The ACT versus the SAT
The ACT versus the SAT
The SAT dominates the national discussion of standardized testing; the ACT seldom gets mentioned. However, each year, nearly the same number of students take each test. Traditionally, American colleges used the SAT, rather than the ACT, as the standard-bearer in college admissions. But recently an increasing number of colleges around the country have begun to accept ACT scores from applicants, either in addition to SAT scores or in lieu of them. For you, the important question is which of the two tests should you take?
You should do the following two things when deciding whether to take the ACT or the SAT:
  1. Find out whether the colleges to which you are applying require one test rather than the other.
  2. If it doesn’t matter which test you take, decide which test is better suited to your skills (i.e., the test on which you’ll score better).
College Requirements
The majority of colleges in the U.S., particularly those on the East and West Coasts, still require an SAT score as part of the application. But depending on the schools to which you are applying, you may have a choice between the ACT and the SAT, so be aware of your options. Given the varying preferences at American colleges, you should carefully examine your application requirements before registering for either test. Beware of tricky wording as well: when the writers of the ACT tell you that most U.S. colleges and universities “accept” ACT results, don’t be fooled into thinking that those schools will take the ACT in place of the SAT—many are merely willing to look at your ACT score in addition to your SAT score. In order to avoid confusion (and possibly despair) near application deadline time, make sure you know which scores schools want. If you are confused about a school’s requirements, contact that college or university’s admissions office for clarification.
Also remember that the new writing section offered in February 2005 is an optional requirement. Some schools will require it and others won’t, so make sure you know each institution’s requirements. Note that if you do choose to take the writing test, your writing scores will be sent to all schools regardless of whether or not they require the writing test. Schools must specifically request not to be sent the writing scores, which is fairly unlikely.
Choosing the Right Test for You
The ACT and the SAT are both meant to test your knowledge of the fundamentals of a high school education in the United States. Yet the writers of the two tests are guided by very different philosophies, and the two exams have different formats and test different subject matter. These differences are significant enough that you might feel much more comfortable taking one test rather than the other. We will describe these differences below:
Differences in Testing Philosophy
The ACT strives to assess the knowledge you’ve acquired, meaning that the test focuses on subjects and skills taught in high school. The SAT tries to assess “innate ability.” It does so using tricky and confusing phrasing to determine your test-taking skills (i.e., your performance under pressure and your ability to identify what’s being asked).
You should consider your strengths in comparison with the subjects tested by both tests. The ACT may appear more difficult than the SAT because it tests a broader range of subjects, but keep in mind that a weakness in one subject may not be as damaging on the ACT as on the SAT. You should also keep in mind that although the SAT may deal with simpler topics than the ACT, the SAT questions are often deliberately worded to confuse the test taker. In addition, you can study actual subject matter to improve your ACT score, while improving your SAT score requires you to understand test-taking tricks.
Differences in Format
The New ACT The New SAT
Total Time 175 minutes (plus 30 minute optional writing test) 225 minutes (plus 25 minute experimental section)
Total Number of Sections 4 (plus the optional writing test) 3 (plus 1 experimental section)
The differences in format are not terribly significant.
Taking Both Tests
If time and money allow, you may want to consider taking both the ACT and the SAT. That way, you can have your choice of the two scores when applying to colleges. If you’re applying to a mix of schools, some of which accept the SAT and some the ACT, you’re covered on all sides. While we emphasized the differences between the two tests, studying for both tests actually would overlap a great deal. Both the ACT and the SAT ultimately test your ability to think, and both cover the basics of a high school education.
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