show percentages of accepted freshmen by specific score ranges, such as what percentage scored between 30 to 36 on the ACT vs. those who scored 24 to 29 or between 18 to 23. They do the same for percentages of students who scored within certain ranges on specific sections of the test.
The more competitive and higher-ranked a school is, the higher the SAT and ACT scores will be among accepted freshmen. Depending on where your scores are and what schools you’re considering, this may alter some of your college and test planning, and it may ultimately affect your decisions on where to apply.
Scholarships for SAT and ACT Scores
Your score on the SAT or ACT can have a big impact on your cost of college. If you get a good or great score, you might earn a merit scholarship from a school where you’ve applied.
For example, at the University of Alabama, scholarships are awarded to both in-state and out-of-state students who get a high ACT or SAT score and also have a strong GPA.
At the high end, there’s a $28,000 per year Presidential Scholarship available to accepted freshmen who have a GPA of 3.50 or more and got a score of 32 to 36 on the ACT or a score of 1420 to 1600 on the SAT.
But you can also earn a scholarship for a more modest score. If you have GPA of 3.5 or more and you earned a score of 25 to 26 on the ACT or a 1200 to 1250 on the SAT, you can get a $6,000 per year Crimson Legends Scholarship.
If you’re truly in elite territory, some schools might offer a full-ride scholarship plus additional benefits. At Alabama, if you have a 4.0 GPA and a perfect ACT or SAT score, you can potentially get a scholarship that offers:
- Free tuition for four years of undergraduate studies plus graduate school or law school
- One year of free on-campus housing
- A $1,000 per year stipend for four years
- A $2,000 one-time allowance for use in summer research or international study
- A $500 per year book scholarship for all four years.
Alabama offers a number of different scholarships for different test score ranges and GPAs, and students are automatically considered for these scholarships if they’re accepted for admission and meet the requirements. And there are similar scholarship possibilities at hundreds of colleges and from different states and programs across the country.
It’s a great motivator to try to get the best score you can and get good grades in high school or meet other qualifications because it can pay off throughout your entire undergraduate college enrollment.
Putting Your Testing Plan into Action
Now that you hopefully have a good understanding of college testing and your options, you need to work on a plan and put it into action.
If you’re going to bypass testing, then you still need to figure out how that impacts the colleges where you can apply, the admissions process, and what else your student might need to do to earn admission and maximize their chances for scholarships and other financial aid.
If you’re going to take a test or even if you’re not sure, you need to start working on a testing plan. That means doing two things at this stage:
1. Learn more about your options.
Visit the SAT and ACT websites to learn more about the tests, find registration deadlines and test dates.
Talk to your school counselor and look into local or online tutors, classes, practice tests, websites and other study resources to help you prepare for testing.
Reach out to friends and family to learn about their testing experiences and get advice and recommendations.
Use the test dates you’ve gathered and get out a calendar to start figuring out which test dates will work for you and when you might take a test for a second or third time if needed. Compare these dates against your other scheduling commitments, such as extracurricular activities, family vacations, AP test dates, dates when you plan to visit colleges, or anything else where you could have a potential conflict.
2. Do your research.
Figure out the colleges where your student might apply, what test scores (if any) are required for admissions, and what scores might qualify for scholarships. Based on what you find out, you may need to update your list of schools and/or ramp up your studying and preparation for testing. You might also need to make changes once you take a practice test or an actual exam and you find out where you stand.
Maybe you’ll end up removing a couple of schools from your list or adding some. Maybe you’ll realize you need to take a class, hire a tutor, or do a lot more work to prepare. But it starts with doing your research and working on your plan, and you should start as early as possible so you’re not caught off guard and you have time to learn and adjust along the way.
Getting More Help with College Planning
College testing is just one part of the college planning process. To figure out how to find the right school, increase your student’s chances of admission, and pay for it without wiping out your retirement or ending up in massive debt, you need to get to work right away and develop the right plan.
One great way to get started is with my College Planning Jumpstart video course. In this course, I teach you everything you need to know about how to pay for college, find and research schools, qualify for financial aid, maximize your aid award, win need-based and merit scholarships, and much more.
You’ll learn what 99% of parents never find out until it’s too late, and you’ll get it all in a series of video lessons you can watch at your own pace, with downloadable spreadsheets, calculators and other resources to help you plan.
Check out the course page now to learn more and sign up!
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Hi, I’m Brad Baldridge, a college funding specialist and the owner of Taming the High Cost of
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