What College Admissions Officers Look For: What Are the Differences Between the SAT and the ACT? (page 4)
Since the reality is that standardized test scores are so important in the admissions process, how do you decide which test is right for you? The SAT is taken by more students on the East Coast, because that is where the College Board is located (NY and NJ). The ACT is taken by more students on the West Coast, because the administrator of the exam is located in Iowa. More and more students on both coasts are trying the other test. The SAT has historically been known as an aptitude test, whereas the ACT is more of an achievement or content-based test. An
aptitude test usually measures future potential, and the concepts being assessed are more abstract. An achievement or content-based test measures achievement in current course work and is therefore more closely aligned with the curriculum being learned. Since the introduction of the Writing section on the SAT a few years ago, the SAT is now 3 hours 45 minutes, not including administrative tasks (completing the answer sheet, breaks, etc.). The ACT is slightly shorter with the optional Writing section: 3 hours, 25 minutes, plus administrative tasks.
Much research has been conducted on these two tests. Students who are studiers and more concrete thinkers may perform better on the ACT. As research results vary, a good practice is to discuss the merits of both tests with your guidance counselor. There is no disadvantage to trying both tests one time and then deciding for yourself which one is better suited for you.
Because taking the ACT's Writing section is optional, always check with the college you are considering to see if it is required. As of this writing, many colleges do not use the writing section of the SAT or ACT in the admissions process. Some highly competitive schools review this section, though, so check the college’s Web site for exact instructions on testing. You should be aware that there is the potential for colleges to view and compare your essay portion of either test with your personal statement from the application.
Comparison of SAT/ACT Exams
Type of test
Content-based, related to high school curriculum
3 hours, 45 minutes plus administrative time
3 hours, 25 minutes (including ACT Writing Test) plus administrative time
Critical reading, math, writing
English, math, reading, science, writing (optional)
10 (includes one experimental section)
200–800 per section
Overall score of 2,400 with three sections
0–12 on essay
1–36 per section
Overall composite score
0–12 on essay
No penalty for omitted questions
¼ pt. deduction for wrong answers on multiple choice
No penalty for wrong/omitted answers
Guessing is encouraged
Another aspect of testing to consider is when and how often to test. When to test really depends on when you are ready to take the test and whether you have too much on your plate (other exams, including APs, finals, state assessments) during testing time. The SAT is usually offered seven times a year and the ACT is usually offered six times a year (neither
is offered in July or August). Students typically take these tests between one to three times and occasionally four or more times. When you test is up to you and your guidance counselor. There is a myth that the curve for these exams is different in different months, but this is not accurate. So, take the test when you feel most ready. There is some evidence that your peak test scores could occur in the fall of your senior year, so do not be afraid to repeat the tests in the October–January administration (up to November for most early decision schools.)
Many colleges attempt to put the student in the best light possible, and one way to do this is to mix and match scores from different administrations of the SAT. An emerging trend is to “superscore” the ACT, which basically means to mix and match subtest scores to form a new composite (overall) score. Other colleges mix and match ACT and SAT scores to form the highest reading score and the highest math score from both exams. Since policies vary widely from college to college, always check the college’s Web site or ask an admissions counselor. There is so much variation in policies it is no wonder that students and parents are confused by the process!
Sample of Colleges that Superscore the ACT
- Amherst College
- Beloit University
- University of Colorado–Boulder
- University of Dayton
- Elon University
- George Washington University
- Georgia Tech University
- Indiana University
- Northeastern University
- Pepperdine University
- University of Miami
- University of South Florida
- Stanford University
- Washington & Lee University
- Washington University
There is a lot of confusion over the testing process. The myth that there are different curves for each test administration is not true. Take the test when you feel ready. Talk to your guidance counselor about any questions you have.
Hoe Do I Prepare for the SAT/ACT?
One of the controversies associated with the SAT/ACT is that students can be coached to improve their scores. Many studies have been conducted to determine if coaching actually improves students’ scores, but the results are not conclusive. It is really up to you and your parents to determine if you have the time and the financial resources to obtain formal preparation services.
Millions, even billions, of dollars are spent every year on preparing for these exams; preparation can include books, online courses, group classes, and private tutors. Some preparation is suggested, but how to best prepare depends on the individual student and the student’s level of motivation. Spending a lot of money is not a guarantee of a large increase in test scores. Some students are helped by test preparation and others are not. What is helpful, though, is to take multiple practice tests to ensure you understand the directions and the types of questions and to determine what test-taking strategies work best for you. What definitely helps you improve your critical reading scores on both tests is to read—everything and anything. From personal experience, I can tell you that many high school students don’t read as much as they should. Reading can improve your vocabulary and your reading comprehension. Daily reading for 20 to 30 minutes is in your best interest. A fun way to keep track of the books you read is to open a “Good Reads” account at www.goodreads.com or a similar Web site, www.librarything.com. You can communicate with friends and authors, write book reviews, categorize your books, and recommend books to others. Other fun ways to improve vocabulary and reading comprehension are to play word games, such as crossword puzzles. Online games include www.freerice.com (which also raises funds for underdeveloped countries) and Text Twist, among others.
If you are considering a course or a private tutor, you need to click with the instructor. If you are taking a prep course and are not happy with your instructor or tutor, let the company know and request a different instructor. If you are a very motivated student, you could do perfectly well with a book or an online course. If you need someone to sit on you (figuratively speaking) in order to get you to prepare, then you might be better off with a course or a tutor. The bottom line is that you can prepare to some extent, but you and your parents are the best judge of which method works well for you and with the financial resources available.
Do I Need to Take Subject Tests?
Subject tests are hour-long multiple choice tests, administered by the College Board, that test your mastery in a subject area. They are available in five areas:
- English (Literature)
- History (World and U.S.)
- Math (Level 1 and Level 2)
- Science (Biology—Ecological or Molecular—Chemistry, and Physics)
- Languages (Chinese, French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew).
The scoring for a subject test is the same as for the SAT Reasoning Test: 200–800. Selective colleges use subject test scores for admissions purposes and/or for placement in college courses. Some colleges accept your ACT scores in place of subject tests, another good reason to take the ACT. Check college Web sites to determine which ones substitute ACT scores for subject tests.
The best time to take a subject test is after you complete a year’s course in the subject. For example, if you take AP Biology in your junior year, then you should take the SAT Biology subject test in June, after you have completed the course. Since the subject tests are based on your high school curriculum, you can prepare for them; studying definitely helps in achieving a respectable grade. If you are not sure if you are applying to a college that requires them, you can still plan on taking the subject tests in courses where you have taken honors or accelerated courses or in areas where you believe your strengths lie. Colleges that do not require a subject test do not count them but they see that you have challenged yourself by attempting the test. If you do not do well on these tests, the colleges that do not require subject tests do not hold it against you. As with the SAT, you can repeat these tests as necessary to raise your score and then you can send the scores to the colleges that require them.
Sample of Colleges that Require SAT Subject Tests
- All Ivy League Colleges (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale)
- Boston University
- Brandeis University
- Bryn Mawr College
- California Institute of Technology
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Connecticut College
- The Cooper Union
- Duke University
- Emory University
- New York University
- Pomona College
- Rice University
- Tufts University
- University of California
- University of Virginia
- Washington & Lee University
- Williams College
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