SAT vs. ACT
By Richard J. Dalton Jr., founder of Your Score Booster SAT & ACT Classes and Tutoring
Deciding which standardized test to take used to be guided by geography: Where students lived was the main determining factor whether they would take the SAT or ACT. Nowadays there’s no hard-and-fast rule and even highly-selective universities are making sure students know there’s no advantage to taking one test over the other. “Students may submit whichever test they choose, or both” said Princeton University (NJ) spokesman Martin Mbugua.
Schools are neutral about which scores students submit. Said Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, “We accept either test on equal footing.” This leaves the decision to the students, who are wondering if the changes to the new SAT will help them or hurt them.
The SAT has adopted some elements of the ACT, eliminating the so-called “guessing penalty,” having four sections, putting grammar questions in paragraph format, and making the essay optional. Sentence completion questions are gone, along with many difficult vocabulary words. Students have more time for each question, but one SAT math section forbids the use of a calculator.
The SAT had long been the most popular exam. However, in 2012 more students took the ACT than took the SAT. “Some of the changes to the SAT may have brought attention to the fact that there is an alternative,” said ACT spokesman Ed Colby. In fact, at the last major overhaul for the SAT, in 2005, 40 percent of graduates took the ACT, a figure that grew to 59 percent in 2016.
Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said the university accepts both the old and new SAT and the ACT equally.
The SAT infuses reading throughout every section, writing, math—word problems dominate the math section—and the essay. The test’s language also has become more complex, so it could be more difficult for students who speak English as a second language. The ACT is less complicated, but grants less time per question.
One traditional advantage of the SAT has been superscoring: Taking the highest score on each section, regardless of the test date. (Admission offices won’t accept mix-and-match scores from the old SAT and the new SAT because the tests are so different.) Superscoring the ACT is less common and practically irrelevant, resulting in no difference or a one-point gain in 94 percent of cases, according to data from ACT.
Many experts recommend figuring out up front which test to study for and focusing on that exam. They say to base this choice on a student’s selection of universities and goal scores. Practice tests and test-prep classes can help students determine where they’ll do well.
Some students submit both exam scores, a growing trend in recent years, hoping to give admission offices more information to bolster their applications. But Furda cautioned that studying for and taking both exams or taking one exam multiple times can take away from time allocated to high school work. “You can’t manufacture more hours in a day,” he said. “It’s going to come from something else.”
Richard Dalton, is a journalist and founder of Your Score Booster SAT & ACT Classes and Tutoring.
SAT is a registered trademark of College Board Inc. ACT is a registered trademark of ACT Inc.