As if the junior year of high school weren’t stressful enough, now, students and their parents have to choose between two college admissions tests. The SAT and ACT are college admissions tests accepted by every university and college in the United States. While the choice of which test to take was once dictated by geography (people on the East and West Coasts used to take the SAT, while those in the Midwest and South used to take the ACT), now students can choose the test they believe caters to their strengths.
But how can students and their parents make this choice? It’s often a good idea for students to start with a diagnostic test, usually given at their schools during the sophomore or junior year, to acquaint themselves with the tests and see which they prefer. The SAT, given by the College Board, offers the PSAT, while the ACT, given by the ACT, offers the ASPIRE (and formerly offered a test called the PLAN).
The Structure of Each Test
With the SAT’s newly designed format, starting with the administration of the March 2016 test, the SAT and ACT are not as different from each other as they used to be. The ACT is designed to be an achievement test, and it has four sections—English (a test of grammar and rhetoric); reading comprehension (featuring four passages, one each from the fields of literature, humanities, social science, and natural science); math (which features questions that measure math knowledge); and science (which is focused on evaluating evidence, analyzing data, and understanding experimental design). There is also an optional essay.
The new SAT, designed to be aligned with Common Core standards, has a writing/reading section and a math section. The reading section asks students to answer questions about passages related to social science, literature, and science, while the writing section asks students questions about grammar and rhetoric based on passages related to careers, history/social science, and science. In addition, there is a math section that focuses on data analysis, algebra, and other areas. The new math section is narrower in its focus than the old SAT math section. The new optional SAT essay asks students to respond to a passage and analyze evidence, and it replaces an old essay in which students could answer a prompt using their personal experience.
After students have taken the diagnostic tests, they should start preparing by using test prep guides put out by the College Board (for the SAT) or the ACT. These are the best-written guides on the market because they feature past tests (or at least tests designed by the actual test maker, in the case of the new SAT). The College Board is also offering test prep materials on the website of Khan Academy. Once they have taken practice tests, students should review them to understand their mistakes, and they should also take tests under timed conditions to learn how to pace themselves. Some students choose to take review courses or work with a tutor, if their families’ resources allow for this help, and others can take lower-cost or free prep classes at their schools.
ACT vs. SAT
While the ACT and SAT are more similar than they were in the past, there are some differences between the tests. In general, the ACT caters well to students who are willing to put in time taking practice tests and learning the material. Some students fear the science section because they don’t consider themselves strong science students, but this section is a measurement of scientific design, of interpreting data, and of understanding how to evaluate evidence. Few questions in the science section require scientific knowledge of a specific nature.
The new SAT math section appears to resemble the ACT math section, as it requires students to understand and answer math questions similar to those they might have studied in school (while the old SAT math section supposedly measured math aptitude, and many of its questions featured tricks or puzzles). The new SAT reading and writing sections require students to understand and interpret fairly sophisticated passages, some of which are based on important documents in American history, while the ACT English section uses more basic types of texts. The reading sections on the ACT, while not easy, do not feature the types of primary sources that the SAT is starting to use.
Learning Differences and Standardized Tests
If students with learning differences have accommodations in school, they can petition the College Board or ACT for accommodations, such as extra time, on these tests. Each organization has a separate approval process for granting accommodations. Most students go through the staff at their school to apply for these accommodations, and students and their families should start applying for accommodations well in advance of the test (at least six months) and should familiarize themselves with the documentation required and the types of accommodations the tests offer by visiting the College Board and ACT websites. In general, students should be able to document a long history of having diagnosed learning differences and using and benefiting from accommodations in school.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While no one relishes taking these tests, students can optimize their chances of doing well by taking a diagnostic test to decide which test to take, taking as many practice tests as possible, reviewing these tests to understand their mistakes, and then taking tests under timed conditions. It’s important for students to run through timed practice tests so that they understand how the test will feel for them on test day and so that they can be as prepared as possible.
Students may want to take practice tests in test centers, so they can get used to having other people around during the test. They should sign up early so that they can choose a test location that makes them feel comfortable and choose a testing date in consultation with their college counselor. During the week of the test, they should get a lot of sleep, eat well, and avoid last-minute cramming.
Keep in mind that several colleges and universities are test optional, meaning that they do not require college admissions tests. A complete list of these colleges is available on Fair Test. If students have a strong academic record, they may decide, working with their college guidance counselor, not to take these tests at all.
By: Blythe Grossberg, Psy.D., co-founder, Themba Tutors