Afraid of the big, bad tests? There are ways to declaw them. And don't worry about a poor result the first time around—soon you'll be able to hide any score you don't want colleges to see. More and more schools are making tests optional, but chances are you'll want to prepare anyway. So let's get started.
SAT or ACT? While more high schoolers still take the SAT than the ACT (1.5 million versus 1.3 million), virtually every college will accept either. The SAT is a logic and reasoning test; the ACT hews more closely to the high school curriculum. The ACT, considered the more straightforward test, has four sections, including science, and forgives gamblers (SAT takers, by contrast, are docked a quarter point for each incorrect answer). But the ACT has its challenges: The math goes up to trigonometry and precalculus (SAT math stops at Algebra II), and some find it a struggle to finish on time. Ned Johnson of PrepMatters Inc., a test-preparatory and educational counseling firm in Bethesda, Md., recommends you figure out which test you score better on and then focus on that. "Take the ACT early on, and then compare it to the PSAT," he suggests. "If you're dividing your energy between tests, it's likely to leave you divided and conquered."
Should I opt for the ACT writing section? Yes—because on the SAT, the writing section is required. "A lot of schools consider the ACT comparable to the SAT, but the only way they can accept it as a replacement is if students take the ACT with writing," explains Kortney Tambara, a counselor at Oxford Academy in Cypress, Calif. Last year, 41 percent of high schoolers who took the ACT opted for the writing section. It allows you to apply to a wider array of schools and is particularly useful if you're aiming high. The University of California system, for example, requires it.
Are prep classes worth it? Max Bochman, a senior at Taunton High School in Taunton, Mass., says classes helped him "feel more confident, like I had a good understanding of what was going to be on the test." Can't afford them? Many schools offer free or low-cost programs after class, so talk to your counselor. Check out Number2.com, a free test-prep site that adapts to your ability level. Or go the old-fashioned route and buy a book (for a humorous read, try the latest edition of Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT). Most important: Take a simulated test repeatedly, challenging yourself to do better each time. "Prep classes are only as good as the effort a student is willing to put into them," says Judith Koch-Jones, college and career center coordinator at University High School in Irvine, Calif.
What works best? Prep starts on the first day of high school, says Richard Bavaria, a senior vice president with Sylvan Learning. "Go to class every day, take notes, work with a study buddy, and get help early when you need it—don't wait!" he says. Want to make it entertaining? Lauren Pinheiro, a junior at Presentation High School in San Jose, Calif., crafted silly pickup lines using unusual words and shared them in a Facebook group. Examples: "Please don't reject me; I'm not that resilient"; "Girl, being that hot just ain't equitable." Cramming is less effective. It puts your grades in peril, throws your schedule out of whack, and makes you bad company.
Should I retake it? The ACT has long let students choose which scores to send to colleges and which to hide. Starting in March, students taking the SAT will be able to do the same thing—so there's much to gain and little to lose from retaking the test. For those taking the SAT, students gain an average of 40 points on the first retest (it goes down after that). The ACT says more than 55 percent increase their composite score upon retesting. Of course, there's a point where you should call it quits. "Hopefully, young people have better things to do with their Saturday mornings than take standardized tests," says Johnson.