A+ Webinar: Fact or Fiction: Common SAT and ACT Myths

Last updated Aug 29, 2022 

A+ Webinar: Fact or Fiction: Common SAT and ACT Myths

by | Last updated Aug 29, 2022 | ACT, ACT Prep, SAT, SAT Prep, SAT vs. ACT, Test Prep | 0 comments


The first thing I’m going to do is talk about the origin of the testing that we do and talk about some of the changes that have happened. The SAT started almost a hundred years ago. It’s been a long time.  The ACT came online quite a bit later, but still quite a while ago.  They started in different places. The SAT started on the East Coast with the Ivy League, and the ACT started in Iowa City, Iowa, so that was really focused on people in the middle of the country. Eventually the SAT became really big on both the West Coast and East Coast, and the ACT continued to have most prominence in the Midwest and parts of the South. Over time the tests had changed quite a bit, especially the SAT.  Over the time that I’ve been doing this (about thirty years) it’s changed about four times. 

So I wanted to talk about some of the different myths, and again I am happy to answer your question as we go through this.  

Okay, so the first myth that we hear a lot about is that the SAT or ACT is the most important factor in college admissions. It is true that it is important, but it is actually the third most important thing that colleges take into account when they’re looking at a potential applicant. Here is the list of some of the most important things that colleges look at, and it can change a little bit over time, but generally speaking the most important that they’re looking for are overall grades (that’s number one). Number two is the challenge level of the course that you take. So… if the student is getting all A’s, but he or she is not taking the most demanding courses,  that’s not going to look as good to colleges. They would rather see a student take at least a few more demanding courses (whether it’s honors AP or IB, the International Baccalaureate, which is only offered at certain schools). Those are the top two things they’re looking at. Third on the list are the test scores; then, there’s a number of other things they look at on this list: the strength of the curriculum at the school, counselor recommendations, etc. Keep that in perspective. SAT and ACT scores are important, but they are not the most important thing. 

Now I’ve also put together this table for you to look at, and I will be sharing this slide for everyone that is registered for the webinar. So… the main idea is that these are some colleges that are either local colleges or colleges that a lot of students in our area applied to that might be out of state, but they’re nearby. As you can see for every college there is a mid 50 percentile. What that means is that if you look, for example, at the very top of Bloomsburg, the lower number for SAT is 990. What that means is that 25% of the students that attend Bloomsburg received an SAT that is below 990, and then between 990 and 1150 is where the middle 50% lie, and above 1150 is the 75th percentile and above, so generally the advice we give to student is that if you have a student that wants to get into a particular school, for example Penn State,  we recommend that you have to have at least an 1160 to have a decent chance of getting in. If your score is below that level, that probably means that you don’t have a very good chance of getting in unless there is another factor, whether that be a sport or other activity or something else specific that they want to see. Now if you’re in that range (for Penn State 1160-1360) that’s a good range to be in; because, that’s what they’re looking for. Obviously if you’re above 1360, that’s even better, but what you want to do is when you look at a list like this, make sure (for example if you’re looking at Swarthmore, you need a 1380 or above) you’re in that range if you’re going to apply to one of these schools. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting in, but at least you know there’s a possibility. Don’t forget that some students that even have extremely high scores may not get into some of these colleges. If you are applying to Harvard for example, they may have such a small number that they admit, that even with a great application and high SAT scores, they may not admit you anyway for some other reason.  

The next myth that we hear a lot about is that some schools prefer one test over another. The reality is, when I was a kid,  people in our area on the East Coast and on the West Coast only took the SAT. Nobody around here had even heard of the ACT. It was a test that was very regional to the Midwest and parts of the South, but now, no matter where you apply, all colleges will take either the SAT or the ACT, so a lot of parents still believe that schools have a preference for the SAT, but that is not the case. So… what we try to do is help people figure out which is the best fit before they go ahead and decide on which test and then work on preparing for it. 

Okay, now another related myth is that there are regional differences regarding test preferences, and again this is something that may have been the case thirty years ago when colleges on the East Coast or West Coast didn’t really deal with the ACT,  but in the current situation the two test companies are competing quite heavily with each other. Today colleges, no matter where they’re located, have no preference, so that really means you should put your best foot forward by taking the test that’s going to make you look as good as possible. 

And you see here… what this tells us is that, even though they don’t have a preference, there is a certain amount of inertia, and students in our part of the country especially are more SAT test takers, whereas if you look in the vast middle of the country, you will see there are more ACT test takers. It is more a question of this being what people have always done.  There are a few states, if you notice in the Midwest (IL, ID, MI) that are more traditionally ACT states, but these are states where the state itself contracted with the SAT to give it as a high-school achievement test toward the end of high-school, so many students there are automatically taking the test, and that’s why those states are marked “blue” on the map. 

Okay, another myth is the SAT and ACT are IQ tests. Now it’s true that SAT used to be like an IQ test, but over the years with many of the changes that occurred, it became a lot more like the ACT. In both cases they are more achievement oriented and not as much focused on tricks and the ability to answer questions in a clever way. It’s more about the preparation and making sure you have the background knowledge and you’re able to do the type of work that they require ( the kind of content that you have mastered); however, the most important thing is preparation. Even though it’s not an IQ test, and it’s not designed to trick you up, if you haven’t prepared and practiced and reviewed skills, you are going to be at a disadvantage. 

Okay, the next thing that we hear often is the myth that one test is easier. Now that’s not the case; there’s not an easier test. Now it’s possible that for an individual student, he or she might find one to be easier or a better fit, but in general there’s no way to say that one test or the other is easier. There are enough differences between the tests that a test may be more challenging for one person than another. Another aspect of it is that in general the ACT is a much faster paced test, so you need to get through a larger number of questions in the same amount of time although the questions may be less involved. Consequently, a lot of times when students take the ACT, they come out of it feeling that it was rushed compared to the SAT; however, that doesn’t mean that they have a lower score. Even if they feel rushed, they may have the same score or a higher score when compared to the SAT. So… you really should try those tests and see which one you tend to do better on. 

Another myth that we hear about often from parents (students and parents all talk to each other) is that one test date is an easier test date than another. For example, people tell us that they heard the September test date for the ACT was harder; because, the juniors and seniors were taking it, and the seniors may have been able to perform better, but that’s not the case. The reality is both of these companies have been around for a very long time. They employ  a lot of psychometricians who spend their careers developing and testing these exams, so they are smart enough to be able to factor that out of the equation, so they can be able to compare a test that was taken in May with a test taken in August or November, so there’s no way to play that game. There is no way to pick a test date to get an easier test or an advantage. It’s just not possible, so you just have to make sure that you do the best that you can in terms of preparation and not worry about things like which test date is going to give you an advantage. 

Now another myth is that with the rise of “test optional” students don’t need to take the SAT or the ACT, and it is true that there are more “test optional” colleges than there used to be, and it is a growing trend, but it’s not an overwhelming trend at the moment, and most of the students that we work with are not applying to only “test optional” colleges. In other words if you have a list of eight colleges that you are considering applying to, it’s unlikely that all of them are going to be “test optional,” which means that if you are wanting to apply to schools that are not “test optional,” you are still going to have to test. The other thing to consider is that many of the schools which are “test optional” still have a pretty high percentage of students that are submitting scores. So it’s an optional thing, but the majority of the students at those colleges are still submitting scores, so for each individual student, it’s a decision that he or she has to make to determine what makes the best application, what’s going to make him/her look as good as possible for colleges. Obviously if you’re a student who does very poorly on those tests, and you’ve made a good effort at it, and you feel like this is just not going to help your application, then you may decide that for particular colleges, you are not going to share your scores. That makes sense. 

The next myth we deal with is when people say that it’s best to take the official test cold without any preparation to decide how you do, and then you can make a decision about whether to do preparation,  but we recommend not doing that. We don’t recommend going in to take a practice test without having done at least one or two practice tests first to see how you would do. There is no advantage to taking the actual thing when you haven’t done any preparation. We do offer free proctored exams for our students. Generally speaking we recommend students try to take a proctored SAT and a proctored ACT, so we can help people decide which test is a better fit. 

Another common myth is that the SAT is better for students that are stronger in verbal skills and the ACT is better for students who are stronger in math and science.  However, again that is not the case, and it depends on the particular student’s situation.  Some students who are stronger in verbal skills may do better on the SAT, but it’s also possible that they’ll do better on the ACT; because, the ACT has both and English and reading section, but also has a science section which is primarily based on reading comprehension, so if you have good reading comprehension skills, even if you don’t do as well with science initially, you could learn to do better by practicing and honing skill you need, so this just comes back to the whole idea of the fact that there isn’t  one test that’s going to be easier for one student or one type of student. It really comes down to giving it a try with a full length test. One of the things that’s important to consider is the student’s stamina; because, these are long tests. So… it could be that just the format of a particular test may be better for a certain student, but there is no way to know that besides actually trying out the tests. 

The next thing that’s important to keep in mind is about the SAT and ACT essay. When the SAT was re-designed about fifteen years ago, they introduced an essay, and that was a required essay, so everyone had to take it. The ACT also had an essay, but it was optional. The most recent change to the SAT, about two years ago, made the essay optional. Now both the SAT and ACT have optional essays, and at the moment very few colleges actually require the essay, so we are really seeing that kind of disappear. We don’t have a lot of students who are still doing the essay portion of the tests. This is a list of colleges that either require or recommend it, and (as you can see) there are very few colleges in our area that require or recommend it. In fact in our area the United States Military Academy and the Naval Academy are two schools that require it. We also have the State University of New York that recommends it but does not require it. There are hardly any schools around that are asking for it anymore. There are a couple of schools on this list like Duke or Stanford that are very high end schools that may require it, but for the vast majority of our students, it’s no longer a concern. There’s also a link here in this document at the bottom of the page. When you get the slides from us, you can go ahead and check it out. 

Okay, the next myth is about the science section. The myth is that students without lots of science background should avoid the ACT. The ACT does have a science section on it, so on the ACT you have four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science (and the optional essay). On the SAT there is no separate science section (instead there are two math sections). However, you do not need to have a lot of science knowledge to do well on the science section of the ACT.  You do have to know some basic terminology for science, and you do have to know some basics of some things (like what an experiment  looks like). Most of the work you need to do for the science portion of the ACT is to interpret data that is provided in the form of graphs, tables, and charts and then be able to answer questions by reading carefully through the material that’s presented. Students that are strong readers generally  will perform pretty well on the ACT science even if they are not generally very big on science. Again it’s not a reason to avoid the ACT if you’re not big on science. It’s worth taking a look at.

Another myth is that test prep doesn’t affect scores on standardized tests. Now obviously it depends on the student. It depends on how much effort they are willing to put into it. But generally speaking, we have seen over the years with our students that they’re scores improve on average 150 points on the SAT and 4 points on the ACT. Now that doesn’t guarantee that this will happen for a particular student. They may have a higher or lower score improvement than that, but this is a myth that was propagated a few years back by the College Board that test preparation wasn’t actually helpful. Unfortunately some people still believe that. Even the College Board doesn’t believe that; because, they have their own program that they put on (Khan Academy), which they are arguing does improve scores. That’s actually here in the screenshot. You can see that they are advertising that students who do a certain amount of work on their Khan Academy program will receive certain score improvements. Now Khan Academy (I think it’s a good program) is a program that is all computer based, and there is no actual human on the other side of it, but I think it does show that students that do put in (according to the chart) twenty hours or more of practice can see a pretty good score increase. The only thing that we find is that a lot of kids that we work with don’t have the time or discipline to do that work independently, and it’s very helpful to have a person who’s holding them accountable for their work and is also able to explain things that they don’t understand. 

If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer any questions that you have about things that we have discussed here. You can ask them verbally or send me a text in the chat. 

Yeah, Thanks Dan. This is great! Two questions. The previous slide is interesting. Can you interpret what the first bar means?

This one here on the left? The sixty point one? 

Yeah how do you get sixty points from zero hours? I’m not understanding this one. Is this the difference between the first test and the second test?

Yeah. I think that’s what they’re saying. If you don’t do any preparation, you should see a certain amount of score improvement no matter what. That may be based on the fact that students have a little bit more experience in school and be a little bit more mature later on.

And then also a question about one of the earlier slides… perhaps slide #3 that showed the 25-75 percentiles of scores.

Oh yes, do you want me to go back?

You don’t have to. Could you just comment on the current range of scores that are possible on the SAT. A hundred years ago it went to 1600, but does it now go to 2400?

 Well now it’s back to 1600 at this point. It was 2400 for about fifteen years or so. What happened was when they made changes to the test in the mid 2000’s they added a third section. There was a math section, a reading section, and an English section. Then when they rearranged the test a couple of years ago, they combined the reading and English into one again, so it’s now a 1600 point test. 

All right so I’m not sure that those mid 50 percentiles scores correlate to the current scoring; because, it seemed (hmmm… not sure…) like the sophomores 50th percentile was a 1590 or something like that.

Let me pull that up… This is it here right?

Yeah. That’s the one. Yeah like Swarthmore College… 75% scored 1550 or more. I assume that’s on the 2400 scale…

No, no. It means that  25% of test takers, of students, who have been accepted to Swarthmore had almost perfect scores. 1550 is the 75th percentile score, which means that 75% of the students who were accepted received a score below 1550, but that means that 25% were above that.

That is just remarkable!

Well you know, there’s been a certain amount of grade inflation on the SAT since it was redone a few years ago. The scores have definitely gotten higher, so it’s a little bit crazy to get into one of these really elite schools. You really do have to be in that 1400-1500 range to even have a chance.



 I guess the GPA has now moved to a 5.0 scale instead of the old 4.0?

Yeah GPA can be affected by what you take (honors or AP classes), so that’s how you can get higher than a 4.0. Usually high-schools will give (let’s say) an extra 10% for an honors class and an extra 20% for AP classes, so you can end up with a higher than 4.0 GPA.

That’s true, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. You have to have good grades to get into them…

Well it’s nice to see that the ACT has kept the same scale over time!

Yes. The ACT has been a lot more reliable and stable than the SAT has been, so the changes that they make seem to be less severe. 

Well this is great! It’s been very enlightening, and I appreciate the time, and I hope the recording went very well.

Thanks very much! Take care.


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