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ACT, SAT, or Both? Deciding which Path is Best

This debate may be familiar to many of you. ACT? SAT? Both? Some students and families enter junior year with a perfectly clear answer to those questions, but the reasons behind those decisions may be less clear. Do any of these sound familiar?

He’ll take the ACT, of course. He wants to attend a school in the Midwest.

We’re an SAT family. Her older brother scored much better on the SAT.

Of course I want to prepare for both exams!

The ACT and SAT originated in different places, for different purposes, and developed different reputations over the years. Despite the many changes to each test, some of those perceptions persist.

The SAT, originally developed by the College Board for use in admissions to elite, northeastern schools, remains more popular on the coasts than in the Midwest. The ACT came later, designed to provide an admissions test for regional and public universities that didn’t use the SAT; it is still more popular in the Midwest than the SAT.

Although these regional patterns persist regarding which test students tend to take, the initial reason for those patterns – which test your college of choice might accept – no longer holds. The final school to accept the ACT finally did so in 2007, meaning that the choice of which test to take is really up to the individual student.

Until the roll-out of the Redesigned SAT in March of this year, our goal as tutors was to encourage each student to take both a practice ACT and a practice SAT before deciding which test to prepare for. There were substantial differences in the structure, with the ACT favoring fewer, longer sections and the SAT preferring more, shorter ones. The ACT had the dreaded Science section to contend with, while the SAT tested those also-dreaded vocabulary words. Many students would score about the same on each test, and choose based on their preference, while some would perform significantly better on one than the other.

The discussion of which test to choose has been complicated somewhat since the SAT redesign. The new SAT features fewer, longer sections, just like the ACT. It has done away with the vocabulary sections. And while the SAT hasn’t added a Science section, the charts and graphs that permeate each part of the test will look somewhat familiar to those who have spent time with the ACT.

There are still differences, though, between the ACT and the SAT, that one should consider when deciding between the two exams, and they don’t have anything to do with the geographical distribution of your college list.

First, how strong are you at math? On the SAT, math counts for half of your score, while on the ACT math makes up only ¼. That’s a significant difference. Consider, also, how well you’ll fare without a calculator, as the SAT has a section that must be completed without one.

How much do you want to improve your score? Because of the changes to the SAT, there is much less practice material available than for the ACT, which means fewer opportunities to practice and improve your score. If you’re looking for a significant boost, you might lean towards the ACT.

How much do you struggle with timing? The timing on the ACT is more difficult for some students. The SAT provides more time per question, which might be an asset. Taking a practice version of each will help you to know if that is the case for you.

A final consideration is that the SAT, during and since the redesign, has been a bit unstable. There have been data breaches, score delays, and debates over how the new scores stack up to the old ones.

If you know you’ll be taking an ACT through school, or (for those who haven’t already taken it) you plan to prepare for the PSAT, those factors might influence your choice as well. The goal is to prepare for only one exam. The ACT (or SAT) is only one part of your college applications, and your college applications are only one part of your life. Preparing for both tests – or choosing the wrong one – is a recipe for doing more work than necessary and taking time away from all of those other activities and classes that make up your high school career.

By Audrey Hazzard, Premier-Level Tutor

ACT & New SAT Compared

Section breakdown of the ACT and SAT (including breaks):

ACT

Revised SAT

English – 75 questions, 45 minutes

Reading – 52 questions, 65 minutes

Math – 60 questions, 60 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Writing and Language – 44 questions, 35 minutes

Reading – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Math (no calculator) – 20 questions, 25 minutes

Science – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Break – 5 minutes

Break – 10 minutes (with writing)

Math (calculator) – 38 questions, 55 minutes

Writing – 40 minutes (optional)

 

Break – 2 minutes, can’t leave room (with writing)

Test is finished

Writing – 50 minutes (optional)

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 5 minutes

Total time (ACT + writing): 3 hours, 55 minutes

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 15 minutes

Total time (SAT + writing): 4 hours, 7 minutes

Many of the changes to the SAT bring it closer to the ACT: the longer sections, the switch to an optional essay, the content of the math test (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trig), the graph questions sprinkled throughout the test (resembling ACT Science questions), the elimination of short essay passages in the reading, the removal of archaic, obscure vocabulary questions, and the transition to four answer choices instead of five.

But while the tests look more alike than they have in the past, there are also differences between the revised SAT and the ACT. In the Reading section of the SAT, students can expect five passages instead of four. There are also questions that evaluate a student’s ability to interpret the emotions of characters within a passage, which is something that is largely absent from the ACT. There are also new, evidence-based questions that require students to answer questions that give support for previous questions they’ve answered. If they miss the first question, it will be difficult to get the second one correct.

On the Writing and Language test, the question types are almost identical to those found on the ACT English section, but on the SAT, students will have 36% more time to answer those questions. On the surface, that extra time seems advantageous. Timing on the ACT English section is not, however, usually a problem for students. With so much extra time on the SAT, they might find themselves second guessing and changing correct answers in the remaining time.

The SAT math test now focuses less on geometry and more on algebra – another point of differentiation between the two exams. The questions are generally more difficult, but students have more time to solve them. There’s also an emphasis placed on solving systems of equations. The no calculator section of the test could pose a new challenge for students who typically rely on them heavily. Student produced response questions (often referred to as “grid-in” questions by students), where students must supply their own answer to instead of choose from provided multiple choice options, are still present on the SAT and not on the ACT.

Overall, students can expect trickier wording on the SAT. The longer sections will make it difficult for some students to concentrate. The advantage of timing, however, likely still rests with the SAT: students have more time per question in each section of the exam than they do on the ACT. Some students, however, may find this more hurtful than helpful. There’s still a stronger emphasis on vocabulary than there is on the ACT, but the words being testing are not as difficult. At the end of the day, which test is “better” or “easier” is extremely subjective; different students will prefer and perform better on different things. That’s why it’s important, as always, for students to take both an ACT and a SAT practice test to see where their strengths lie.

 

The New SAT

On Wednesday March 5, 2014, the College Board made announcements that will change the SAT test for those students in your family who will the test in 2016 and beyond which will, among other things, change the scoring back to what it was before March 2005.  It was not that long ago that we mentioned a few thoughts in reaction to a study pronouncing the SAT as “not correlated to college success.”  We had a lot to say by way of agreement, and today we will try to address those points again in the storm of discussion – and in some quarters, panic – about these changes.

Let’s repeat our fundamental beliefs here at Get Smarter, which are backed by numerous high school teachers and counselors as well as college admissions professionals and officials: GPA is the single best indicator of how you will perform in college.  It measures multiple things – not just your ability to do well on a given test, but also your ability to complete projects, do homework, and participate in class, among other things.  A single 3-hour test on a number of different subjects can only measure how well you do against metrics determined by a particular authority.  In this case – College Board (and the ACT) for that matter, have neither a government mandate nor any form of regulation.  They are allegedly nonprofits but they act as free market businesses that have lobbyists and VERY well paid board members.  They, not we, for decades have determined “what matters” on these tests.  Some major shortcomings?  Let’s talk about three areas of the current SAT (let’s leave the ACT aside for now, perhaps for a day when they too announce changes).

Reading

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was all about “difficult” vocabulary and easy to medium difficulty reading passages.  People may whine that these words were “irrelevant” but for any serious student, these words were from a “known” list and could be studied and learned.  As for the reading comprehension – students had been doing that for most of their lives, so not too difficult there.

“Today, when we say that someone has used an SAT word, it often means a word you have not heard before and are not likely to soon hear again. The redesigned SAT will instead focus on words students will use over and over again, that open up worlds to them.”

                        -David Coleman, President of the College Board

This is somewhat puzzling.  Part of the challenge of question design in this section of the test is having a sentence that clearly indicates context and then having a number of challenging words in position.  Part of learning any language is not just using words over and over again, but using new words as bridges to expression.  We’ll see more of what they mean in one month when they release some practice questions.

Math

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was not particularly challenging mathematically.  While there was an element of trickery in the questions, the questions themselves were not terribly difficult.  As for the new test, the College Board says it will be based around “problem solving and data analysis; the heart of algebra; and passport to advanced math.”  Yet, this still repeats the same problem we saw on the old test and the current test: many students who will excel in college are LONG past algebra in their junior year of high school.  In all likelihood they are in Calculus, a math level that is actually used in college, unlike Algebra.

Writing

It is unclear whether the grammar part of the writing section will remain, as the traditional scoring has left 800 points for Math, 800 points for Reading, and over the last 9 years, 800 points for Writing, of which the essay is a little over ⅓ of the weight.  As it stands the grammar portion is the “least bad” portion of the test, as it tests frequent mistakes in grammar that manifest themselves in the emails of Fortune 500 companies on a daily basis, to take just one comparison.  The essay seems to be a new, discursive type of essay, and it is now “optional.”

As we said, we’ll have more to say on this issue in the months and weeks ahead.  As always, as long as there is an unfair testing regime in place in academia, we are going to be here to help our students overcome that regime.

Whatever College Board or pundits tell you, there is no way to “level the playing field” for a standardized test, even if it is a good one (e.g. the AP Exam) or a poor one (the SAT or ACT).  You will always have students who bring more motivation, more study skills, more intelligence, or more prep.  The future will always belong to those who deal with a challenging situation, as our students here at Get Smarter Prep always have.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.