You’re ready to start the college admissions process and everyone is telling you that you have to take a standardized test. But there are two nationally recognized tests, the SAT and the ACT, and virtually all colleges accept either test. So how do you decide which test is best for you? We’ll give you some guidance on how to decide which test is right for you to take.
First, let’s look at the two big tests and see how they are different.
SAT REASONING TEST
The SAT Reasoning Test is a measure of the critical thinking skills you’ll need for academic success in college. The test consists of three sections including:
The Critical Reading Section, formally known as the verbal section, which has long and short passages for reading comprehension as well as sentence completions. There are two 25-minute reading sections and one 20-minute section.
The Mathematics Section which covers numbers and operations; algebra and functions; geometry; statistics, probability, and data analysis. Like critical reading, there are two 25-minute math sections and one 20 minute section.
The Writing Section which involves grammar usage and word choice. 35 minutes of this test are multiple choice questions and 25 minutes are given to a student written essay.
Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200-800, with two writing sub-scores for multiple-choice and the essay. The maximum score is 2400. Wrong answers are penalized ¼ of a point so complete guessing is not encouraged.
Further information regarding the SAT can be found at the site for the College Board.
The ACT is a set of four multiple-choice tests which cover English, mathematics, reading, and science. The ACT also has an optional writing test. It is said that this test measures what you have learned in school more than the analytical skills stressed by the SAT.
The English portion of the test lasts 45 minutes and measures standard written English and rhetorical skills. The Mathematics section lasts 60 minutes and according to the ACT measures the math skills typically acquired in courses taken by the end of 11th grade. These include intermediate algebra, geometry and trigonometry.
The Reading section measures reading comprehension and lasts 35 minutes. The Science section also lasts 35 minutes and measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving skills required in the natural sciences.
The optional Writing test last 30 minutes and measures the writing skills emphasized in high school English classes and in entry level college composition courses. Each of the four main sections of the ACT is scored from 1 to 36 and a composite score is given which is the average of the four sections. 36 is the highest possible test score. The optional Writing test is scored from 2 to 12 with 12 being the highest score.
The ACT does not penalize for guesses so it is advisable to answer a question even if you don’t have any idea what the answer is. Further information about the ACT can be found at the ACT web site.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN DECIDING WHICH TEST TO TAKE
So, now that you know a little about which each test is like, how do you decide which is the best test for you to take. We will look at six factors to help you decide.
First, take a practice test of each test to see on which test you get a better score. You can get a free SAT test from the College Board web site and a free ACT test from the ACT web site. Take each test under standard testing conditions and then compare the scores to see on which you received the best score. To compare the scores go to the College Board’s ACT-SAT Concordance table.
If the scores are relatively similar then you need to focus on the other issues listed here. If you do substantially better on one practice test than the other that should be a serious consideration on which test to focus on when actually taking a test.
The second factor is to look at the colleges in which you have an interest to see which test students submit the most often. You can find this information for most colleges at the College Board’s college quick finder. Once you find your college go to the section for that college under SAT, AP, CLEP. Generally you would consider submitting the test that most students submit. However, if the college receives at least 30% of either test then it doesn’t matter which test to submit. In fact, many students will submit the scores from both tests.
Let’s look at two examples. Carleton College in Minnesota has 81% of its applicants submit the SAT while 54% submit the ACT. The numbers are greater than 100% because many students submit scores for both exams. Even though more students submit the SAT there would be no disadvantage to only submit ACT scores to Carleton since more than 30% of the students submit the ACT.
But let’s look at a similar college, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. At Swarthmore, 97% of applicants submit the SAT and only 25% submit the ACT. You would be the unusual applicant at Swarthmore if you only submitted your ACT scores.
Geography does play some role in this. The ACT test is more common in the middle of the country and the SAT is more common on the two coasts. Colleges in the middle are much more likely to see the ACT than colleges on either coast. If you are from the middle of the country it would not be that unusual if you only submitted the ACT to a college on the East coast. However, a student from New Jersey, for instance, would be unusual if they only submitted an ACT score to a college that predominately receives SAT scores. Some of this is gradually changing as the ACT gets more common on the coasts and students in the middle of the country start taking the SAT in greater numbers. But for now, you need to keep this factor in mind.
But there is one other issue that needs to be considered before we leave this factor. In addition to looking at how many students submit each test, also look at the middle 50% range of scores for each test that the college reports. You may find that the college in which you are interested has a broader range or scores for one test compared to the other. Let’s look at Swarthmore again. On the same page where we found the percent of applicants submitting each test we can see that the low end of applicants combined score for critical reading and math is 1320 while the high end is 1530. This compares to an ACT range of 30 to 34. But if we look at the actual middle range of scores that Swarthmore reports it is 28 to 34. It would appear that the ACT scores of admitted students were lower than their corresponding SAT scores would indicate. In this case, you may be better off with submitting an ACT score that was on the low end of the accepted scores than submitting a similar SAT score.
The third factor to consider is the advantage that might be gained when applying to colleges that combine SAT sub scores. Many colleges will take your best critical reading score, your best math score and your best writing score on the SAT and combine them into one super score even if they come from different test dates. For example, let’s say you take the SAT the first time and get a 650 critical reading, a 720 math, and a 700 writing score. You then take the SAT a second time and get a 750 critical reading, a 700 math and a 650 writing score. Many colleges will combine the best of these sub scores to view your test score as a 750 critical reading, a 720 math and a 700 writing for a combined total of 2170.
Although many colleges combine SAT sub scores in this manner, very few colleges will combine ACT sub scores in like manner. Rather, they will look at your highest ACT composite score regardless of the date taken. There is some evidence, however, that this is starting to change. It now appears that several highly selective colleges, Washington University in St. Louis and Amherst College, are now starting to combine ACT sub scores to give an ACT super score. This may be the start of a trend and we will continue to follow.
The calculation of SAT super scores may explain the difference between SAT and ACT averages at some schools as discussed in the previous section.
A fourth factor to be considered is the advantage that might occur if a college accepts the ACT instead of the SAT and two subject tests. Not all colleges will allow you to avoid the subject tests by taking the ACT but for those that do taking the ACT may reduce the number of tests you need to take.
The fifth factor involves what is known as score choice. When you take the ACT you can wait until you see your score to decide if you want to send the score to your college choices. If you don’t do as well as you had hoped, don’t send the score. If you then take the ACT a second time and get a better score you can choose to send only the best score. Thus, you can take the ACT any number of times and only send the one best score.
However, when you take the SAT and send the scores to the colleges, the score for each SAT you took will be sent. In other words if you take the SAT three times the colleges will see all three scores. If you were sick during one of the test days or just had a bad test day you won’t be able to hide that fact if you submit your SAT scores. Since most colleges will accept your highest scores this may not make a great deal of difference but a noticeably poor score may raise an issue on why you had such a poor test score. Particularly when applying to the most competitive colleges, you don’t want any adverse issues such as this to even be a consideration.
The sixth and final factor to consider for most people is that the SAT tends to be more amenable to coaching than the ACT. It is true that there are techniques to help you with improving your score on each of the tests although these techniques tend to work better for improving the SAT score. If you are willing to spend the time working on test prep, either alone or through a set program, you might find an increase in scores is possible. The caveat is that not everyone who studies for the SAT or ACT improves their scores and some people still see a reduction in scores when taking the test more than once.
Our best advice is to focus on whichever test you believe you can get the best score. Also, remember that there are over 700 colleges that don’t require either the SAT or ACT and they range from noncompetitive to very competitive colleges. For a list of test optional colleges go to the Fair Test web site.