Admission to an American university: SAT and ACT, really optional exams?

Every month, Isaac Foster, an expert on the American university application process and founder of I. Foster Learning, helps us understand the American education system, from high school to university.

“I need the SAT!” Parents of middle schoolers, you hear this phrase often without always knowing what it is. It is already not easy to understand the complexity of the American education system, even less so about the peculiarities of the various entrance exams for American universities and for which it is important to prepare.

How to prepare for these tests?

What is often confusing for French families and radically different from the French or even the international baccalaureate is the fact that the SAT (you have to pronounce each letter) and the ACT (concurrent test of the SAT) are not done automatically at the end of the year. Therefore, they are not prepared or poorly prepared in secondary schools.

However, these tests require a lot of preparation to get good results. Private and independent organizations most often help students with preparation, and private institutions enable students take these exams (several dates are scheduled each year in the United States and around the world). They are presented in the form of MCQs, timed, in reading, grammar and mathematics.

What is a good score?

The SAT gives a score of 800 for reading and grammar and a score of 800 for the math section. The total score is out of 1600. The ACT, on the other hand, gives a total score out of 36 and is an average of the 4 scores obtained in grammar, math, reading, and science. The vast majority of universities require the results of these tests and ask for good scores in order to consider the student’s record.

What score should you aim for? It depends on the choice of universities to which he applies. In general, universities publish the average scores of admitted students, so a student will get a score that is as close as possible to that average. For the most demanding universities, a 32+ on the ACT and a 1400+ on the SAT may be required. Important to know: You can retake the SAT or ACT as many times as you like. The highest score in each category is retained.

Not optional everywhere

But now, with the pandemic and the inability of students to take these tests in person, many universities have decided to remove the requirement to send these SAT or ACT scores and are now offering students the choice to submit their scores or not. Therefore, it becomes “optional”. Of course, it’s not that simple.

Let’s take the example of a few well-known universities. For Stanford, it’s simple: it’s mandatory, students must list their SAT or ACT scores in their registration file. It’s also very simple for Berkeley: there’s no doubt about the scoring, the university doesn’t care. And what does Harvard say? It is “optional”. But what does “optional” really mean? In short, there will always be applicants who are able to present very good or even impressive scores.

Advice for parents:

If you think your child has the ability to score really well, give them the SAT or ACT and note their excellent scores on the application.

On the other hand, if your child has always hated these kinds of tests (many teenagers do) or if you know that these results will be considered “average”, then it is better to avoid the tests (knowing that other applicants will have much better scores) and concentrate about colleges that are no longer interested in the SAT and ACT. In this case, it is imperative that your child’s records demonstrate the other outstanding qualities that universities expect. Small explanatory diagram below.

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