Do you remember taking the SAT? I don’t. And I took the test, which is supposed to be predictive of college performance, twice.
It is possible that my recollection is fuzzy because in the ’80s, while definitely important, standardized testing wasn’t quite the big deal (or big business) that it is today. Or, it might just be because I am getting old.
When I was in high school, the SAT was the preferred test for students applying to college. The ACT was around then too, it was created in 1959, but I don’t think it was offered as an option, at least not where I lived.
Back then, SAT prep consisted of a high school English teacher going over vocabulary words a week or two before the exam, and of taking the PSAT sophomore year—that was about it. We didn’t spend a lot of time practicing for, or thinking about, the test.
Today, standardized testing, like most of the college admissions process, is a very different ballgame.
I didn’t really grasp the finer points of standardized testing until my daughter, a junior in high school, had already taken the PSAT twice; the PLAN and another pre-ACT test one time each; and the ACT, twice. That might seem like a lot of test taking, but in today’s hypercompetitive world of college admissions this would be considered average.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- The ACT, unlike the SAT, is curriculum-based. Kids are tested on what they have learned in school, not what they’ve learned for the test. It contains a section on science, which the SAT doesn’t, but that section has more to do with the test taker’s critical reading abilities than to their overall knowledge of science.
- Both tests include a section on English, but the SAT focuses on vocabulary while the ACT concentrates on punctuation, grammar and syntax. When it comes to math, word on the street is that the SAT is easier. The ACT includes trigonometry, the SAT doesn’t.
- The SAT is reasoning-based and requires the ability to think critically and, as mentioned before, is vocabulary heavy. These are skills that students can be drilled on. And that’s why so many kids choose to work with a SAT tutor, enroll in an SAT preparation class, or at the very least, buy SAT specific test-prep workbooks.
- Because it is knowledge-based, students should wait until the spring of junior year to take their first stab at the ACT. Preparation can be helpful, but probably not as beneficial as with the SAT.
Why did my daughter select the ACT over the SAT? The answer is very simple. She did better on the pre-ACT tests that she took in her sophomore and junior years than she did on the PSAT. Also, she felt more comfortable with the way the questions on the ACT are presented and scored.
Suzi Feldman, an educational therapist whose company provides tutoring and SAT/ACT prep services, agrees that how the student does on the PLAN and PSAT is often the best indicator of how they’ll perform on the ACT and SAT. Feldman suggests that students, “Think about how you felt taking the test, were you stressed more during one or the other? Was one format easier for you? Did you understand the format?”
Feldman adds, “Remember the SAT or ACT test score is only one part of your application. Your grades, letters of recommendation and your personal statement all determine your acceptance.”
She is correct, of course. Standardized testing is but a small part of the overall application. And at some schools, it isn’t even part of the equation.
If my daughter is lucky, years from now, she too might struggle to recall the time she spent darkening test bubbles with a number two pencil. It is the memories of college, after all, that should stay with you, not recollections of the hoops you had to jump through in order to get there.