Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

Test Background

The ACT is operated by, and takes its name from, American College Testing, and first came to the fore in 1959, predominantly in Southern and Midwestern schools. Administered by the College Board, the SAT, on the other hand, was introduced in 1926 and was traditionally the favored test in East and West Coast schools. While many of its takers assume that SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test, the acronym no longer has an assigned meaning. Despite the original geographical distinctions, students across the States are free to take either test. In fact, in 2011 the ACT overtook the SAT as the most popular choice for high school students.

ACT Basics

The ACT includes four components, English, Mathematics, Reading and Science, with an optional fifth Writing section. In total, the five-section test lasts 3 ½ hours. Although the Writing section is optional, many colleges require candidates to take it. Students can receive a maximum score of 36 in each section, with an overall average taken to obtain the final test score. If a student takes the Writing section, the essay score is incorporated into the average of the English section. Students taking the Writing section complete the essay at the end of the test.

SAT Basics

The SAT is divided into Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing sections, with the entire test taking 3 hours and 45 minutes. Each section is scored out of 800, for an overall score of 2400. The first item in the test is a 25-minute essay, which is incorporated into the Writing section score, and represents the only part of the test graded holistically. All the other answers are entered on a bubble sheet and graded electronically.

Significant Differences

In the English section, the ACT tests knowledge of punctuation, including commas, apostrophes, and colons, while the SAT places a heavier emphasis on usage. The ACT Mathematics section tests knowledge of concepts in trigonometry, Algebra I, II, geometry and standard arithmetic. The SAT, on the other hand, does not include trigonometry. Notoriously, the SAT Critical Reading section includes a significant number of questions that test vocabulary, meaning that students typically prepare by memorizing extended lists of sometimes obscure words, often without grasping their essential meaning. The ACT, by contrast, tests knowledge of vocabulary in context only.

One of the most common criticisms of the SAT across all sections is that its 140 questions tend to be abstruse and unnecessarily complex. Although the ACT extends to 215 questions, the wording is significantly more straightforward. The greatest difference, however, is that the SAT penalizes wrong answers in an attempt to curb guessing, whereas the ACT awards points only for correct answers.

Key Changes

In order to address criticism, the SAT test has changed significantly during recent decades. From spring 2016, the test will undergo a further metamorphosis. No longer will students be required to learn lists of suggested vocabulary; instead, vocabulary questions will focus on context, in the same vein as the ACT. Likewise, the Critical Reading and Writing sections will include data analysis, and students will have to cite evidence from reading passages rather than simply selecting a multiple choice option.

The Mathematics section will focus on a narrower set of topics and the use of calculators will be prohibited for some sections, unlike the existing SAT where calculators are allowed throughout. Crucially, points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers. The much-maligned essay will remain, but will be optional, and 50 minutes will be allowed instead of 25.  

Which Test is for Me?

Since the ACT is more closely aligned with material on the high school curriculum, it panders to the strength of students who already have a firm grasp of their existing subjects. Because it also tests knowledge of Science, but offers Writing as an option, the ACT also appeals to students whose writing is comparatively weak. This advantage will no longer apply once the 2016 SAT is introduced, however.

Students who are good at simple test taking, who have a longer attention span, and who have a lower-than-expected GPA will find the SAT comes to the rescue. In theory, a student with a low GPA could ace the SAT on strong reasoning skills alone and somehow compensate for poor performance in subjects tied to Common Core Standards.

To give themselves the best possible college application, students to take practice tests in both the SAT and ACT, either by taking PSATs or simply by accessing free online practice tests. In the junior year, there is no impediment to taking both tests, and students can then choose which scores to send to colleges. In some cases, the disparity in scores could be significant. 

About The Main Line Tutor

With over 30 years of experience tutoring high school and college students our tutors specialize in mathematics and general chemistry. Our founder, Dr. Chesloff, holds a Doctorate in Higher Science Education and has developed an education curriculum that engages the student and enhances their learning and thought process to help raise their scores and improve performance.

We offer nationwide tutoring via video teleconference in PSAT/SAT preparation (math, critical reading, writing), ACT test preparation (Get step by step instructions, mock tests and more so you know exactly what to expect with the real thing), as well as in chemistry (General Chemistry (including AP), Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry), algebra I/II, geometry, and trigonometry.

Our Mission is to target the specific needs of our students, college and high school, particularly in the area of standardized test preparation.

Our Tutoring allows for flexible hours 7 days a week nationwide via videoconference.

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