Standardized tests are the reality for most students applying to American universities or private schools. These tests are the bane of most students’ existence. As you prepare your family for any of the common standardized tests, here are the top three things you need to know:

1. They are not as important as you think they are

Many parents worry about their children’s scores on standardized tests for university such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the ACT (originally an abbreviation for the American College Test), or the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) for private schools.

Often students and parents will ask me what the minimum score is to get into a particular school, or they’ll even ask what I got on my SAT for when I applied to university. I can tell you right now that having received my bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and my master’s degree from Columbia University, that I scored below each school’s ranges on the SAT and GRE (the Graduate Record Examination used for graduate admissions).

Some parents obsess about having their children achieve the highest score possible so they get them to keep on taking the tests over and over again. I would advise against this. In fact, at the college level, some universities will ask for all of a students’ scores, so taking a test many times may actually hurt that student. Moreover, I would say that there are more important areas of the application on which to focus such as the personal statement and the interview (if it is applicable). Lastly, there are a number of top-level American universities that don’t even require the SAT or ACT. You can find a list of such universities at web link.

2. Test Preparation

Because families want to ensure that students get the highest possible score they can, they enroll them in test preparation courses. I’m supportive of the right type of test preparation but I caution you to be careful when choosing a particular company. There are a number of test prep companies out there that simply teach through rote memorization and drill work. Their method is to cram a bunch of vocabulary into students and then give them a bunch of practice tests. This Asian style of teaching just doesn’t work. Rather, I believe that students learn best through positive reinforcement and actually learning strategies for test taking. So, my advice is to select a company that emphasizes critical thinking and offers a more Western approach in its teaching method. Remember after all that you want your child to gain entry into a Western school.

3. SAT vs. ACT

Many students will be familiar with the SAT but not the ACT. The vast majority of US universities accept both tests. It’s important to note that the SAT and ACT are very different exams. The SAT is an aptitude test that tests your verbal and reasoning skills whereas the ACT is an achievement test that tests what you have learned in school. One test is not easier than the other and both require you to prepare beforehand. I would recommend that you try taking practice tests for both the SAT and ACT. You may find that you prefer one test to the other. Just remember that studying and preparing for the SAT is different than it is for the ACT.

To emphasize once again, while standardized tests are an important part of the application, they are by no means the most important. As such, it’s crucial to keep a balanced perspective as your family prepares for the application process to either a US university or to a private school.