college entrance exams

The Changing Landscape of College Entrance Exams: ACT and SAT

We talk to a lot of parents. They know a lot has changed about the college application process. They remember their process – and how they took the college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT. Boy, is it different today! Let’s get you caught up.

These exams have been around for a very long time.

Did you know the College Board, the group that created the SAT, was founded in 1899?! Neither did we. The first SAT was given in 1926 to 8,040 students. In 1959, a new test, the ACT, was released. Today, over 3,890,000 students take one of the tests each year.

Here’s what we know from OUR past.

If you took a test in high school, you probably took one exam, either the ACT or the SAT. You took it once or twice. Your state’s colleges had a preference, and you probably took that test. Back then, colleges did have a preference (spoiler alert!).

Back then, the two exams were quite different from one other—guessing was okay on one but penalized on the other. The SAT had lots of obscure vocabulary words on it and was meant to demonstrate a student’s ability to think. The ACT was created as more of an achievement test—demonstrating what a student knew.

Students did not have control over their scores. Colleges were able to see all exams the student took and how they performed on them.


Students take the exams multiple times. All colleges nationwide will accept either exam. The SAT, after releasing a new version in March 2016, is now a lot more like ACT—guessing is okay, vocab is gone, etc. In addition, privacy laws gave the student control over their scores. Students must give permission for test scores to be shared – they decide who can see them and which scores they can see. In general, the changes have been a good thing for students.

We recommend students take each one once to see which they prefer, and then focus on that brand going forward. Because the colleges can’t see any scores until a student chooses to report them, the student can “practice” taking the tests under the actual testing conditions.

Refer to our ACT and SAT Information page for the latest test dates and important info.

What about the optional essay/writing portion of the SAT or the ACT?

We find ourselves in a tricky situation. Some colleges require the submission of an ACT or SAT score set that includes the optional essay score. This extra section of the test has an additional fee and is administered at the end of the regular testing sections.

When a student takes the SAT or ACT with the optional essay section, it’s “attached” to the composite score, and it’s not detachable. If a student earned a great composite score but didn’t take the writing section, and then the student chose a college that requires they submit the writing score, the student had to retest, take the optional writing score, and submit this test score in order to meet the college’s admissions requirements!

We used to recommend that students consider to ALWAYS take the writing section. Now, our advice is less black and white. The number of colleges requiring the essay is shrinking. As of this writing, the University of California system (UCLA, et al) continues to require a writing score from all applicants. (Rumors exist that UC may drop the requirement.) Other colleges like Duke or Stanford “recommend” the writing section but don’t require it, per se.

This partial list shows that most of the listed colleges mark the SAT Essay or ACT Writing as “optional.” A very few are listed as “recommended” and only the University of California colleges as “required” on this list.

If a college does not require the optional essay score but it’s attached, it may or may not be considered as the student’s application is evaluated – it just depends on the school’s policy. What should your strategy be? Carefully consider your student’s list of candidate colleges. Keep these considerations in mind when making a testing plan.

Are the tests used in other ways?

In most states, graduation requirements are shifting a bit. States are searching for ways to measure how students are meeting college and career readiness benchmarks.

In Ohio and many other states, ACT and SAT exams have been included by the state education departments as one means of measuring readiness. Because scores on these tests can be used to fulfill a graduation requirement, many states administer one of the tests to all juniors for free in the spring of the junior year.

One unintended consequence of this change is a decrease in the state and national average exam scores. In the past, only those students who were headed to college would take the ACT or SAT. Now, even those students who aren’t college-bound are taking the exams. You may have read about average exam scores trending downward. This is likely part of the reason why.

What are SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT Subject Tests are a series of 20 one-hour exams on specific subjects. Each subject test is multiple choice, and scores range from 200-800. You can find more specific details about the exams here.

Students elect to take them on a case-by-case basis. Only those students applying to certain colleges (and sometimes certain majors within those colleges) are required to take them.

If you consult this list, you’ll see a few selective colleges “require” Subject Tests, while others “recommend” or “consider” them. For example, the University of Virginia will consider SAT Subject Tests if submitted. Princeton recommends two Subject Tests but goes on to say, “Engineering candidates are advised to take a math Subject Test and either chemistry or physics.”

So, take them or don’t take them? It totally depends on what the schools you’re applying to ask for, and this can change from year to year! In this article, you can see some notes about recent changes at Carnegie Mellon, Tufts University, and Harvard. Your task is to be aware of the colleges on your list and their requirements for admission.

If all this testing information is on your mind, check out Tips for the College-Bound for everything you need to know about preparing for college.

I heard that some colleges don’t care if you submit an ACT or SAT score.

That’s true. A movement is growing among colleges to NOT require ACT or SAT exam scores in their college application materials. This is called being “test optional.” The National Center for Fair and Open Testing tracks the list of colleges who no longer require scores. This list currently has over 1,000 schools on it!

The Fair Test movement is meant to even the playing field for all applicants. Some students can afford expensive test prep and some can’t. Some kids are great students, but they don’t test well. Test-optional colleges benefit from an increased number of applicants, and their college’s average exam score for admitted students is higher. These two data points help the college place higher in many of those national rankings that parents pay so much attention to.

When a college takes exam scores out of the admissions picture, they place a greater emphasis on the other factors in the application, like GPA and course rigor. Students who don’t test well may want to look at Fair Test schools; however, be aware that merit scholarships at most of those colleges will still require an ACT or SAT test score.

The final lesson learned…

The landscape of college entrance exams is always changing. The list of colleges that require writing scores, SAT Subject Tests, or even any test scores at all is constantly evolving. That’s why families need to remember just this: the testing landscape is always changing. Consult college and testing vendor websites when you need the most current and accurate information.

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