At school there’s probably already some buzz over the SATs or ACTs. These achievement or aptitude tests have been making college-bound teens nervous for years. You may even remember how you felt taking yours as a teenager.

The ACT and SAT are used by colleges and universities to assess students’ strengths and abilities. Often these scores are used to determine whether students will be accepted; however, more and more colleges have begun to make submitting these test scores optional.

While there are ways to prepare teens so they’ll be less nervous for the big tests, your student will first have to decide which test to take, or perhaps whether to take both or perhaps neither!

Choosing Between the SAT and ACT

What do you want to be tested on – aptitude or achievement? The SAT focuses on reasoning and verbal abilities while the ACT focuses on what you’ve learned in school. Also, the questions on the ACT are usually more straightforward than the ones on the SAT, which sometimes seem like trick questions.

Each test features different subjects. The SAT categories include math, critical reading and writing, with a big focus on vocabulary. So, if words are your thing, then maybe the SAT is the right choice. The ACT includes more math, English, science, reading and an optional writing portion. If science is your thing, the ACT may be your best shot. But many colleges do require that “optional” writing portion, so best to check beforehand.

The tests are graded differently, as well. The SAT deducts points for every question answered wrong, so students are encouraged not to guess. However, the ACT does not penalize one for guessing.

The tests are also scored on different scales, but they are equally challenging for getting a perfect score. One isn’t necessarily easier than the other; it all depends on the student’s strengths. The ACT compares your total score to other test takers while the SAT has individual scores per person for each section.

So which is best? Your teen might consider taking both tests to see which results in a higher score. Although some colleges are making the reporting of these test scores optional, most do still require one or the other. Whichever one is chosen, it’s a good idea to start prepping early.

Preparing for the SAT and ACT

It used to be believed there wasn’t any way to study, but it’s been proven that certain courses and studying techniques can help improve scores.

Most high schools offer prep courses, either during the school day or after school hours, in which students are given practice questions and taught how to read and dissect confusing questions. There are also plenty of books and practice tests online.

Encourage your teen to take the test as early as possible! There will be different sign-up dates during junior and senior years and while they cost money, you can sign up for as many as you can afford. If the first test taken doesn’t result in a desired score, your student will feel better knowing that there’s more than one chance to take it. The best score achieved is the one that can be sent to colleges.

Jennifer Hanrahan is an intern with Boston Parents Paper.