Mackler Associates knows that October has arrived, and for juniors in high school that often means answering the age-old question: Do I take the ACT or the SAT? To give a full answer, we first need to understand the differences between the two tests.
The ACT is a backward-looking test; colleges use it to see if the student’s GPA matches with a test of fundamentals in four key areas – English, Math, Reading, and Science. An ACT score below the expected score for the GPA creates doubts in the mind of the college as to the student’s ability to handle college work.
The SAT is a forward-looking test; colleges use it to see if students have the critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in both verbal and quantitative environments to succeed as a freshman in college. The SAT historically correlates well with freshman academic performance.
The content of the ACT and SAT differs, often significantly.
The ACT presents material in an inventory-style fashion and looks more like questions students see in school, with each question designed to touch on a specific skill. The math covers from pre-algebra to Algebra II, but it does so in a very one-concept-per-question format. The reading has passages from fiction, the humanities, social science, and natural science, but covers more on literal comprehension than deeper thought.
The SAT presents material in sometimes abstract fashion. The verbal presents five passages in reading, including one historical piece, and looks to go a bit deeper than the surface reading of the ACT. The grammar section looks very similar to the ACT. The math portion has two sections – one without a calculator, one with a calculator. Both sections stress concepts over number crunching and often test multiple concepts in one question. The math covers through Algebra II, but the word problems tend to be harder to break down than the ACT.
The ACT uses the time to create the curve, and so it is a “speed” test with a premium on efficiency. By contrast, the SAT has levels of difficulty built into the questions, so time tends to matter less than ability.
Historically, the top colleges in the country, particularly those on the East Coast and West Coast, prefer the SAT because it gives them a better statistical measure of success. By contrast, schools in the middle of the country have relied more on the ACT, and quite often based scholarships on reaching a certain level on the ACT.
So, with these factors in mind, which test should a student choose?
If the student does not intend on pursuing an elite coastal school, the ACT may prove to be the better option, as it will feel more familiar and is more beatable in certain ways for the typical student. If the student does intend on trying for a top college, the student should take both tests – colleges accept either the SAT or ACT across the board now, but doing well on both shows an extra edge. Also, a student may show aptitude on only one test format, and that will not become apparent without taking both tests. Finally, do not forget scholarship options that may hinge on taking one test over the other.
Mackler Associates’ St. Louis tutors can help guide you in finding the right test option for you. If you schedule a free consultation, we will examine your student’s profile and past testing and make recommendations for which test works best.