Loudoun County, VA (June 23, 2016) – For parents whose students are in high school, the discussions about standardized testing have probably started — or will soon. Tests are central to the all important college application process, and two in particular stand out: the SAT and the ACT. These exams are the principal aptitude assessments used by most colleges and universities throughout the country in admissions decisions (some institutions are now test optional).
Determining which test to take, when to take it, and how many times to take it can be daunting, confusing and, at times, laborious. What’s more, depending on the specific schools to which a student wishes to apply, the SAT Subject Tests may also enter the equation. With so much testing and seemingly so little time to accomplish it, it is helpful to know the facts about each test:
Section Breakdowns, Scoring, and More
The SAT: The new SAT is comprised of four sections: Reading, grammar, and two math segments (one permits the use of a calculator; the other does not). Reading and grammar are evaluated as one score, as are the two math components. Each of the two is assessed on a scale of 200800, to be combined for a composite score out of 1600. Additionally, a fifth section — an optional essay — is offered; however, many colleges do not consider it “optional” at all. As such, it is advisable that students write the essay — not only to differentiate themselves from the crowd, but to showcase essential writing abilities that colleges value now more than ever.
The ACT: Similar to the new SAT in structure, the ACT also evaluates individual skills across four sections: reading, english, math, and science in place of a second iteration of math. Each of the four are scored on a scale of 136 — a stark difference from the SAT — and then averaged together for a final mark, also out of 36. Students are permitted to use a calculator for the entirety of the math section on the ACT. Once again, the essay is optional on this exam, but students are strongly encouraged to write it.
One of the most noteworthy points of divergence between the new SAT and the ACT is the math section. Both tests cover similar mathematical concepts, assessing skills through Geometry, Algebra II and Trigonometry, so students should have completed at least Algebra II before attempting either one. A key point of distinction is timing. With 60 math questions and just 60 minutes to answer them (that is one minute per question), the ACT is very much a test of speed. The SAT, by contrast, offers a bit more breathing room, boasting 58 problems (20 non calculator) to be solved in the span of 80 minutes. Further, the two tests differ in question style. Most ACT questions are relatively unambiguous and straightforward, with a heavier emphasis on geometry. The SAT, meanwhile, presents test takers with more verbose word problems that lend themselves to logical reasoning.
Additionally, students are asked to acutely analyze and interpret algebraic concepts at a higher level (eg., polynomials, complex numbers, systems of equations, and quadratic functions). Also critical to note is the presence of a separate science section on the ACT. Spanning a range of topics from chemistry to physics, test takers are often caught off guard by this segment, although no prior knowledge of the subject matter is needed. Rather, students are asked in a straightforward manner to scrutinize graphs, charts, and experiments, as well as to answer analytical questions based on these. (Note: While the new SAT does not include a designated science component, the test does incorporate some science oriented graphical analysis questions as part of the reading section.)
Reading and Writing
The verbal section of the new SAT has been modified substantially, and now follows a format similar to that of the ACT. With the recent revisions, the verbal components of the two tests are barely distinguishable. Similar to the ACT, the new SAT is designed to feature texts and vocabulary that are less esoteric, and more commonly encountered in the “real world.” Gone are the polysyllabic locutions found only in the depths of the Oxford Dictionary — the vocabulary section now draws from a more prosaic catalog of words. Similarly, the reading passages that students scour for meaning, themes, and more are selected with an eye for applicability. These excerpts reflect a wide range of subjects, including history, the arts, sociology and science. In another departure from the old test, questions are more fact based, and students will occasionally be prompted to justify their answers. Finally, grammar questions are presented in a content paragraph format as opposed to single sentence questions.
Students are given 65 minutes to answer 52 SAT reading questions, and 35 minutes to answer 44 grammar questions; once more, the ACT emphasizes speed, with 35 minutes for 40 reading questions and 45 minutes for 75 grammar questions. As noted, both tests feature an “optional” essay. The SAT prompts students to analyze a text — frequently an essay, oped piece, or a speech — and analyze the author’s strategies. With an approach that is different, but not necessarily easier or more difficult, the ACT features an argument essay, in which individuals must defend, refute or qualify a perspective on a given issue.
Which Test Should I Take?
As the SAT and ACT are markedly different, it comes as no surprise that they appeal to different types of problem solvers. For quick workers who appreciate order and uniformity, the ACT may be the most appropriate test. Conversely, for an individual who enjoys analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and variation, the SAT may be a better fit. Ultimately, though, it is impossible to accurately predict which test is a better choice without first sitting for a diagnostic exam.
Upon completion of a diagnostic, the student can better analyze his or her individual performance across sections, and eventually determine which test to focus on. Often, after having taken both tests, students report a definite “sense” as to which they prefer. For helpful reference, The College Board has released concordance tables that allow students to compare new SAT scores with the old SAT and ACT. Because the new SAT was first administered in March, the data on this point are sparse and subject to change as time progresses.
Although many students express a firm partiality for one test or the other, some elect to take both and send all of their scores to colleges. Moreover, the majority of students opt to take either the SAT or ACT, or both, more than once. Consequently, an essential factor to consider is “super scoring.”
Super scoring is a now commonplace practice whereby a college considers only the highest score from each section when an applicant has taken the test multiple times. For example, if the applicant submits scores from two separate SAT administrations, having earned a higher verbal score on the first, but a higher math score on the second, the college will combine the first verbal score with the second math score to determine his or her “super score” composite. (Note: The vast majority of schools super score the SAT, but fewer do so for the ACT. Students should verify the individual policies of each institution far in advance.)
Generally speaking, students should plan to take their first test during the early part of junior year; then, they will be equipped to focus on a preferred exam and refine skills in areas of difficulty. Should the SAT Subject Tests — which are based on application requirements — become necessary, schedule these carefully as they are often offered on the same dates as the standard SAT.
The SAT offers a handy service called “Q&A” that test takers should reference when registering. With Q&A, The College Board will mail a copy of the test, the original answers, and an answer key about a month later. Similarly, the ACT offers a near identical service called “Test Information Release.” Both are valuable in later review and assessment.
For guidance, direction, or a free diagnostic SAT or ACT, feel free to contact Loudoun Test Prep. We have helped thousands of Loudoun County residents with the college application and test taking processes, and our knowledgeable tutors are always eager to work with new students.
Loudoun Test Prep is a local, full service tutoring and college test prep company located in Ashburn, Va. Owned and operated by educators Vinay Bhawnani and Shawn Sell, LTP specializes in customized and individualized instruction available in both classes and one on one opportunities. Contact us for SAT/ACT preparation, academic help, or AP/AOS/TJ test support at www.LoudounTestPrep.com or phone 7036380684.
*SAT is a registered trademark of the College Board, which is not affiliated with Loudoun Test Prep. ACT is a registered trademark of ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with Loudoun Test Prep.