Published Saturday, December 11, 2021 by Tifinie


When colleges are looking for new students, they review applicant profiles in search of the best of the bunch to make up their student body.  Of course, the most reputable colleges usually get the cream of the crop, aiming to enroll the most talented students they can find.  The rest of the students then disperse into various universities and local colleges.

Which students are the most talented?  How do colleges decide?  Colleges use various tools when evaluating eligible students.  Every student that applies will submit an application package providing crucial information about their background, which can include:  transcripts, test scores from the College Board and ACT, admission essays, letters of recommendations, resumés, awards, and any other form of recognition for special achievements that make students shine.  This is where the ACT and the SAT become a factor.

Taking into consideration that school districts across the nation all form their own academic programs, national and international colleges can only trust a student’s high school grades so much.  Therefore, the College Board created a standardized test to evaluate a student’s level of knowledge and readiness for college.  This exam is now known as the SAT.  It was used by colleges for years as a tool to help them enroll qualified students into their college programs.  Then, in 1959, a nonprofit organization, called ACT, was formed by a duo who worked at the University of Iowa.  They produced their own standardized test, which focused on evaluating a student’s academic mastery of the subjects taught in schools.  While the SAT was the traditional college-admission exam to take, both the SAT and ACT are now widely accepted by most colleges.

Colleges generally accept scores from either the SAT or the ACT and students can also take both!  We recommend that students always check with the colleges they want to apply to and see specifically what their colleges of choice require for admission if they’re concerned about it.  However, why not try both?  Students tend to score in the same percentage regardless of which exam they take, but having both gives colleges a variety of information to review.

Not interested in taking both?  The biggest difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the ACT includes a Science section and the SAT does not, neither exam directly tests a student’s knowledge of history.

The exam formats are slightly different as well.  The ACT has knowledge-based questions that students either know the answer to or they don’t.  The ACT questions are a lot more straight forward and direct and students are expected to remember important facts relating to that topic, like math formulas.  The SAT, however, focuses more on reasoning skills and overall aptitude of the subject.  The SAT questions generally take more time to solve, but they will often provide you with needed information like math formulas as assistance.  Even with formulas, though, the SAT questions can be very difficult to answer.  That’s because the questions are written in a way to test the student’s analytical and reasoning skills.  Rather than focusing on, do students KNOW the information, the SAT evaluates, can students take the information to the next level, analyze it, and apply it to every-day situations?  The ACT, on the other hand, has more questions than the SAT because students are expected to be able to answer the ACT questions very quickly and move on as they are relatively more straight-forward.

So, is the SAT or the ACT better?  Unfortunately, there’s no right answer to that question.  It really depends on the student and which format they feel more comfortable with.  In the end, only the student can decide which is the right choice for them.


What about the PSAT?

Contrary to what many people believe, the purpose of the PSAT is not to practice the SAT.  It’s actually used as a way for organizations to find eligible students to win scholarships, grants, and generally financial assistance to continue their educational endeavors in college.  Organizations or individuals looking to fund a cause put aside a certain amount of money that they plan to donate as a charitable act in support of education.  They can then offer this financial aid to students, but which students?  This is where the PSAT comes in.

Sophomores, or tenth graders, are allowed to take the PSAT for practice only to see how they would score.  Their scores, however, don’t hold any value to colleges.  As an eleventh grader, though, students are eligible to win these scholarships and it all comes down to the scores.  Juniors’ PSAT scores are collected and compared state-by-state.  The top scoring juniors are eligible to win the most coveted prizes, the Merit Scholarship awards, which are widely admired by colleges and improve their chance of being accepted into their dream college.  (If this is something you’re interested in, be sure to register your “sponsoring college of choice” with the NMSC by the required deadlines.)  In order to win this award, however, students must complete a series of other tasks as well to prove they’re worthy of the support.

Approximately 50,000 students each year receive recognition of high scores by the National Merit Scholarship Program. Of those, about 30,000 students are recognized as “Commended” students and receive Letters of Commendation to pass on to colleges.  Some of these students are awarded “Special Scholarships” by the sponsors previously mentioned.  Qualifying students move on to become Semifinalists.  Students who move on to become National Merit Semifinalists are provided applications to continue in the process towards becoming Finalists.  Students must prove to have high academic standards, goals, and support from their high school in order to be considered as a National Merit Finalist.  By February, approximately 15,000 students are notified that they have become Finalists and are awarded a Certificate of Merit by their high school principals.  Of these finalists, organizations pick and choose which students they want to award scholarships to, based on their academic records.  They do this by reviewing the students’ complete high school profile, including any extracurricular or leadership activities.  So, while you’re studying for the PSAT, don’t forget to be an outstanding influence at your high school as well!

Do colleges look at your PSAT scores?  No, not really.  What they do look for is if you won any kind of recognition from your PSAT scores, like a scholarship.  If you did, that is another bonus on your resumé to colleges.  If you don’t win any scholarships or awards through the PSAT, don’t think of it as a loss.  Instead, chalk it up as great practice for the SAT!

To register for the PSAT, speak with your high school guidance counselor at the beginning of your sophomore and junior years and they can get you set up to take the PSAT in October.  The PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is only offered in October and is the qualifying exam to enter the PSAT competition.

For more information about the National Merit Scholarship Program, visit


How do AP exams factor into all of this?

We thought you’d never ask…

The SAT and ACT are exams that test overall academic success, but the AP exams test by subject.  These exams can be utilized to show colleges that students EXCEL in a particular subject.  The subjects are vast, varying from English Literature, History, and specific Sciences to Computer Sciences, Foreign Languages, Social Sciences, and the Arts.  Students do not have to take a specific course to take these exams.  They are offered by the College Board, creator of the SAT, and students can register for these exams through the College Board website or speak with their high school’s counselor for assistance.

AP exams test at a college, or intermediate, level illustrating a student’s ability to handle college level material in a specific topic. Students should consider taking some of these exams throughout their high school career to show colleges their capabilites!

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