College admissions tests — they strike fear into the hearts of even the most qualified students. As parents, it is often hard to know how to advise our kids, and how to help them perform well on important tests like the ACT and SAT without adding to the pressure they already feel.

The best way to help? Be involved. Learn about both the ACT and SAT, and help your child determine how to prepare for each. You may not be able to teach trigonometry or syntax, but you can provide the support and guidance that all high school students need as they move forward towards the next chapter in their lives.

ACT vs. SAT: What's the Difference?

There are several key differences between the ACT and the SAT. In general, the ACT:

  • is a curriculum-based test, which emphasizes knowledge learned in school.
  • has four sections — English, Reading, Math, and Science, with an optional Writing Test.
  • does not penalize for incorrect answers.
  • is more popular in the Midwest, where many colleges do not require SAT scores.

The SAT, on the other hand:

  • is more of an aptitude test, and emphasizes problem-solving skills.
  • has only three sections — Math, Writing, and Critical Reading.
  • subtracts a fraction of a point for each incorrect answer.
  • is taken more often by students who live on either coast.
  • is usually required by the more prestigious and competitive universities.

ACT and SAT Tips and Tricks

No matter which test your child chooses to take — or if he or she is among the growing number of students choosing to take both — preparation is the key to success. Get involved and help your teen prepare with the following tips:

Know What to Expect

To do well on any test, you need to know what types of questions will be asked. Practice tests are widely available for both the ACT and SAT, so encourage your teen to take advantage of them!

Students should know in advance what test questions will look like, how much time they will have to answer them, and whether or not they will be penalized for guessing incorrectly. This way, they won't face any unknown surprises on testing day.

Identify Strengths and Weaknesses

Once a practice test has been taken, students can identify their individual strengths and weaknesses. If you know in advance which test sections your child excels at and which ones he struggles to complete, you can help him develop test-taking strategies that are based accordingly.

Get Help From the Experts

There's an entire industry that revolves around college test preparation, which means that if you need help, it's readily available.

Remember the Basics

It may seem like a no-brainer to remind students to bring a calculator, but simple mistakes are easy to make (and important to avoid). Remind your child of test-taking basics — things like get a good night's sleep, locate the car keys the night before, set an alarm clock, eat a healthy breakfast — even if they grumble at you to leave them alone.

And remember parents, there's no need to worry. The real stress doesn't begin until students are accepted at the school of their choice — that's when you have to start figuring out how you're going to pay for it.