Jeremy, our Lead Counselor and Co-Founder of VIZE, has been a test prep tutor in addition to a college counselor for the past 11 years. He knows that there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion related to standardized testing, and we’d like to correct them.
First, the differences between the SAT and ACT:
The SAT includes four sections (and no longer an essay) consisting of Critical Reading, Grammar and Writing, Math Without Calculator, and Math With Calculator. The Critical Reading section typically consists of five passages and 10-11 questions about each, 52 in total, with 65 minutes to complete them. Students should aim to read the passages in 3-4 minutes, which will leave a little under one minute to complete each question. Grammar and Writing (35 minutes) will ask 44 questions about four texts with potential errors, offering multiple ways of writing various underlined portions of each text. Some questions are specific to meanings of defined areas of the text, reordering sentences or accomplishing specific tasks to improve them. Students should rectify any underlined errors as they read and follow the wording of questions in specific terms. Math on the SAT is divided into a 25-minute, 20 question section without a calculator and a 55-minute, 38 question section where a calculator is allowed. Across both sections, the SAT focuses more on data science and algebra than does the ACT, and each Math section includes free response questions at the end.
The ACT is quite similar to the SAT in its verbal assessment, though its Critical Reading section allows students 35 minutes to answer 40 questions about four passages. Timing and question types are extremely similar to the SAT in this section. English (Grammar) has 75 questions with a 45-minute time limit, but again, the structure is nearly exactly the same as the SAT Grammar and Writing section above. Math consists of one 60-minute, 60-question section where the questions generally increase in difficulty, and as compared to the SAT, the ACT includes more Trigonometry and Geometry questions along with some basic sequence and series questions. There are also a higher percentage of word problems on the ACT as compared to the SAT. The primary difference between the tests, though, surrounds the ACT’s Science section, which allows students to complete its 40 questions in 35 minutes. It’s a common misunderstanding that a thorough knowledge of actual science is necessary here; rather, treating this as an advanced Critical Reading section littered with chart and graph interpretations is a better way to go. There’s also an essay, at least for now, but it’s pretty straightforward and directs students to evaluate three different perspectives about a general question.
So which should you take? That’s a tough one. Generally speaking, students that gravitate toward math and science in school will do a little better on the ACT, but that’s hardly absolute. The best approach for nearly all students is to simply take one of each test and compare percentile rankings of your results with a concordance table online (search for SAT ACT concordance to find these). Many students will simply do much better on one than the other, and in that case, your choice is clear! If you do similarly well on each, though, VIZE recommends that you study a bit and then take another of each before making the final call. It should be mentioned, though, that Khan Academy offers a large number of freely available passages and questions for the SAT, but no comparable resource for the ACT exists yet. If you don’t have access to help with your test prep studying, leveraging Khan Academy’s resources alongside diligent studying is your best bet.
Finally, many students believe that schools prefer one test over the other, and that’s not true! There’s a slight preference for the SAT in the Military Academies specifically, but outside of that, there’s no difference at all. Whatever test is best for you is best for your college applications! And we get that test prep can be a bit grueling, which is why we’re including this article now. If you’re a Junior (11th grader) and haven’t started studying, now is a great time to begin preparing for a Spring test. That way, if you don’t get the score you desire, you can put your nose to the grindstone over next Summer and you’ll have time to retake it at least a couple of times in the Fall.
Good luck out there!
You’ve likely heard the terms “test optional” and “test blind” thrown around a lot during the last couple application cycles, and they’ll likely show up just as often next year as well. Unfortunately, most applicants think that the two are interchangeable when that’s not actually the case, and VIZE would like to clear that up.
“Test blind”: When a college uses this wording to describe their use of standardized testing, it’s pretty straightforward: they won’t be using test scores as part of their evaluative process at all, and your scores are irrelevant. If you’re proud of your scores, it’s still a good idea to submit them, but the only value great scores will hold for test blind schools is that they’ll impress admissions officers. Even though they won’t officially use your scores to determine whether you’re accepted or not, it’s always possible that superlative numbers will stick in the back of an admission officer’s mind as they evaluate the rest of your packet. As such, VIZE recommends that you self-report scores whenever possible if they’re above the median for that college’s range. When we launch, this information will be found on that school’s page within our platform, but for now, search for “school name cds” and find their Common Data Set admissions statistics. What you’re looking for is in Schedule C, Section 9, and you can safely average the 25th and 75th percentile numbers to determine an accurate enough estimate of 50th percentile scores.
The brief version is that “test blind” is what most people think about when they hear “test optional.” Unfortunately, the latter term is a pretty complicated thing.
“Test optional” is where things get difficult and much more nuanced. The words themselves imply that you’ll have just as good of a chance of getting in without test scores as you will with them, but that’s unfortunately not the case. What schools mean by “test optional” is that you’re welcome to submit an application with or without test scores, but if you include them, they will be used in the evaluative process. For applicants, the way to think about it is that if two students appear entirely the same on paper, but one has a strong test score and the other doesn’t, the first one will be accepted before the second. Of course, no two applicants are entirely alike, so this specific example is a bit silly, but we’ve explained it for a reason: for test optional schools, test scores absolutely do matter.
Ok, great. So when should you submit scores to test optional schools and when shouldn’t you? That’s a bit difficult to answer in universal terms, but there are some good general rules to follow. First, if your GPA is at or near the 75th percentile for a school’s range, it’s a good idea to submit any test scores that are at least at the 25th percentile just to verify that you’re successful in multiple settings (check CDS Schedule C for that information, too). If, however, your GPA isn’t quite that high, it’s a good idea to submit test scores only if you’re at or above the average test scores for that college. That might sound counterintuitive, but the idea is that both GPA and test scores are used primarily to detect any red flags in candidates that may not be able to handle the inevitable step up in difficulty from high school to college. In that context, you’ll want at least one of them to be able to give them a “Yes!” that can be drawn from a hard number.
Although colleges have introduced some new terms into the application lexicon in an effort to be more attentive to difficulties associated with the ongoing pandemic, they’ve ended up confusing a lot of students. Just like the rest of college applications, this stuff can be tough. VIZE is here to
Photo Credit: Marco Verch