Testing Trials: Navigating the SAT and ACT Exams

For most high school students beginning the college-search process, the thought of taking the SAT or ACT exam produces a tremendous amount of anxiety. In fact, many of my students tell me that they are more nervous about receiving the results of these standardized tests than receiving their decision letters from the colleges and universities to which they’ll apply!

The reality is that for the majority of students applying to colleges, SAT or ACT exams are just one piece of a much more complex puzzle. While admission officers certainly pay attention to an applicant’s scores, there is generally a holistic review done of applications for admission. This means that in addition to test scores, reviewers are taking note of an applicant’s in-school records (GPA, rigor of coursework, disciplinary history, etc.), application essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities and accomplishments, and demonstrated interest in the college. There are also some colleges that are test-optional and do not require SAT or ACT scores from most applicants (check out FairTest for a list of these schools).

The truth, however, is that because students should ideally have their first go at these exams no later than spring of their junior year of high school, most may not have solidified their list of colleges and thus, may not know if they would be required to submit exams or not. A simple rule of thumb: take the exams, see how you do, and then decide how you’ll proceed.

Many students wonder why they should take both the SAT and the ACT. Two main reasons are:

  1. The tests are completely different and;
  2. Colleges will use the highest equivalent test score for admission purposes (i.e. if you submit scores from both the SAT and ACT, they’ll use whichever exam the student performed better on).

A common misperception is that the SAT is the exam preferred by most colleges and universities and that the ACT is not universally accepted. The truth is that all colleges and universities within the U.S. accept both exams. In fact, for the first time in the history of the exams, the number of high school seniors taking the ACT in 2013 surpassed the number taking the SAT!

Looking at the following comparison box examining the make-up of the two exams, there are a few key differences to be aware of while preparing for the tests:

  • Students who need additional time to process questions may find the ACT more difficult as there are more questions presented in less time.
  • The SAT does not include a Science section so students who do not excel in this arena may prefer this exam.
  • The Writing section is a required piece of the SAT exam, while it is optional on the ACT. A tip: several colleges, including many Ivies, will allow students to submit their ACT with Writing scores in lieu of SAT Subject Tests…an incentive to complete the optional Writing section!
  • Students taking the SAT should exercise caution when guessing at answers, as there is ¼ point deduction for each incorrect response. On the ACT, however, students should attempt to answer every question since there is no point deduction for wrong answers.
  • Though 1/3 of the SAT exam is Math-focused, the questions DO NOT cover any trigonometry and, as a bonus, formulas are provided within the exam booklet.