Even as more colleges go test-optional, the majority of schools require applicants to submit an ACT or SAT score. What is the difference between these tests? How should you choose which test to take, or which score to submit? And what does all this have to do with SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams? Read on to find out the answers to these questions.
What does “Test-Optional” even mean?
In the past few years, numerous colleges have gone test-optional, meaning they will not require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Many prestigious liberal arts schools have decided that, due to biases in standardized tests, they do not accurately reflect intelligence and character. Nonetheless, most colleges still do need to know your ACT or SAT score. Even if your dream school is test-optional, remember that the more information you submit, the more your application will stand out from the crowd. If you decide not to submit a standardized test score, you will need to be very confident that your other materials—such as grades, essays, recommendations, and extra-curriculars—will prove why you should be accepted.
Are the ACT and SAT different in format?
The two tests are very similar and will be accepted by any school in the United States, but they have some key differences. The ACT and SAT are both made up of sections that focus on language and mathematical skills, with an optional essay at the end. Both are timed, and are of similar lengths—the ACT is 3 hours 35 minutes with the essay, whereas the SAT is 3 hours 50 minutes with the essay.
There are also some significant differences between the two tests. The ACT includes a science section, where you will have to read scientific writing and answer questions about the data presented. You will not need to study specific scientific facts, but you will need to have strong analytical reasoning and reading comprehension. As long as you have taken at least three years of science classes in high school you should be well-equipped with enough background knowledge. Some people find the science section to be a good way to show off their reading skills; others have trouble with the format.
The SAT has no science section, although some questions in the reading section relate to science. A unique aspect of the SAT is the calculator section; the ACT permits you to use a calculator for all math problems, but the SAT has one math section where it is permitted and one where it is forbidden. Another difference is that the SAT math sections, unlike the ACT, will include some student-produced answers, meaning you will fill in the answer by hand instead of selecting from multiple choices. These extra restrictions can be tricky for people who are slower at mental math, or who are shakier on math skills in general.
Although the essay is optional on both tests and will not affect your total score, there are some differences between the essay formats that you should be familiar with. On the SAT, you will read the source material and then analyze the author’s argument. The ACT has you read various perspectives on an issue and then write an opinion-based essay. This means that the SAT focuses more on reading comprehension, while the ACT wants you to understand different perspectives and then form your own.
Are the ACT and SAT scored differently?
Yes. The two tests are scored on different scales. The SAT gives you your total score by combining the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section with the Math section, with each section receiving a score from 200—800. Therefore, your total score will be from 400—1600. On the ACT each individual section (English, math, reading, and science) is scored from 1—36, and your total score is the average of your four section scores. So your total score will be a number between 1 and 36.
You can find conversion charts onlinePrepscholar that tell you the equivalent scores for each test. For example, a 28 on the ACT is roughly the same as scoring between 1310 and 1340 on the SAT. This is useful information because you can compare your practice tests scores and determine which test you are more successful at taking. If you get 28 on the practice ACT but 1400 on the practice SAT, you will want to consider taking the official SAT instead of the official ACT.
When should I take each test?
There are dates for both tests throughout the school year, but you should check to make sure when these dates are for your state, or if your school will register you automatically for a test.
Many students will take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year; although some might choose to take it earlier, this is not really necessary. Some educators advise against taking the ACT any earlier than the spring of your junior year, as the math section may cover topics you will not have learned before then. Students may choose to retake the ACT or SAT in the fall of their senior year. There is generally no reason to retake the ACT or SAT more than three times.
Do they cost the same?
There is a slight difference in price: the ACT costs $46.00 without writing, $62.50 with writing. The SAT costs $47.50 without writing and $64.50 with writing.
Which should I take?
Take practice tests, links to which can be found on the blog PrepScholar Classes: PrepScholar Practice Tests
From practice tests, see if your scores are better on one than the other—if they are roughly the same, you might consider taking both tests, or just choosing the one that you preferred.
Keep in mind: Some states in the USA require students to take either the SAT or the ACT. If you have any doubts, consult with a teacher or counselor at your school.
What about SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams?
SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams are a great way to add to your application and show your expertise in particular subject areas. They are not required, although at some schools you might be able to gain college credit from high scores. You can take SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams all throughout high school, and it is best to take them right after you complete the relevant coursework so the material is still fresh in your mind.