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ACT versus SAT?

Standardized tests are a cornerstone of the college application process. Parents devote ample time and energy to preparing the prospective college freshmen in their homes for success with Kaplan courses and Princeton Review guidebooks. But in the last two years, both the American College Test (ACT) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have been redesigned. So how do they compare to their older versions? Also, which test best suits your child’s needs and abilities? Let’s first break down how the test have evolved in recent years.

In September of 2015, the ACT was redesigned to incorporate new sub-scoring categories for each of the four core sections: English, Math, Reading and Science. The rationale behind the change meant to provide greater insight into a student’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Thus in addition to the composite score graded on a 1-36 scale, students also receive scores in four new subcategories: S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), English Language, Career Readiness and Text Complexity. Each of these areas theoretically contribute to a more detailed snapshot of the student’s aptitudes. Along with new scoring mechanisms, the ACT made alterations to the optional writing section by extending the time from thirty minutes to forty minutes. The essay requires analysis of multiple perspectives as opposed to general prompt response of older formats. While these changes do not impact the difficulty of the questions themselves, being aware of how best to prepare could be the difference between earning a 28 and a 30 on the exam.

Collegeboard first administered the new SAT in March 2016, which decreased total exam time from three hours and forty-five minutes to just three hours (excluding an optional fifty minute essay section). The old Critical Reading and Writing sections, once famous for their vocabulary sections, have been combined into a single Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section that poses questions related to textual excerpts. The new format also eliminated the point penalty for incorrect responses, and extended the time allotted for writing from twenty-five minutes to fifty. Most importantly, perhaps, the score range shifted from 600-2400 to a scale of 400-1600. So a 1600 back in 2012 meant a very mediocre score, whereas now a 1600 denotes perfection.

But how to choose between the two exams? First and foremost, not all colleges accept scores from both exams, Not to worry though, because most do. If you want to verify, search through the comprehensive Collegeboard.org database of application requirements. If you can choose either or both, then let the content inform your decision. Note that the main content difference between the ACT and SAT centers around the ACT having a Science section, while the SAT does not. In terms of test formatting, the SAT requires a No-Calculator Math section, while the ACT permits calculators for the entire Math section. With respect to aids, the SAT provides common algebra and geometry formulas, while the ACT does not. Our suggestion? Review these content and formatting differences with your child in order to gauge their preferences. Still stuck? Have them complete sample SAT and ACT questions and then compare the scores.

At the end of the day, rest assured that many colleges permit students to submit the highest scores per section for either test, without reviewing all scores from each exam attempt. When choosing between the ACT and SAT, be sure to prioritize your child’s preferences along with the application requirements of the colleges they hope to attend. In any case, happy testing and good luck!