SAT, ACT, or go ‘Test Optional?’

SAT vs ACT vs Test Optional

We receive many questions from families about whether students should take the SAT, ACT, or go test optional. The short answer is. . . there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each student is unique, and so is their college admissions journey. Signet’s President and COO, Sheila Akbar, presented on this topic in a recent webinar. Here’s a recap of the common questions she answered.

How Are Test Scores Used in Admissions?

Colleges consider various factors when reviewing a student’s college application, including: 


Most colleges in the United States use a strategy known as holistic admissions, which means there’s no set formula for how significantly each part of a college application factors into their decision to admit a student.

Many students get an above-average score on the SAT or ACT and don’t get into the most selective schools. On the other hand, plenty of students with average test scores do get admitted. So while test scores are undoubtedly important, keep in mind that a student’s score is just one piece of the puzzle.

What Are the Differences between the ACT and SAT?

If you grew up on the East Coast, you might be more familiar with the SAT. If you grew up in the Midwest, the same is true about the ACT. However, despite the varied regional popularity of these tests, the fact is that colleges don’t have a preference for one over the other.

As a result, it’s in a student’s best interest to figure out which test is the better fit for them and focus on that one. Here’s a quick breakdown of the makeup of each test:


  • Reading: 65 minutes
  • Writing and language: 35 minutes
  • Math without calculator: 25 minutes
  • Math with calculator: 55 minutes


  • English: 45 minutes
  • Math: 60 minutes
  • Reading: 35 minutes
  • Science: 35 minutes
  • Optional essay: 40 minutes

The SAT gives students more time per question. The text is larger and more spaced out, and many students appreciate having some breathing room. However, the SAT has its history in IQ tests, and the questions can feel like brain teasers. For instance, math problems may require some initial critical thinking before the student actually starts performing calculations.

The ACT gives students less time for questions, but the questions are much more straightforward. In general, students who are fast readers and comfortable moving quickly perform better on the ACT. This test is also a good fit for students who struggle with the abstract reasoning associated with the SAT.

What Is Test Optional?

Test optional is an admissions policy whereby students can decide whether to submit ACT/SAT scores or not. But how did this policy enter the mainstream? In the early 2000s, research came out showing that test scores do not predict success in college significantly better than grades alone, initiating a movement of colleges shifting away from requiring test scores.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend significantly. Pre-COVID, there were 1,000+ test optional colleges. Currently, there are 1,800+ test optional colleges for Fall 2022 admissions. As for the near future, there’s no way of knowing for certain. Some schools are extending their policies for several years, while others are going test optional permanently.

What Do Students’ Different Pathways Look Like? 

If a student plans to test, their pathway will look something like this:

  • Decide between the ACT/SAT
  • Prepare for 3-4 months (diagnose and plan, study, practice)
  • Take the official test (1-2 times)
  • Lock in scores by fall of senior year

If a student plans to go test optional, their pathway will look something like this: 

  • Start identifying colleges that are a true fit and test optional 
  • Commit to their decision
  • Double down on their strengths 
  • Find ways to demonstrate academic abilities and shared values: 
    • Renew focus on grades in school
    • Undertake academic extracurriculars 
    • Live their values in their community 

But before embarking on either of these paths, students must first determine which one is right for them.


SAT vs ACT vs Test Option


How Can Students Decide What to Do?

We encourage students to think long and hard before deciding to take the SAT, ACT, or go test optional. We recommend a three-step process: 

Step 1: Gather some data

Students should take official practice tests to evaluate:

  • Requisite content knowledge 
  • Testing skills and strategic instincts (including timing) 
  • Comfort levels and scores on SAT and ACT

Step 2: Talk to an expert

Talk to an expert to understand and evaluate:

  • Potential scores
  • What, when, and how to study
  • When to test
  • How tests will impact applications 

An expert can review the results from students’ practice tests and tell them how far they can reasonably increase their score, what type of support would benefit them (e.g., a course,
tutoring, or self-study), how long it will take to reach their target score, the test dates to aim for, and more. 

Step 3: Make the right decision for the student’s situation

Our rubric for this step involves evaluating what’s required, important, and helpful: 

  • Required: Does a college or scholarship the student has their heart set on require testing? In this case, test optional is no longer an option. 
  • Important: Would a strong test score go some way towards addressing a gap in the student’s profile, such as a poor grade in a class? If “yes,” testing is probably the right path forward.
  • Helpful: Can the student score well enough that it would be helpful to their college application? Scores higher than a college’s average typically fall into this category.


While there are many variables in the college admissions process, one thing is for certain: it can be a stressful undertaking for parents and students. Let Signet help you navigate the complex journey ahead. Contact us today to start the conversation.

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