Though much is changing in the system of U.S. higher education, the ACT and SAT remain pretty certain staples of the process. That does not necessarily mean every Brazilian student will need the results from either of these tests in order to apply to U.S. universities, but it’s an element of their college search which will play some role. Let me explain further:
1) Even if the student opts for the path of least resistance and decides to NOT sit once for either of these exams, they must then have the understanding of what this means for their overall applications and school selections. In other words, if you’re not going to take the tests you need to do extra research into those universities which are “test optional”, whether that’s true for international students as well as domestic, and whether it impacts possible scholarship consideration at any of the universities. Therefore, even opting out does not mean one has necessarily saved time and trouble. On the contrary, it will require a greater understanding of the process and a greater willingness to go wherever the test optional schools are.
2) Take them early and often. These are tests of familiarity. Regardless of what anyone tells you, there is no harm in taking them more than three times! That is an old myth and I am not going to go into all the reasons why it’s not true. It just isn’t. For most Brazilians, the level of math tested on these two exams is something seen in the first year of high school (traditional Brazilian schools) or second year (American or British schools). Thus, the math is most fresh at that moment. So why not take the exams when it’s fresh on your mind? Do it. Build and develop familiarity.
3) What’s the difference between the tests? Honestly, there are subtle and significant differences, both. The format is the most prominent distinction, with the ACT being just 4 main sections, each just under one hour long and consisting of all multiple choice questions in the respective areas: reading, English, science, and math. The SAT, on the other hand, is a test of shorter sections, which bounce back and forth between reading and math, so one never really gets to fully focus on one area for too long. That is obviously a virtue for those students who think the ACT’s sections are too lengthy. The same can be said about the SAT and the back and forth, in short sections, between math and reading. Therefore, I refer you to #2: take the tests early and figure out which format is most comfortable for you. That’s it. Nothing harder. Just do one of each and see which makes you more comfortable.
4) The new SAT presents a lot of questions. Some background on it, though, is that the ACT was gaining an advantage, particularly in the U.S., and taking quite a bit of the SAT’s market share. Therefore, the SAT reverted to a format that is similar to that which is how it was when many parents may have taken it. But at the same time, the format and its kinks will take some time to work themselves out. This is a good article which addresses the general confusion around scoring that the new SAT has inspired: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/05/11/why-your-new-sat-score-is-not-as-strong-as-you-think-it-is/
5) The tests are written for primary English speakers. If your English is poor and you want to pursue something in the maths or sciences during university, focus not on the English, but rather on the maths (and sciences, for the ACT). Let your TOEFL score prove your English proficiency, because it is a better test of that. These two are tests of MASTERY of English. Hence, why they’re written for English speakers. So work hard to prove your mastery in the math area, since that is what you will be focusing more on in university, anyhow.
6) If you’re wanting to apply to the most competitive universities in the U.S., basically the top 25 in any ranking system, you cannot have average or slightly above average scores. It doesn’t matter that you’re from Brazil and you speak several languages, your scores need to be excellent. It doesn’t matter that your parents went to the university or that you don’t attend an American school. It doesn’t matter that you have great grades and are in the top five of your high school class. If your SAT scores are not above 1400 and ACT, above 33, it’s a long and not very forgiving process. Get excited and focus on the hundreds, literally hundreds, of other great university/college options.
7) Strong readers have always done better than those who don’t read. As a general rule, the tests favor those who can read well, naturally (practice often), and who love information (i.e. most people who love to read).
8) Perhaps an SAT/ACT tutor will “help” you raise your scores, but all they’re really doing is getting you to practice until the material becomes rote. If you need the watch of someone else, that’s fine. But like everything else in life, all you need to do is have discipline to make practice a consistent part of your routine. 20 minutes a day for 6 months will get you far. It will get you further than 10 hours of cramming the week before, particularly with regard to how you retain the information.
9) Taking the tests has never hurt anyone. Don’t let it hurt you. Don’t suffer what you cannot endure. If you are relying on the tests to catapult your application strength because your grades, curriculum, and activities are lackluster, don’t push yourself to the point of insanity because you think the tests will make all the difference. They won’t. Just do your best.
**Brady Norvall é counselor e mentor no STB University Counseling.