Let’s Talk About Testing (ACT vs SAT)

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Lately more and more colleges including highly selective ones like U-Chicago have chosen to become test optional. If you already know which colleges you will be applying to, you can check their website under undergraduate admissions requirements to learn if they are test optional. According to National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fair Test), of the over four thousand four-year colleges and universities in the United States, more than thousand are test optional. See the complete list of colleges that are test optional here.

That being said, standardized testing still remains an important criteria and scores are required by the vast majority of colleges, both within the United States and internationally. Your scores help determine whether you get into a college of your choice, and also play a significant role in the amount of merit aid you receive.

Both ACT and SAT scores are accepted by most colleges with no particular preference for one over the other.  Before you decide which test is suitable for you, I recommend taking a timed full-length ACT and SAT practice test each. This will help you identify the key differences in content of each test, understand which type of questions you find challenging and reflect on your test taking abilities. If you do decide to take only one timed full-length test  you can use the concordance table provided by College Board or ACT to predict your score on the other. You can also plug in your PSAT, SAT or ACT scores into the graph found in this downloaded CompassPrep pdf or download the CompassPrep app for iPhone or Android to help identify if one test is better suited to your strengths.

Here are some key differences in content and pace between the two tests

  ACT SAT
Content (Science section) Includes science reasoning section tests that tests data analysis skills with ability to interpret and read charts, graphs, tables No science section. Incorporate science material throughout the reading section
Content (Math Section) You can use a calculator on all Math sections One math section does not allow the use of calculator
  Lots of Geometry questions (23% of Math section) Fewer Geometry questions (6% of Math section)
  No reference table of commonly used formulas provided Reference table with commonly used formulas provided
Content (Reading section) Four reading passages reading testing proficiency grades 9th -14th Five reading passages. Higher level reading material testing proficiency grades 11th-16th
Content (Writing and Language) Testing proficiency 10th grade Testing proficiency 13th grade
Pace Faster Paced with less time to answer each question. Total of 215 questions with an average time of 49 secs per question. Slower paced with more time to answer each question. Total of 154 questions with an average time of 1 min 10 secs per question.

If Science and Geometry are your strengths ACT might be the right test for you. On the other hand if English is your forte the SAT might be the test of choice for you. If you are student who processes things slower ACT might be a tough test for you as it is faster paced than the SAT.  

While both College Board and ACT have an “optional” essay, a small number of colleges including the University of California continue to require or recommend it. Do check with the college admissions policy on this, especially if you have a finalized list of colleges you will be applying to. My recommendation would be to go ahead and do the “optional” essay on both the tests, so that you don’t have to scramble to fit in an additional test date if your college plans change.

While deciding which test to take, do keep in mind the differences in the content of each test and look at which type of sections and questions they find more challenging than others. It is also extremely crucial to reflect on one’s individual strengths and weaknesses as test takers.  

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