The information I am providing in this article is from personal experience or by one of the best college counseling offices in the United States.
I have gotten a lot of questions from younger friends who are just beginning their college process about various aspects of the journey. Some of the most frequently asked questions are about standardized testing- more specifically, the ACT and the SAT. What should they take? How are they different? Which one is more important?
Let's begin with some basic information:
To begin with, standardized testing is one of the most important parts of your college application. The tests are intended to put all applicants on an even playing field, giving them the same questions in an environment that is virtually impossible to gain an unfair advantage in.
There are two parts to standardized testing: your SAT or ACT, and your SAT II scores. We'll cover those in a little bit. Unless you're applying test-optional, all four-year colleges in the USA will accept either a SAT score OR an ACT score. They are both counted equally- colleges will not dock you if you submit one or the other. Some do require both, so it's important to check before scheduling your tests.
One of the biggest mistakes an applicant can make is to approach testing with an "Earlier is better" mentality. That is, get the testing done quickly and focus on other things later in the process. This is a BIG no-no. Applicants should not take anything other than the PSAT before the end of their sophomore year, and they should not take the regular SAT or ACT before the spring of their junior year. The reason is this: there is a large amount of time between the fall of a person's sophomore year and the spring of their junior year, and people change during that time. Maybe you get smarter, maybe you get dumber. If you submit a score with a date that the colleges view as too early, the college will count it against you, or they may not accept it at all.
So, ACT vs SAT: What's the difference?
By and far, the biggest difference is what you're being tested on. The SAT tests you on what you know. The ACT tests you on how you learn. To see what I mean by that, read on.
The other major difference is with guessing. If you get a question wrong on the SAT, you're docked 1/4 of a point (leaving a question blank won't affect your score). If you guess on the ACT, your score is not affected. On the SAT, the general rule of thumb is to try to eliminate some obviously wrong answers, then guess if you can narrow it down to 2 or 3 possibilities. If you can't do that, leave the question blank.
The SAT has long been considered the "standard" test for college applicants. It tests you on what you know- in other words, it expects you to know the answers to the questions without any assistance from text, graphs, charts, or other forms of data.
A standard form of a question that you will see is as follows:
BEAUTIFUL most nearly means:
In the example above, you are expected to know the meaning of beautiful prior to taking the test.
Questions on the SAT are generally harder than the ACT, but you have more time to complete each question. The example above would not appear on the SAT- it's too easy. They'll give you a few freebies, but the majority of the questions will be on words that fewer than 100% of the population uses in their everyday language.
The SAT and ACT have similar math sections, but again, you're given more time to complete harder questions on the SAT.
Studying for this test is fairly straightforward- study vocabulary (and expect to miss one vocab question- there's usually one that's impossible), grammar, and general math through and including Pre-calculus.
There is also an essay component to the SAT, and that's where I made my biggest error. Being the future journalist that I am, I wrote this amazing essay that was written in a similar style to a 60 Minutes piece. BAD BAD BAD!!! The reader only has a minute or two to grade your essay, so write a generic one filled with statements, like "I agree with this position because_______." Remember to take sides in your essay. Don't try to argue both points.
SCORING: The SAT is scored on a 2400 point scale, with a 600 being the lowest score and increasing by 10's after that. To get into a decent 4-year school in the US, you should be aiming to get an 1800 or above to be safely in the "zone" that they're looking for. To get into the most rigorous schools (anything with below a 15% acceptance rate) you'll want to aim for above a 2100- closer to a 2200 if possible.
Your parents probably have not heard of the ACT- it's the newer of the two tests and designed by people who thought that the SAT was a broken system. The ACT tests how you learn- in other words, you're not expected to know the content of the test prior to taking it. An example of a standard English writing question is:
"... so they walked into the barn and searched. looking at the wristband...."
A. "... so they walked into the barn and searched. looking at the wristband...."
B. "... so they walked into the barn and searched. Looking for the wristband...."
C. "... so they walked into the wristband and searched. Looking for the barn...."
D. "... so they walked into the barn and searched, looking for the wristband...."
E. "... so they walked into the barn and searched: looking at the wristband...."
That sentence would have been in the middle of several paragraphs, and that question would have been one of several given to you throughout the passage. You would not have known they were going to choose that particular passage for this test, therefore you are being tested on how quickly you can pick up the clues in the context to answer the question correctly. In this case, the answer is obviously D. One possible answer will always be the current one, accompanied by four slightly edited ones.
As I've said before, questions on the ACT are easier, but you have less time to complete them. That means that you'll likely be left with 5 minutes to go (warnings are given) and 15 questions to complete. This is when the ability to guess is amazing- and where most falter, because eventually, you're going to have to take chances with your answers to keep moving forward. Don't get stuck on one math question- you'll have exactly one minute to complete each, so keep moving forward.
Studying for this test is slightly different- study math the same, but for English, you'll want to focus on grammar, especially the use of punctuation and other nuances, like "who" vs "whom", etc. Don't worry too much about vocab- you won't run into anything difficult, if anything at all.
The biggest thing to study for is the format of the test. Take practice tests to get used to it, and time yourself accordingly. If you focus on anything, it should be that: getting over the shorter time. I'll repeat myself: memorizing vocabulary words will not help you in the ACT.
The ACT also has a science section, unlike the SAT, and the biggest thing to remember is that YOU SHOULD NEVER STUDY FOR THE SCIENCE SECTION. Again, familiarize yourself with the format. This is where they expect you to know absolutely nothing- they will give you 3-4 graphs and charts and ask you questions that force you to analyze those graphs and charts. Once you understand exactly what they're trying to ask you, the questions become easy.
An example for you: my first ACT science question asked me questions on the reaction times for electrical impulses (twitches) in some obscure muscle on the human thumb. I didn't need to know any equations, nor did I even need to have ever heard about that muscle before (I hadn't). I just needed to be able to read the graphs.
SCORING: The ACT scores 1-36, with a 36 being a perfect score. It is nearly impossible to receive a perfect score on the ACT- the highest I've ever heard someone score has been a 35. The national average is a 21- students looking at any decent 4-year college should aim for a 27, if you're looking at anything below a 20% acceptance rate, having a 31+ should be your goal.
***The ACT offers you the option of taking the test without the writing section. ALWAYS take it WITH writing, even if you've taken the test before. Colleges WILL NOT ACCEPT scores that do not have a writing section included.
The SAT II:
The other test you'll likely need to take will be the SAT II, increasingly, colleges aren't requiring this component, but many still want it included in your application (for the record, none of mine did).
The SAT II is a single-subject SAT test, otherwise known as a "subject test". This is one hour long, and as its name suggests, tests you on one subject. It cannot replace the SAT or the ACT- it's an addition.
You will be able to register for up to 3 in one day, and at 1 hour each, it'll take you, at most, 3 hours.
It's exactly like the SAT in format, but it scores out of 800. Students should aim for a 600, and if you're applying for a college with a sub-20% acceptance rate, you want to aim for 700+.
Colleges generally require two, if any, and one usually has to be a math. There are two math tests, math 1 and math 2. Math one is easier, but colleges will count it against you if you score anything other than near perfect. Getting one question wrong, legend has it, drops your score to a 740 (can't back that one up, just a rumor). Math two is insanely hard for anyone who hasn't taken an advanced (honors) Pre-Calculus or regular Calculus course.
Earlier I recommended that you shouldn't take any subject tests until the June date of your sophomore year, but there are exceptions. For example, my younger sister, currently a sophomore, took the Biology test earlier in the year, after I told her to take it. I did that because she had one of the toughest biology teachers on the planet for her Freshman year- I went through her notebook and tests a few times- and they thoroughly covered Biology back to front and in greater detail than I ever did.
That's your exception- when in a freshman class you're confident enough with the material to get through a SAT subject test- and while she didn't do too well, it was because she was not used to the format, not because she didn't know the material. She is planning to re-take the test later this year, now that she knows what to look and study for.
The best time to take a subject test, if you didn't get this already, is after you've completed the course.
Planning your testing:
I only have one recommendation, and it is this: take both tests in the April/May of your junior year (subjects in June) and see which one you do better on. Re-take that test in the fall of your Senior year, and forget about the other one, unless you need to submit both, otherwise don't waste your time. And it doesn't really matter how well you did the first time around, because you'll likely improve. For example, I received a 31 on the ACT the first time around, but I still took it again, and scored a 33.
(I bombed on the SAT. It was an easy decision).
Good luck on your applications and testing. If you have any questions about the process, or any questions about the tests, please register a Newsvine account and drop a comment below, and I will be happy to answer it- within hours of you asking.
You can also email me, email@example.com, though I don't check this often so don't expect a reply for at least a few days.