Saturday, February 16, 2013

SAT or ACT? Which Test is Best?

Like it or not, standardized test scores remain a factor in the admissions decisions of many colleges. Unless you are applying to "test optional" schools, you'll need to sit for either the ACT or the SAT as part of the admissions process.

The question is, Which test is best for you to take? Colleges are clear that they have no preference as to whether applicants submit the SAT or ACT (or sometimes scores from both), so how does a student decide? Will one land you a higher score than the other?

Let's look at the differences between the tests.

Duration: The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes, plus another half hour for the additional writing section. The SAT takes 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Content: Both tests assess your abilities in English and math, but use different content. To measuring verbal skills, the SAT focuses on vocabulary (get out those flash cards!) while the ACT focuses more on grammar, punctuation and syntax. As for math, the ACT also tests on science and trigonometry; the SAT has questions on neither.

How is an overwhelmed and anxious 11th grader to make a choice? 

First, take the pre-tests, the PSAT and PLAN. Most high schools offer the chance to take both in sophomore year, but if they aren't given at your school, test prep companies such as The Princeton Review and offer free, full-length practice tests. Invest the time to sit down and take both tests, recreating actual testing circumstances as much as possible. Be sure to time yourself. The scores you get will be a benchmark for how you might do on the actual test, and will also given you information about what the testing experience was like. Did you feel more stressed taking one test than the other? Did the format and questions of one just feel easier and more comfortable to you? 

Next, consider who you are as a learner. If you have a shorter attention span, get fidgety and lose concentration, or have a learning challenge, the ACT might work better for you. It is a shorter test and its questions are straightforward and knowledge-based (testing what you learned in school), while the SAT is focused on reasoning and problem-solving. 

Some evidence shows that hard-working, high-achieving kids who always do their homework and take rigorous classes perform better on the ACT; those who are very intelligent underachievers with exceptional reasoning skills often do better on the SAT. 

And what about gender? In general, boys do better on standardized tests than girls do, but the gap between them is closing on the ACT. Why? Counselors and researchers believe girls are more successful on the ACT because they are hard-working, high achievers who consistently do their homework and pay attention in class, which helps them to gain the subject matter knowledge that is at the core of the ACT content. All other things being equal, if you still can't decide based on the criteria already mentioned, consider going with the SAT if you're a guy, and the ACT if you're a girl. Research and educated opinion are in your favor if you do. 

Ultimately, standardized testing is only one component influencing the admissions decision at most schools. While it does carry more weight at some, especially budget-strapped state colleges and universities that rely only on grades and test scores, you will more often find that things like essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities play a large part in demonstrating your success and potential to colleges.

Whichever test you decide to take, go into it firmly believing that you've chosen the right test for you and, while it may be challenging, you will do well and have no major difficulties. When it comes to aptitude tests, attitude can make the difference in both your testing experience and your results. 


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