ACT vs. the new SAT

SAT vs. ACTAfter the last post, I keep thinking about the differences between the ACT and the SAT.  The last time I went down this path, I had barely finished the last post when College Board announced that it was doing a total overhaul on the SAT.  Maybe that's why I stopped blogging? :)

But, given the new landscape, it's worth reviewing.  As last time, I'll have to do a few posts on this topic. 

So, first things first, want to know which test is best for you? Don't make assumptions, don't listen to rumors, take some practice tests. 

The silliest thing that students do is spend six months prepping for one test, take the test, get scores lower than they'd hoped, then decide to switch tests (with only a month or two to prep for the new tests).  Here's the truth: the tests measure very similar constructs  (students' math skills, reading and vocabulary skills, grammar knowledge, test taking ability, confidence, and speed), and nationally ACT and SAT scores are very highly correlated (you can see old stats here, no one seems to have compared the ACT and new SAT yet, but I think they will also be very close, on average), but they are very different tests in terms of style and some content.  Most students who take both exams score very similarly (in terms of percentiles) on each exam. But, some students do better on one than the other.  Some students greatly prefer one test over the other. 

How can you know if you'll be one of those studnets? Take both tests. Take them both seriously. Think about how you felt taking each test (note down your responses, ideally BEFORE you look at your scores), then look at your scores. Assume that prep will raise either score, but a higher starting score likely means a higher final score. 

Each practice test will take about 4 hours (total ACT time, with essay, is 3.5 hours and total SAT time, with essay, is 3 hours and 50 minutes).  Where can you take them?  Almost any place that offers test prep offers practice tests (including EdBoost!), or take tests online.  For SAT, go to College Board's practice section.  ACT does not make a full length test available for free on their website, but other sources have gathered links to PDFs for full-length ACT exams

There are lots of rumors.  I've heard that SAT is better for kids who are "'smart" and ACT is better for kids who are "hard workers."  I've heard that SAT is better for white and Asian kids and ACT is better for African-American and Latino kids.  I've even heard that "everyone does better on ACT."  I have never seen any of these generalizations bear out in our students.

But, there are some general differences:

The ACT is a faster test than the SAT.  The ACT reading section has 40 questions in 35 minutes. The SAT reading section has 52 questions in 65 minutes. ACT wants you to work faster than a question a minute, SAT lets you work slower. Across all sections, ACT expects students to work faster. Some students always finish tests early: they might not even notice this difference. But, for students who work slowly, ACT can be difficult.  I have students who never get to the last (4th) reading section on the ACT.  They never have enough time. Those students will never get a great score on the ACT reading section. If you tend to be a slow test taker, ACT may not be the test for you. (Also: if you have an IEP or for some reason you get extra time on tests, make sure to apply early for extra time on both exams.  Our experience is that it's harder to get ACT to grant extra time than to get SAT to do so, but it's smart to go through the process for both exams, and which exam grants you extra time may factor in your final decision about which test to take.) 

ACT lets you use a calculator for all of the math. SAT now has one section on which it lets you use a calculator and one section on which it does not. I find that SAT's no-calculator section is a bit easier than the calculator section, which can be a boon for a good math student (for tutors, it's a fun throwback for those of us who took the SAT back when you couldn't use a calculator at all), but students who have forgotten long division and how to add fractions will have a lot of review to do for the new SAT. If you are a student who is very calculator dependent, ACT might be the better test for you. 

ACT also has a science section, and SAT does not.  The section does not require students to come in with a priori knowledge of science, but it does require strong reading skills and the ability to read graphs and charts and parse and interpret data. It also rewards students who know something about scientific experiment design (how controls work, etc.).  Strong readers may find this section fairly similar to the reading section, but it can be intimidating to those who do not consider themselves "good at science." Don't take your first practice test score on this section too seriously -- it takes some practice.  The science score is one that goes up easily with prep, as long as you can read and decipher the passages.  But, if you take this section and find yourself totally lost, ACT might not be the test for you.

No matter which exam you take, ALWAYS take the optional essay.  It may be optional and you may hate writing essays, but some schools (including the entire University of California system) require that you take the test with essay. If you take the test without the essay, you'll have to retest in order to apply to those schools -- and you can't just take the essay; you'll have to retake the entire exam.  So, take the essay, just to be safe. 

Ok, those are basics -- more detailed looks at individual test sections in upcoming posts!

And remember, the best way to know which test you're best at?  Take a sample test of each!