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College Admissions: Testing 1, 2, 3,

Both the SAT and ACT are used by colleges to help determine admissions; yet the tests examine very different skill sets—how to know which one is right for your child?

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.

SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT Plus Writing… the choices abound. And that can be a good thing, if you understand the options and can determine which test (or tests) is best for your child.

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.

Jennifer Armour May 08, 2011 at 01:15 PM
Thanks for chiming in Ryan. It really does seem like the higher-education bubble has to burst soon--yet, each year the number of people applying to college increases. As you mention, there are good options available for students who aren't sure what they want to study, or whose scores/grades are on the low side. Also, there are several colleges/universities that have designated themselves as being "test optional." I wonder if the higher-education system needs to be revamped along with the rest of our educational system? Science tells us that the frontal lobe of the brain (the section that among other things is responsible for the ability to reason) isn't fully formed until the age of 25. Why in the world do we expect 17-year-olds to know what they want to be when they grow up? Yet we send them off to college with that exact purpose in mind. *sigh*
Mia H May 09, 2011 at 05:50 PM
Nice article Jennifer. One question I have is that most colleges state that they will take either SAT or ACT score, that it doesn't make a difference. Do you get the sense that this is really true? or do they really have an unstated preference for kids that send in one or the other? Mia H
Jennifer Armour May 09, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Thanks for the question Mia. I found no evidence to suggest that colleges and universities favor one test over the other. The only real difference I saw had to do with the way schools "super-score" test results. It seems as if SAT scores will almost automatically be combined, yet, the "super-scoring" of ACT results is not a given. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/sat-and-act/superscoring-act-vs-sat.html
Eric Liu May 09, 2012 at 12:54 AM
The S.A.T. and A.C.T. are both designed to test the student on what they know, and how they apply them in college-like testing situations. As a student, I did relatively well on the S.A.T. and the rumor was that the A.C.T. was more logic-based. However, each test is curved depending on the group of students that take the test with you. As fall S.A.T. is the traditional "last-minute" S.A.T. test, a larger group of students will take the fall S.A.T. so a student might have a harder time placing in the top percentiles (more people = higher chance someone will get 100% and set the curve, less people = lower chance of 100%, therefore a lower curve.) My advice is to take both tests and decide which one suits your college choice. It is advised to at least take the S.A.T., and decide if the ACT is worth a shot as well. Be sure to check out more College preparation tips at Exclusive Tutoring San Diego Facebook.com/ExclusiveTutoringSanDiego
Eric Liu May 09, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Well written article, Jennifer. Many parents and students are unaware that the ACT even exists. For some students, it can open a world of difference. The scary thing is that a "Perfect" 4.0 and an "Excellent" S.A.T. score does not guarantee anything in admissions anymore, a long list of extracurriculars, sports, hobbies, and other factors all come into play when applying for admissions. Check out Exclusive Tutoring San Diego on Facebook for more daily tips and advice on College admissions and preparation!

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