Test Prep

Testing FAQs for Those Who Want to Return to College After A Break

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Ready to go back to school after a break? It's never too late -- but it does mean that the SAT or ACT may once again be a part of your life. For the returning student who doesn't know whether a test retake is necessary, there are several factors to consider, advises Eric Allen, co-founder of Admit.me, a free online admissions resource, and Admit Advantage, an expert admissions consulting firm in New York and Bethesda, Md.:

- How old are you? How long have you been out of school? Some colleges will waive the test requirement for older applicants and use other indicators, such as community college transcripts or work experience, in lieu of standardized test scores.


- What does your target school require? Some schools may still require older, nontraditional students to submit scores from the SAT or ACT, so it is important to check the admission requirements for each college of interest.

- How old are your SAT/ACT scores? Although SAT and ACT scores do not expire, the results are considered valid for only five years. If it's been more than five years since your last test, and the scores are required by your target schools, you'll have to register to take the test again.

Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

If you do need a test retake and the schools on your target list accept both SAT and ACT scores, how do you know which one to take? Look at the quantitative strengths and weaknesses of each tests, Allen advises.

“While both tests include algebra, the math sections of the ACT and SAT differ in other math topics that are covered and the resources that are provided or allowed. For example, the SAT has a math subsection that prohibits the use of calculators, while a calculator is allowed for all math questions on the ACT. The SAT provides certain formulas for test takers, while the ACT does not. Also, as 25 percent of the composite ACT score, math has a smaller impact on your overall score, since the math section of the SAT accounts for 50 percent of your total score.”

Test taking speed also might be important for you, especially if you've been out of school for a while and are no longer used to taking timed tests in the classroom on a regular basis. The SAT provides test takers with more time per question than the ACT, but Allen says that test takers find the SAT questions more complex in nature. “Overall, slower test takers may lean toward the SAT,” he adds.

And don't forget that the ACT includes a science component, while the SAT does not. Although the science questions on the ACT are mostly based on interpreting data and research passages, there are still a handful of questions that do require a basic science background, and include concepts from biology, chemistry, physics and earth/space sciences.

If you are still unsure of which test makes the most sense for you, Allen recommends reviewing the various sections for each test, doing practice questions and also taking a full-length practice exam for each test to see how your score percentiles compare. “Based on performance and the level of comfort with each exam, students are better equipped to make an informed decision about which test they should focus on,” he says.

Once you've decided which test you will take, you can go online to register for the SAT or ACT. If you're interested in receiving brochures from colleges, go ahead and opt in for the Student Search Services. But if you already know where you want to apply, don't check this box so you can avoid the flood of mailings and emails from colleges around the country.

Test Prep Tips

There are tons of options available to get you ready for the test. Even if you're busy with a full-time job, there's bound to be an option that will fit your schedule. As a first step in your test prep strategy, Allen recommends a test prep book or online study program (College Board and ACT both offer free resources) that includes full-length practice exams.

Take the full practice exam in a quiet room, and give yourself breaks, just as you would have during the actual testing experience. Once you have this baseline score, you'll understand how much progress you need to make to meet your testing goals, and what kind of test prep strategy will work best for you.

Self-guided study with a test prep book or a free online resource is the cheapest way to go, but of course requires the most self-discipline. If you have the budget for it, you can try an online course that allows you to work at your own pace, a traditional classroom test prep course, a test prep tutor or a combination of any of these methods.

In the end, your SAT or ACT scores are just a part of your application, and colleges are interested in knowing who you are and what you've been up to since you left high school. Colleges want to have “a complete picture of who you are as an applicant and more broadly as a person,” Allen points out. “This is something that the applicant may consider writing about as a part of the main essay or personal statement or as an addendum in the optional section. Also, don’t look at your nontraditional status as a deficit. Instead use this opportunity to convey the growth, maturity and perspective you’ve gained since graduating from high school. As a nontraditional student, there are so many benefits in applying later in life; try to incorporate some of these lessons learned and experiences into your application to help you stand out. Don’t apologize for being a nontraditional student— celebrate it!”