Taking and preparing for college entrance exams has perhaps never been so confusing! In addition to studying, students must now decide which tests to take – the SAT, ACT and/or Subject Tests – and navigate the ever-changing and variable testing requirements of the colleges to which they are applying. The process is made even more complex by the growing number of “test-optional” schools that may not require any test scores at all. However, most schools – especially those ranking among the most selective – still require students to take either the SAT or the ACT. And while there’s a lot of rumor and speculation about which test is easier, harder, or more impressive to admissions officers, the truth is that determining which test is right for you involves understanding the differences between the tests, as well as your own test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

ACT Overtakes the SAT

At this point in college admissions, schools do not favor one test over the other, nor do they consider one to be easier than the other. While it used to be that students from the East and West coasts took the SAT, and students from the Midwest took the ACT, that divide has narrowed significantly, and in 2011 the ACT surpassed the SAT as the most popular, or most commonly taken test throughout the country.

Differences Between the SAT and ACT

It is beneficial to note that there are substantial differences between the two tests. Firstly, the ACT is by design an achievement test, drawing from core curriculum standards in order to measure what a student has learned in school. The SAT, on the other hand, was originally modeled after IQ tests, and is designed to measure a student’s aptitude for reasoning and verbal abilities. As a result, the ACT is often regarded as concrete and straightforward, while the SAT is more abstract. This is somewhat reflected in the differences of the test formats themselves. The ACT has four components: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test. The SAT has three: Critical Reasoning, Mathematics, and Writing (which includes a required essay). However, many of these differences may narrow in the coming years, as the College Board announced earlier this year that it will be making changes to the SAT, in order to measure a “core set of knowledge and skills” that students need to succeed in college.

Because of these differences, and individual variations among students, there is no test that is universally recommended for every individual. Some students will prefer the ACT, for instance, because it doesn’t contain obscure vocabulary or particularly difficult reading passages, whereas the SAT reading section is loaded with tricky questions and difficult vocabulary. At the same time, acing the ACT will require you to speed through the test. For example, students are given 35 minutes to answer 40 questions in the reading section, while the SAT gives students 70 minutes to answer 54 reading questions.

Score reporting is another area in which the tests differ. Both the ACT (act.org) and College Board, which administers the SAT, Subject Tests and AP exams (collegeboard.com) allow students to choose which individual tests to submit to prospective colleges. However, the policies of individual colleges differ, and some will require that students submit all the SATs that they’ve taken. Another issue to consider is whether each college will “super-score” the standardized test scores, meaning that they will consider only a student’s best score on each section, from different test dates. Most colleges super-score the SAT, but not the ACT.  A few exceptions of colleges that super-score the ACT include Amherst, Williams, Cornell and NYU.

Test-Optional Colleges

A growing number of colleges have a “test-optional” policy, in which students are not required to submit the SAT or ACT.  These 800 colleges and universities have decided that standardized test scores are not as predictive of academic success in college as the day-to-day academic performance reflected by the GPA.  Current Test-Optional colleges include Wake Forest, Smith, and Bowdoin. Many others, including NYU, Middlebury and Hamilton fall under the category of “test-flexible,” meaning that applicants have the option to submit alternative college entrance examinations, such as SAT Subject, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate examinations in place of SAT and ACT scores.

Which Test is Right for You?

Determining the right testing option for you requires consideration of a variety of factors and personal preferences. For more information on standardized testing, or any other aspect of the college admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway at www.collegiategateway.com.