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The college application process: Understanding the ACT and SAT

The college application process tends to brings up a lot of emotions for students and parents alike. Some don’t even know where to begin, which can be stressful and anxiety-inducing. John Dragone has seen it all in his nearly three decades-long career in college advising, admissions, and planning. He wants students and parents to know that, with the right tools and knowledge, applying to college doesn’t have to be a negative experience- in fact, it can even be enjoyable.

FingerLakes1.com recently released the first episode of Talking College with Admissions and College Planning Expert John Dragone, where Dragone discusses how colleges use standardized test results, the most important part of high school transcripts, and how to best prepare for the ACT and SAT.


Other factors at play besides standardized tests

Many students are under the impression that ACT/SAT scores are the single most important factor that determines whether they get accepted to their dream school. Dragone says this is not the case- ACT/SAT scores are only one component of a college application. Other components include possible essays, list of extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and a portfolio or audition for students of the arts.

“The rule of thumb is the more selective, in other words, more difficult it is to gain admission to a particular college, the more stuff they’re going to ask for,” explains Dragone.

Dragone goes on to say a student’s high school transcript is the actual most important part of a college application. A transcript is a one-page document that indicates academic performance from ninth grade until the application is submitted in the fall of a student’s senior year. If a student took accelerated courses in eighth grade, those will also be listed.

Additionally, the transcript will list one’s cumulative grade point average (GPA). Some schools have class rankings, and others do not- if they do, students will have a weighted and unweighted GPA.

Differences between ACT and SAT

There are two scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is administered by College Board. One is the math score, and the other is the evidence-based reading and writing score.

“The ACT, on the other hand, is a little different. That test provides scores in English, math, reading, and science,” says Dragone. “Some students do better on the SAT, some students do better on the ACT. It just depends on which one the student is better suited for.”

The PSAT is typically taken in October of a student’s junior year followed by the SAT that spring. Colleges do not see PSAT scores, so students can use this opportunity to get an idea of what to expect on the real exam. The PSAT Score Report will help them identify their strengths and weaknesses.

It is essential that students go to either the ACT or College Board website to see test dates and registration deadlines for Spring 2022.

How do I know if a college requires the ACT or SAT?

The easiest way to check if a college requires the ACT or SAT is to head to the ‘Admissions’ section of its website. The college could be one of three types: Test required, test optional, or test blind.

For students applying to a community college, it is “unlikely that you’re going to find a college requiring a SAT or an ACT score. For purposes of admission, there are not too many two-year colleges out there that would do that,” says Dragone.

Additionally, it is very rare that any college would require both ACT and SAT scores from a student.

Accommodations and financial concerns

What about students seeking testing accommodations?

“Tests offer testing accommodations for students with disabilities. If you’re a student that has a visual hearing, physical, learning, or other disability, special testing arrangements can be made. If that’s the case, see your school counselor immediately,” advises Dragone.

Students in these circumstances should be proactive in reaching out to their counselor as testing accommodations can take weeks to get approved.

What do you do if it presents a financial hardship to pay for the ACT/SAT?

“No student should not take the SAT or ACT due to the fact that it might be difficult for them to pay for it,” says Dragone. “If you feel as though you have a legitimate reason- where it provides a financial hardship- see your school counselor right away. If you qualify for a fee waiver, they’ll make arrangements for it, and you get to take the test for free.”


New episodes of Dragone’s new podcast are released weekly. Check this page for the latest episode of Talking College.

You can listen or watch the full premiere episode of Talking College with Admissions and College Planning Expert John Dragone here.



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