Tuesday, 8 March 2016

SAT vs ACT: How to spot the differences

Originally Published in The Hindustan Times Education Supplement

On Saturday the new SAT test will be administered in the US for the first time. This change is generating a lot of anxiety for students. In past years the SAT and ACT each had their own distinctive qualities that catered to different test taking styles and types of students. However, the College Board’s redesigned somewhat mimics the ACT in style and emphasis. However, there are a number of comparison points still worth noting. Below is a more detailed description of each test. 

New SAT:  
The New SAT is 3 hours long with an optional, 50 minute, essay question section. The three main sections are evidence based reading (65 min, 52 questions), writing and language (35 min, 44 questions) and math (80 min, 58 questions). Both reading/writing and math sections are scored on a scale of 200-800, equaling to a total score of 400-1600. The essay is scored from 2-8 and reportedly separately. Tests are offered seven times a year and registration deadlines are four weeks before the date.

As far as overall subject knowledge, a majority of the content is similar to the ACT, however the emphasis and style of questions differ somewhat. The reading section has a total of five passages spanning literature, history and sciences. Questions emphasize analysis and understanding the arguments presented. The writing and language section presents 4 passages and puts more focus on the meaning of words and their use in different contexts than in the ACT. This can be a great asset if you are confident your reading and language skills. The math section is broken up into two parts, one with a calculator and one without. Content emphasizes algebra and data analysis as opposed to geometry and trigonometry. For the essay question on the SAT, students are given a small text and asked to analyze the author’s argument in an academic manner. 

The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes with an optional essay question for 30 minutes. The test has four other sections that always appear in the same order:  English (45 min, 75 questions), Math (60 min, 60 questions), Reading (35 min, 40 questions), and Science (35 min, 40 questions. Each section is individually scored on a scale of 1-36 and then averaged for a composite score (the writing score is not part of the average). The test is offered six times a year and the registration deadline is five to six weeks prior to the test date.  

The English section presents four passages always in the same style and order. One prose fiction, one social sciences, one humanities, and one natural sciences. While the SAT is more about analysis, the ACT is more about reading comprehension. The math section has a wider range of material and students are allowed to use calculators throughout. There is far more geometry and trigonometry on the test (average one fourth of the section). ACT writing has a lot more questions than the SAT and is slightly more focused on grammar and conventions. The obvious difference in the ACT is that it has a science section, which tests reasoning skills more than actual science knowledge. The writing section on the ACT requires students to argue their own opinion on an issue. It gives three perspectives and asks students to evaluate one using specific examples. 

For many students, timing can be a challenge when taking the ACT. Most say their biggest difficulty is in finishing the section. The ACT questions generally are more straightforward and content based with no “trick questions.” If you are a student who is confident in your content knowledge and can work at a faster pace, the ACT may be a better option for you. 

The best way to decide which test to take is to sit down for yourself and assess the different parts of each test. See the format, see what the test taking rules are, see how it is graded, and more importantly sample multiple questions in each section. After which, you should be able to gauge, on your own, which test feels more comfortable. If you still feel confused, take the time one weekend and do the full tests. You can then compare your score on the concordance table and see where your strengths are. These few steps are generally enough for you to feel confident about which test you should focus on. 

Test-Optional Colleges
According to Fairtest, a non-profit organization that works to make sure standardized testing is not misused and biased, 850 universities have announced a test-optional policy. Top-tier colleges such as Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University and George Washington University are among the many. Within this group, some colleges don’t require any student to submit scores, other colleges exempt only those with a specific GPA, and others require test scores but for non-admissions procedures. If you feel standardized testing is a challenge for you and that the other parts of your application are better telling of who you are as a student, you have the option to not submit scores. However, one thing to note is that one less factor presented to the admissions board means the other parts of your application are given more weight. Many college counselors would generally advise you to still try and take the test and then decide after whether to submit it. More likely than not, some of the colleges on your list will still require test scores, so you will have to take the test regardless. 

For more information:
1. www.collegeboard.com
2. www.act.org
3. www.fairtest.org 
4. www.sativyglobal.com (for sample SAT tests)
5. www.blog.prepscholar.com (great detailed comparison of both tests)