Deciding to Take ACT vs SAT Exams

A child often grows and matures into an adult in a simple and linear manner. The child goes through preschool, elementary, middle, and high school. Upon graduating high school, the former child is now considered a fully developed human being. Subsequently, what happens after high school? Oh. That is easy, college. However, is that really the path to take? Student debt and lost potential earnings while studying are starting to be seen as a crisis in the United States. Why should one choose college over various other options such as the military, trade school, apprenticeship in a craft, going straight to work and working one’s way up the ladder, taking a course or going to a non-degree granting institution to learn a specific skill? How does one reach the college goal? What is the need for college? Professions such as medicine, nursing, therapy, accounting, architecture, education, and law naturally demand a degree. Then, there are career paths where a degree is not necessary but beneficial and those include executive leadership, management, and design. However, those are not the only career options available. Furthermore, a high school graduate can benefit from gaining real world work experience before entering college. There are several variables that need to be considered when deciding on the appropriate actions post high school graduation. For many, the clearest choice is going straight to college. Thus, this article will focus on specific details that are necessary for getting admitted to college.

University application form

University application form

Once the high school graduate knows his career and professional goals and understands that the degree is part of the path, he will need to work on the college application. Being admitted to college is another challenge that needs to be overcome. The process to admissions can be challenging and daunting, especially as there is often no specific formula to follow for success. However, often the single most important variable of the secret, unknown formula is high scores on one of the standard entrance exams. A trend of going test flexible or optional has started as the exams are under fire for not being good predictors of academic success. The testing environment is timed, controlled, and limited. Extrapolation beyond knowing that the tested acquired the basics is challenging. There are colleges that do not require test score reports as part of the application process and leave the decision up to the applicant. There are also some colleges that are flexible in which tests you take and send. Currently there is only one school that is test blind; it will not look at any test scores to be sent in, Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Especially since there will be a redesigned SAT coming March 2016, many colleges are starting to use other metrics to measure appropriate fit. The applicant would need to check with the colleges he is applying to to confirm what the college’s standards and policies are. But one should not get the impression that it is completely gone and useless. There is a very good chance that one of the schools you are applying to will want to see the scores. Though essays play a big role in the admissions process, along with other variables, it is understood that standardized test scores are still the single biggest factor in college admissions.


There are two different standard tests that are used as part of the admissions process to college. One is the Scholastic Aptitude Test which is administered via the College Board. The other test is called the ACT administered via The ACT organization. That originally was the acronym for American College Testing, though the organization has undergone various changes over the years while keeping the original name. At one point in time, the ACT was looked down upon, but now it is generally accepted across the board. In fact, the SAT has faced increasing competition from the ACT in recent times and that is one of the reasons that prompted the College Board to redesign the SAT. Colleges who use test scores as part of their admissions process do not favor one test over the other.



There are a few differences between the ACT and SAT. Sometimes the SAT is deemed harder than the ACT and sometimes the ACT is designated the harder test. But that is not the case. If one has a great vocabulary, needs more time on tests, enjoys puzzles, and faces difficulty with graphs, charts, and data then the SAT is most likely the better choice and the ACT would be the harder test. If one struggles with vocabulary, has great speed on tests, does not enjoy puzzles, and finds charts, graphs, and data his friend then the ACT might be the better choice and the SAT would be the more difficult exam. The SAT is really strong on vocabulary. It also gives more time to take the test. The SAT is testing reasoning skills, the aptitude part of the person. The ACT is testing content that the person already knows, but at a higher level than the SAT. There is a science section on the ACT, but it is not really science. One needs to understand how to use graphs and charts to come to conclusions, mirroring part of the scientific method. The content tested on the SAT is of a lower level, but the questions are formulated to be tricky and bewildering. The questions are not as complicated, but to understand the question one needs to go through some steps to come to the correct understanding of the question. The ACT tests on a higher and more advanced level but the questions are simpler and straightforward. Equality between the tests exists on the English and writing sections. There is a penalty for guessing or choosing the incorrect answer on the SAT which the ACT does not have. One needs to know the same amount of writing and grammar rules to do well on both the SAT and ACT. It is generally said that the ACT tests your ability to learn what you've been taught while the SAT tests your potential to learn new things.

March 2016 will bring with it changes and a new design to the SAT. Therefore if one is taking the test then or after, one needs to make sure to review the new test. Context will be a big focus of the vocabulary sections. Obscure words won’t need to be memorized for the exam, only to be forgotten once the tests are handed in. The writing and reading section will demand evidence to be used, interpreted, analyzed and synthesized. The essay will no longer give a prompt to write about any given subject. One will need to analyze a passage and the author’s evidence and writing. Furthermore, knowledge of history and social sciences are necessary to answer the questions in the evidence based reading and writing sections. Real world academic demands are the guide to the math questions.

Play To Your Strengths

Generally, it is not valuable to take both tests as test takers need to invest limited resources in order to succeed and those resources are probably better used elsewhere. Taking both tests won’t be helpful. The test taker has to figure out which one is the best fit for him, which one tests to his strengths and not to his weaknesses, and the one with which he is most comfortable. The test taker needs to figure out what his strengths are and which test would be best for him. There are practice tests for both the SAT and ACT available online and there are study guides as well. First step is to look through the tests and get a feel for them. Read the instructions carefully, take note of any procedures that are important, understand what the questions are really asking and see what the format is. Keep in mind the allowed time to answer the questions. Get a feel for which one you feel more comfortable with, which one is more fun for you to do. Then set aside two time periods of a few hours each where the test taker can sit and take the practice tests in peace without any pressure or stress. The first time period the test taker completes the entire reading section of the ACT. Afterward, all three reading sections of the SAT, the entire test’s worth of reading material, are completed. Grade each one and compare scores for both tests to ascertain on which test you did better. The next time period the test taker does the entire math section of the ACT and then does all three math sections of the ACT. They should be graded and scores compared to see which one fared better. There is a chart online to show equivalent grades of the SAT and ACT as they are graded differently and thus the scores are not obviously equal. If one test fared better than the other, one has the answer of which test is better for the person. That test is the one you will be studying for. If there is lopsidedness, on one you did better with the math but the other you did better on the reading, or it is similar, go for the one you have a preference for. After spending considerable time with both tests and getting to know them, you will pick a preference. The one that you like better and enjoy more will ensure a better grade.

Once a person figures out which test is the right one, he can create a study plan and timeline. Cramming is not desired. And one does not want it to take over his life completely, especially since it is not the only or main metric when it comes to admissions or scholarships. But one does not want to start too early as the material should be fresh. Keep on reading from various sources and media. Whichever test is chosen, get as comfortable with it as possible and know it as well as you can. You want to become comfortable with the style of the questions and the format. A person wants to know the instructions so he knows what to do. The SAT offers more time for the questions, but it is still timed with not that much opportunity to really sit and think. The test taker wants to be able to do as much as he can in an instinctive and natural manner. There is a multitude of resources available online and offline to help one plan and study.

College Board offers some resources, both free and paid, on their website as well as a thick book for a study guide that has practice tests and past tests. The book can be bought on Amazon or through College Board’s website. College Board also offers the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which can be done through the high school. The test serves two purpose: to help one prepare for the SAT and it also used in giving out scholarships and reward money for those who qualify. Taking the PSAT is a very frugal way to prep for the SAT. It is available to tenth graders and eleventh graders.  They have made changes to the PSAT and one should check with their school counselor about the details to see which one is right for you. Another free resource is Khan Academy. Khan Academy teamed up with College Board to offer official test preparation and guidance. Khan Academy is completely free and they aim to stay that way so you have nothing to lose with creating an account and using the test prep. Khan Academy offers diagnostic tools with the ability to practice as much as you want. It is about truly understanding the logic so you are not as dependent on the tricks and formula. College Board posts on its website a question a day that one can practice. After one answers the question one can check if it is correct and importantly there is an explanation for why the answer is the correct one. The website also offers tips for reading, an interactive tool to help create a study plan and practice questions. However, the best studying would most probably done via the study guide book that comes with a companion DVD. It is not expensive; it can be bought via the College Board website for 22 dollars. There are some good web resources as well, as an adjunct to the SAT study guide. Some of them are for both the SAT and ACT. There are SAT preparation courses that can be bought, but often enough they are not necessary. Come March of 2016 the SAT will have a new design. Therefore it makes the most sense to make use of the resources offered by College Board.

Be Prepared

The ACT offers an online prep center. It costs $24.95 for one person to use for one year. Practice tests with real ACT questions, diagnostic tests and study path, and comprehensive content review for the four required sections of the ACT are part of the service. The user can also take one self-timed test and score it on their own. Accessibility and availability are dependent only on an internet connection. The ACT website also has practice tests for anyone to use and a question a day with explanations of the correct answer.

Test day can also make a difference in test scores. One wants to ensure he gets enough sleep not just the night before, but for several nights before the test. One needs to give himself enough time on the day of the test for the body and brain to wake up and get with it; one does not want to come to the test still rubbing their eyes and waiting for a reboot of the brain. Doing some exercise before coming to the test center can be a beneficial wake-up tool. Strenuous exercise should not be done right before the test as entering the test huffing, puffing and sweaty is not a good way to start a test. But doing some exercise will get blood moving, bringing more oxygen to the brain, giving it more fuel to function at top form. Exercise also lowers stress. It helps one get in the swing of things and help transition from waking up to focusing on work. Being prepared so that when it is time for the one can focus on just doing well and answering the questions as best he can. Therefore eating the right breakfast will help provide fuel and keep your stomach from distracting you with growling and noise. The right breakfast will also not cause a high with the subsequent crash or indigestion, both of which are not conducive to concentration and focus. One should ensure that he has the right tools to answer the questions- sharpened pencils with working erasers that erase properly, and working calculators that have batteries already in them. Fumbling around trying to get the right tool to work will cause distractions, stress, and wasted time that can be better used to answer the questions. Taking advantage of bathroom breaks also aids you in doing well. A full bladder can keep you from doing your best work; it is an unnecessary distraction. So one should use the bathroom during the breaks. Clothes make the man, but clothes that are comfortable and make one feel good. Ensure that clothes are appropriate for the weather and won’t confuse or distract you. Clothes can also help set the mood for you, therefore, choosing the right clothes can help you stay in the right mood to do well on the test. When you are answering the questions on the test, pay some attention to the clock. No one question should take up more than a few minutes. If one cannot figure it out right away go on to the next question and hopefully you will be able to come back. Even if one cannot come back he will be able to answer more questions in the time it takes him to figure out that one question.

SAT scantron

SAT scantron

Anxiety and nerves are what I felt when taking the SAT. For me, it was that my future really depended on it. If I did not score a certain number then I knew the college I wanted to go to was not going to accept me. After taking the SAT, I felt just drained and needed to just laze around. There were moments when I would have to work to not let the stress overtake me and focus on solving the questions. Even though I thought my strength was in the mathematics, those were more stressing questions with not much time. The reading and writing sections were not nerve-wracking though I do not enjoy racing to write an essay.

Relief is the feeling one has after taking the test, or it may be nerves mixed with anxiety. But it is done and now commences the waiting for the test scores. It takes some time to get the scores. On the SAT there is the raw score: the number of questions answered correctly along with the score from the essay and subtracted from that are points for incorrectly answered questions. (Wrong answer penalty will be gone with the new SAT coming in March, 2016) Then the raw score is converted into a scaled score. The score report is sent to the colleges and schools which the applicant requested. Mail delivery of the score report is available for those who registered by mail.

The SAT and ACT are generally taken on Saturday. For those who observe the Sabbath, it is necessary to get a letter from a Rabbi or religious clergyman stating the test taker is Sabbath-observant. The test taker then takes the test on the Sunday following the Sabbath. The SAT is offered seven times a year in the US and six times internationally. One can take the SAT multiple times. The ACT is offered six times a year.

How it All Began

College Board was founded in 1900 with the aim of expanding access to higher education. Universities grouped together to form the College Entrance Exam Board as a way to standardize the way students were assessed to be ready for college. The first test was administered to students in the year 1901. Students were now able to take one test for all the colleges they applied to instead of taking multiple entrance exams. Writing only an essay was the format for over twenty years until they introduced multiple choice questions thus giving equal opportunity to all test takers, regardless of educational or economic background. Today, College Board is governed by a board of trustees, which are elected by College Board member delegates. There are more than six thousand member institutions, mostly comprised of educational institutions.

college admission office

College admission office

The ACT was founded by Professor E.F. Lindquist in August of 1959 with the American College Testing Program. The first test was administered to over 75,000 students a few months later, on November 7, 1959. The test was unique in that it tested for content already taught and not for cognitive ability. The ACT was founded on helping students prepare for college. It has since expanded its mission and clientèle, offering more than twenty services and programs to enable people to achieve education and workplace success. State organizations, comprised of volunteers including educators, agency personnel, leaders of state associations, and workforce professionals report back to ACT in the representation of their state.

Controversy reigns regarding the capabilities of standardized testing’s predictive powers, as well as the differences of the ACT vs SAT exams. Things will most probably change over the next few years regarding admissions formula. However, for the time being, one most probably will need to take a standard test to be admitted to most colleges. Here is the guide to help the college applicant ace it and up his chances of getting into his college of choice.

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