Q: Our high school offers SAT test prep, but nothing for the ACT. My daughter, a freshman, didn't take the PSAT in October because we're hearing colleges now pay more attention to the ACT. Which test should she take?
A: First, a note about the PSAT. "Most students don't take it until their sophomore year, so it's OK if your daughter didn't take the recent PSAT, which was the first administration of the new test," says Robert Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review.
The PSAT doesn't count for college admission. It is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, and very high PSAT scores -- combined with other factors -- can make a student eligible for other scholarships.
For the majority of students who take the PSAT, "the main benefit is to get practice for the SAT," says Franek. "Students shouldn't stress out about it. It is more important to get good grades and take the most challenging courses available: The most important factor in a college application is the student's high school GPA and transcript. Test scores are second in importance."
All colleges that require test scores -- that's about 1,900 of the 2,700 four-year accredited colleges in the United States, says Franek -- accept either ACT or SAT scores, and don't have a preference. And even if a student is applying to a test-score-optional college, ACT and SAT scores are used in determining awards for scholarships and grants, so there is a benefit to taking one of the tests.
So which test should your daughter take? Franek says the answer is simple: Choose the test she will do her best on.
Franek helps students figure that out every day: "At our offices and online, students can take a free, full-length practice SAT and ACT and get reports of how well they did on each test with guidance on areas to improve one's scores.
"Prep seriously at least three to four months before taking it. We encourage students to take the test in their junior year -- that way they have time to retake it in the fall of senior year, if necessary, for one reason or another."
The ACT overtook the SAT two years ago as the more-taken test. About 1.9 million students in the class of 2015 took the ACT; about 1.7 million took the SAT, and many took both, says Franek.
"Some states use these tests as part of their statewide assessment test," he explains. "For example, the ACT is given to all public school juniors in 13 states. The SAT is given as the public high school exit exam in other states, including Michigan, Connecticut and Idaho."
Franek describes the ACT as "more of a big-picture exam, more closely tied to what students are learning in school. It has a science section, and it tests more advanced math concepts.
"However, the SAT is changing. The new SAT debuts in March 2016 and will impact students in the class of 2017. It will be more similar to the ACT in format, scoring and test content."
To compare the two tests and to learn about the new SAT, go to princetonreview.com.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)