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Should Students Take the SAT or ACT?

 
sat or actAs a teacher or education coordinator, students may ask you “Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?” Up until a few years ago, there was a simple answer to the question. As recently as 10 years ago, there was a pretty even divide between schools that expected ACT scores and schools that required SAT scores from potential students. An increasing number of students are taking the ACT, and today most schools accept both.

For students, this means that they have a choice and can strategically choose the test that will best highlight their skills and strengths.

What is the Difference Between the SAT and the ACT?

The SAT and ACT are fundamentally different tests. Although they are both standardized tests offered for high school juniors, that is where the comparison ends. The ACT is designed to test the content that a student has learned in high school. Experts refer to it as an “achievement” test – it focuses on the achievements that a student has made in the classroom.

The SAT is referred to as an “aptitude” test. It was designed to test student’s “potential” and provide a measurement for the capabilities that cannot be studied or learned. However, as many SAT test prep programs have proved, you can study for the SAT and improve your score over time. The SAT has been edited and refined over the years and it looks a lot more like the ACT than it did when the test was first developed.

There are some more tangible differences between the tests as well. The ACT has 215 questions and an optional essay. ACT test takers have up to 3 hours and 25 minutes to complete the various sections. The SAT has 140 questions and a required essay. The total time for this test clocks in at 3 hours and 45 minutes. The ACT offers less time per question than the SAT, however the optional essay can make it a good choice for students who are less writing oriented.

One of the biggest differences between the two tests is the inclusion of science. The ACT has science questions that include subject matter in biology, chemistry, physics and earth science. Although this might seem intimidating to some students, the science questions are designed to help assess your ability to read and understand subject matter passages. Critical reading skills cross-apply very well to the ACT science sections.

Another major difference is the guessing penalty. The SAT takes guessing into account and is designed so that random guesses will hurt a student’s score. If a student doesn’t know the answer to a particular question, it’s better to leave it blank. Although this technically doesn’t make a test harder or easier, some students are stressed out by the guessing penalty and the ACT may be a better fit.

How to Advise Students About the SAT vs. ACT Issue

Ultimately, it will up to the student to decide whether they should take the SAT or ACT. However, you can help guide their selection as a teacher by explaining the differences between the tests, going over some sample questions and helping students self-assess their strengths.

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[Photo Credit: Gates Foundation]
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