The following Blog post is taken from an Article I've written for the London-based magazine, The American.
Do you or someone you know want to go to college in the US? If so, you know there’s a lot involved – applications to fill out, essays to write, teacher recommendations to request, and tests to take. The test can be the most intimidating part for students, especially those living outside the US. Perhaps you’ve heard of the SAT and ACT as they are required by the majority of US Colleges. But what exactly are they? How do you know which one to take? And perhaps you’ve heard something about them changing in the near future – how will this affect you?
What are the SAT and ACT?
The SAT and ACT are both entrance exams accepted at all colleges requesting such tests. While traditionally, the SAT was the one that the ‘elite’ or East and West Coast schools and Ivies accepted, the reality now is that schools all take either SAT or ACT and don’t discriminate between the two. In fact the ACT has become the more popular test in recent years.
Which Test Should I Take?
Unfortunately it’s a bit complicated for the time being. Beginning in March 2016 the SAT will be virtually unrecognisable to its current test, so you need to consider when you will be taking the test. If you are planning to take your test before May 2016 in the UK (or March in the US), then you’ll be taking either the current SAT or the ACT. Let’s look at both pre-and-post March/May 2016 test options.
If you’re taking the test before March 2016 – Current SAT and ACT – similarities and differences
If you are testing before March/May 2016, you will take either of the current exams. Both the current SAT and ACT tests cover roughly the same material in Reading, Writing (essay and grammar), and Math and both are mostly multiple-choice. The similarities end there. The ACT covers more material – for example, there’s trigonometry in the Math section, plus there’s a Science section requiring data interpretation -- but it’s more straightforward than the SAT. The SAT covers less material – no trigonometry or Science -- but it tends to be trickier to ascertain what is being asked for. The ACT is fast: English – 45 minutes for 75 questions; Math – 60 minutes for 60 questions; Reading and Science -- each 35 minutes for 40 questions. Meanwhile, the SAT is long: 3 ¾ hours, not including breaks. The ACT Essay is optional, while for the SAT the Essay is mandatory. ACT has no guessing penalty; on the SAT you lose a quarter of a point for every incorrect answer, so guessing is not usually recommended. The SAT has a greater emphasis on vocabulary – some might say ‘esoteric’ vocabulary while the ACT doesn’t directly test vocabulary, though it will be necessary to understand words in context.
Scoring of the current SAT and ACT:
The current SAT is comprised of three major Sections – Critical Reading, Math and Writing, which includes a 25 minute, non-optional Essay. These sections are broken down into shorter timed sections – Math and Critical Reading each have 3 sections – two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section. Writing has one 25 minute Essay and a 25 minute and 10 minute grammar sections. Each area – Critical Reading, Math and Writing -- is scored on a 200-800 point level, plus the Essay Score of 0-12 which is factored into the total Writing Score. The combined possible score is 600-2400. Those students considering top schools really need a combined score of 2100 or higher.
The ACT has four main areas – Writing (45 minutes), Math (60 minutes), Reading (35 minutes), and Science (35 minutes). There’s also an optional 30 minute Essay at the end. Each section is scored from 1-36, with the four scores then averaged to give a final, single score. The Essay is given a separate score of 0-12, which isn’t factored into the composite score.
Which to take – pre March/May 2016
So how to tell which test is right for you? The best way is to try one of each. Both the SAT and ACT offer a free, full-length test on their websites. Make time for a morning for each test, and take each under test conditions. This is essential because timing is important and can influence your score. If there is a big difference in comparative test score outcomes, the higher score obviously indicates which test you should take. If there is little difference between the scores, then choose the one you like better!
Taking the test after March 2016? The Redesigned SAT
If you will be testing after March 2016, then you will be taking either the ACT or the Redesigned SAT. While there will be minor changes to the ACT, the changes to the SAT will be drastic.
What we know: The new test will be administered from March 2016 onward. It will be 3 hours plus an additional 50 minutes for the optional writing portion. The composite score will be the average of two areas: Evidence-Based writing and Language, and Math. Scores range from 200-800 each for English and Math, or 400-1600 combined. The essay will not affect the composite score, but will be an additional score on a scale of 2-8 for each of 3 traits for the essay.
The Reading Section will now test a student’s understanding and analysis of passages taken from world history, social studies, science and careers. There will be no sentence completion and not as heavy a focus on obscure vocabulary. In Math, the focus will be on 3 areas: 'Problem Solving and Data Analysis,' 'The Heart of Algebra,' and 'Passport to Advanced Math'. Calculators will now only be allowed for part of this section. Unlike the current mandatory essay section, the essay will now be separate and optional. Students will be asked to read and analyse a 650-750 word source text, discussing its strengths/weaknesses and whether they agree/disagree. Finally, like the current ACT, there will no longer be any penalty for wrong answers.
Our advice (and the advice of many others including people at Forbes Magazine :
Most reputable tutors are advising students to take the ACT over the new SAT, at least for the year 2016. Why’s that? There are a few different reasons – first, the new test will have limited study materials as compared to the current ACT. As of June 2015, there are no full-length practice tests available. Secondly, the first administered tests will need extra time to be calibrated, delaying the release of the first scores. Finally, the new test (as introduced by CollegeBoard) will be very similar to the current ACT test. It makes more sense to go with a known entity than something which is still evolving.