It’s back…. The SAT, that is. For the first time in seven years, more students are taking the SAT than the ACT, a surge in popularity attributed to the SAT’s alignment with the Common Core and its last makeover to appear more like the ACT. Indeed, both tests share about 80% of content spanning the four major areas tested (math, science, reading, and writing). However, some key differences remain – as do questions about the importance and relevancy of college admission testing.
What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT? What has changed (or not) with these tests? Does my student have to write the essay? How should my student prepare? What other tests should my student take for college admission? And, does testing still matter? Thanks to a recent presentation by our colleague, Jed Applerouth of Applerouth Tutoring Services, we have some answers to these pressing questions. In Part 1, we’ll focus on the tests themselves, including accommodations, essays, and a good testing timeline. In the second part, we’ll explore trends driving testing today, and then its possible future face.
There are several notable differences between the SAT and the ACT. Let’s start with the reading section. The ACT features passages written, on average, at a tenth-grade level, while those found on the SAT are closer to a first-year-college level – a significant difference. Students who either struggle with reading or who are English language learners may find more success with the ACT reading. While both math tests are suitable for students who have completed Algebra II or the equivalent, the ACT math test is broader, covering more topics, including geometry (23% of the questions) and trigonometry. The SAT math section focuses almost entirely on algebra and other Common Core concepts. The ACT science section is also rigorous, and students should expect to see 6-7 questions requiring outside scientific knowledge. The SAT has no science section, but, instead tests science reasoning in the context of the other three test sections – with typically less difficult science questions than the ACT. Ultimately, students should choose the test that plays to their strengths by taking into account their knowledge of the content tested and their comfort level with each test’s timing (the SAT provides more time per question).
Thanks to the recent ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal, we’re receiving more questions about testing accommodations. As accommodations are mandated by the Department of Justice/Americans with Disabilities Act, there is no reason to believe that access to testing accommodations (typically in the form of longer testing time allowances) will diminish. In fact, College Board/SAT grants testing accommodations to 85% of students who request them; it’s slightly harder to receive accommodations for the ACT. ACT recently did away with the self-paced timing for students who receive extended time, matching the SAT timing policy. Regardless of the test or its accommodations, since 2003, test scores for students who received extra time or other accommodations are never identified in any way so that an admissions officer would know.
Another urgent question that students and parents have when registering for a test is whether or not to write the optional essay. Is there any value in spending additional time and money for this 40-50 minute section that the student completes after sitting through a rigorous 3+ hour multiple-choice test? It depends. Currently, only 23 schools require the essay, with an additional 17 recommending it. These schools are mostly Ivies or comparable institutions. If your student believes he or she will apply to this type of college, then it’s a good idea to register for the SAT or ACT with essay. It’s interesting to note that schools that do require the essay, like Princeton, haven’t been forthcoming about how the essay score factors into an applicant’s evaluation, other than that very few students receive a top scores of 11 or 12 (ACT essay). Institutions comprising Florida’s State University System (UF, FSU, UCF, among others) do not require the essay. To ensure you know what’s required and/or recommended, it’s always a good idea to check the admission requirements page of every school to which you’re planning to apply.
We’ll wrap up today’s post with thoughts on the optimal test-taking plan. Research shows a slight advantage for students who test early, meaning that once a student has completed Algebra II, he or she can confidently complete the testing cycle (typically testing three times) by the spring/early summer of junior year. Testing early helps students avoid the last-minute pressures of testing at the start of senior year, and also allows students maximum time to prepare. Research indicates that completing 7 to 8 timed practice tests (the number of actual tests we assign in our workshops) as part of a comprehensive test-prep plan leads to increased scores. More preparation = more confidence.
In Part 2, we’ll cover SAT Subject Tests, and the increasing number of test-optional colleges. We’ll also explore the trends driving testing (hello, University of California schools!) and changes to testing that we’ll likely see in the near future.