Mar 30, 2015 | Sharyland

The Tests to Take to Get into American Colleges

Most colleges and universities in the United States require or recommend that you submit scores from one of two standardized tests - the SAT and the ACT - in order to be considered for admission. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are important to colleges because they are standardized - unlike high school grades and extracurricular activities, which will vary greatly from school to school and student to student. While there is much debate these days as to whether or not success on the SAT or ACT is a reliable predictor of how a student will perform during his or her freshman year of college, students can't get wrapped up in the latest academic debates on the matter. Nor can students graduating from high school in 2015 or 2016 become distracted by the changes that are coming to the SAT in Spring 2016 (more information about the changes can be found here). For the foreseeable future most colleges will continue to judge applicants and their perceived potential based on their scores on the SAT or ACT. If you want to have the most college options, you need to take the SAT and/or ACT.

The good news is that all of the American colleges that require submission of standardized test scores as a part of a student's application will consider a student's score on the SAT or ACT. Colleges look at your success on these tests as interchangeable (as long as you take the ACT with the optional Writing section) - even though the tests assess your skills and knowledge very differently. Thus, you need to be strategic about which tests to take and when to take them in order to ultimately submit to colleges your best scores.

Many students, depending on their particular strengths and weaknesses, will perform much better on one test or the other. Consequently, prepared students will study for both tests by purchasing and completing timed practice tests included in The Official SAT Study Guide Second Edition and The Real ACT, 3rd Edition (Real ACT Prep Guide). Next, students should sign up for and take the SAT and ACT at least once each in order to gauge which test casts them in the best light.

How do the ACT and SAT Differ?

Generally speaking, the ACT assesses your knowledge of basic English, reading, science, and writing and intermediate math, whereas the SAT assesses your critical thinking, problem solving, and test taking skills along with your basic critical reading, math, and writing skills. So in some ways it comes down to a battle between knowledge versus skills. While there is some overlap on both tests, there is no question that the SAT and ACT reward different aspects of one's academic aptitude; therefore, depending on your background, knowledge, and skills, one test could expose your weaknesses while the other could accentuate your strengths.

The seven most obvious objective differences between the two tests are:

  1. The tests differ in length and organization.

    The ACT's sections are broken down as follows:

    • English: 75 questions/45 minutes
    • Mathematics: 60 questions/60 minutes
    • Reading: 40 questions/35 minutes
    • Science: 40 questions/35 minutes
    • Writing: 1 essay prompt/30 minutes

    If you start taking the ACT+Writing at about 8:00 a.m., assume you won't get out of the testing center until about 1:00 p.m. Remember, you should sign up for the optional writing section because the ACT won't count at all colleges as if it was an SAT unless you take the ACT+Writing. If you happen to skip this advice your ACT test day would end about a half hour earlier than it would if you chose to stay for the essay.

    Meanwhile, the SAT's ten sections come in random order except for two constants: the first section is always the essay, and the last section is always the shortest (ten-minute) writing section. By the end of the test you will have completed three Critical Reading sections, three Math sections, three Writing sections, and one Experimental (Unscored) section. For instance, your test could very well proceed as follows:

    • Writing (Essay): 1 essay prompt/25 minutes
    • Math (Multiple Choice): 20 questions/25 minutes
    • Experimental: 25 minutes
    • Critical Reading: 24 questions/25 minutes
    • Math (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): 18 questions/25 minutes
    • Writing (Multiple Choice) 35 questions/25 minutes
    • Critical Reading: 24 questions/25 minutes
    • Math (Multiple Choice): 16 questions/20 minutes
    • Critical Reading: 19 questions/20 minutes
    • Writing: 14 questions/10 minutes

    If you start taking the SAT around 8:00 a.m., don't plan on getting out of the testing center until 1:00 p.m. or later (remember, you need to account for the time taken up by opening directions and breaks between sections).

  2. The ACT's English section tests grammar, punctuation, and syntax. On the SAT, grammar skills are only assessed on the Writing section.

  3. The SAT tests vocabulary to a much greater extent than does ACT.

  4. The ACT Math section includes trigonometry. The SAT Math section tests your knowledge of more elementary math content.

  5. The SAT has ten non-multiple choice math questions. The ACT has only multiple choice math questions.

  6. The ACT includes a Science section that assesses students' basic science skills (no Physics, Chemistry, or Biology). The SAT does not even touch on science.

  7. The SAT penalizes students who make random guesses. The ACT does not penalize guessing.

    For every question you answer and get wrong on the SAT you receive a quarter point deduction to your raw score (which could result in a 10 to 40 point deduction to your scaled score). For every question you answer and get wrong on the ACT, you suffer no point deductions to either your raw score or scaled score. Multiple choice questions left blank and fill-in-your-own response math questions responded to incorrectly on the SAT will result in you neither earning nor losing points.

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