SAT vs. ACT: Which test is right for you?

Choosing which test — or even whether or not to take it — means  evaluating your strengths as a student.  Credit: Wavebreak Media
Choosing which test — or even whether or not to take it — means
evaluating your strengths as a student. Credit: Wavebreak Media

As high schoolers across the land sharpen their pencils for the SAT or ACT this fall, they still need to decide on one of the two college entrance exams. According to the Fair and Open Testing, the number of ACT takers has surpassed the number of SAT takers. Most schools still require one of the two test scores as a main criteria for college admissions.
Colin Gruenwald, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of SAT and ACT programs, explains, “Students have the opportunity to deliver the score that best represents them. At this point every university in the U.S. that requests or accepts the SAT also requests or accepts the ACT. Some students do better on one test on the other.”
His advice to test takers? “Sit down, take your sample tests and figure out which one is definitely the best option for you.” Whether it’s through your library, guidance counselor’s office or taking free sample tests through Kaplan, the prep work isn’t optional. After choosing which one works better, Gruenwald advises students to focus all their energy on that test.
Kelly Montrym agrees. The associate director in the office of undergraduate admission at Boston College doesn’t have a preference with one test over the other when evaluating prospective students. She points out, “We’ll use whichever score is stronger for the student.”
In fact, she explains that although students may feel like test scores reflect their intelligence, admissions professionals evaluate scores as overall readiness. “We view it as how prepared you are for college,” she says.
Some may disagree, leaning more toward grades in school over standardized tests. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTEST: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, explains, “No doubt that a kid who scores a 1400 is going to be more ready than a kid who scores a 600, but the point is there’s better data prediction and that is the high school record. Researchers attest that high school grades — despite the differences of high schools — are a better measurement.”

Many schools have adopted this mindset; 850 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions have dropped the ACT/SAT admissions exam requirement. “From our perspective, neither test is necessary to do effective college admissions. Both tests are inferior to high school grades,” Schaeffer says.
Though he doesn’t believe in them, Schaeffer says he doesn’t think that either test will go away entirely.
Montrym, the president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling, seconds that notion. “If I was a betting woman, I would say the tests are here to stay.”

The differences

ACT

  • Five sections: English, math, reading, science and a 30-minute optional writing test.
  • The maximum score for each section is 36.
  • Content areas tested in each section.
  • Writing test is at the end.
  • Testing time is 3 hours and 25 minutes (45 minutes each section)..
  • No wrong answer penalty.
  • Questions have a consistent level of difficulty.

SAT

  • Three sections: Critical reading, math and a 25-minute required writing test.
  • The maximum score for each section is 800.
  • Content areas break down into 10 sections.
  • Required writing test is at the beginning.
  • Testing time is 3 hours and 45 minutes (sections range from 10-25 minutes depending on the section).
  • Wrong answer penalty.
  • • Questions get more difficult as test progresses.

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