Know Which Exam's Right for You

Planning for higher education puts a lot of things on your plate. One of the bigger challenges to your sanity is the hearty serving of alphabet soup that represents standardized tests. The SAT and the ACT are as ever-present as household dust. Throw in references to AP exams and the GRE, LSAT, CBEST, TAKS, TOEFL, Praxis I-PPST . . . in a word, EEK!

Standardized tests come in all makes and models. One among the many acronyms is surely suited to your education interests and your geographical location. Figuring out which test to take, what material is covered, how you reserve your seat at the test center, and when you can expect the big day to cross your calendar calls for some research on your part.

Get into the ACT* or sit for the SAT**

At the most basic level, college-bound high school juniors and seniors need to sort through the differences between the SAT and the ACT, both of which measure what you know and how well you're likely to perform in college. Some university admissions experts suggest the choice is easy; they say to play it safe and take both tests. Many students, however, prefer to focus their preparation (and anxiety) on a single exam. Picking the one that will put them in the best position during college admissions decision-making is all-important.

The first step is to find out what a specific college expects. A university's Web site will spell out the college's preferences. The requirements may allow students to submit scores for either the SAT or the ACT; some institutions may look for one and not the other. Most universities will take both.

Here's a rundown of the chief differences between the SAT and the ACT:

  • The ACT measures what the student has learned from his high school studies, while the SAT is considered more of a reasoning and verbal aptitude test.

  • The ACT tests English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing test (introduced in February 2005) that you complete if it's required by the college you're hoping to attend. The SAT covers Math, Reading, and a must-do Writing section (as of March 2005).

  • ACT scores are based on how many you get right, with no penalty for guessing. The SAT takes off points for wrong answers.

To gather other big details, like when the tests are offered, best times to register, and how the two testing agencies handle sending scores out to colleges, visit their respective Web sites at ACT, Inc. and The College Board.

Make sense of all those other acronyms

You may have already sat for your SAT or acted on your ACT, or you may be set to pursue a more specialized test to, for example, obtain teaching credentials in the Golden State (California Subject Examinations for Teachers — CSET — or the California Basic Educational Skill Test — CBEST). In the sea of standardized exam acronyms, the Internet can provide a life raft of information.

Ready, Set . . .

Studying for a standardized test may sound like a whole different breed of test preparation. Actually, the formula for success is pretty much the same as with any other exam situation: You find out what the test will cover and you review that material — over and over, early and often.

Of course, a positive outlook always helps ease the stress of test day. And knowing what supplies to tote along — pencils, photo ID, registration, calculator, watch — can make the experience less like a scene out of a Hollywood fright flick . . . or a TV sitcom.

When it's all said and you're done with the acronym of your choice, don't hesitate to celebrate. You have plenty of reasons to say, OKAY!

*ACT is registered trademark of ACT, Inc., which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this product.

**SAT is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this product.