Confusion reigns this summer as most colleges have gone test-optional, even if it’s just for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. In states that are hit hard by COVID-19, test dates are being canceled and students don’t know when and if they can take the ACT or SAT. Moreover, students don’t know if they even need to take these exams this year.
At IESolutions (www.myiesolutions.com), with over 30 years of college consulting experience, we have watched testing trends come and go. We advise students aiming at top-ranked colleges this year, who believe they can test well, to take the ACT or SAT at least twice this summer and fall if possible. Given testing’s long-standing, important role in highly selective admissions, we believe that students who can submit strong scores as part of their applications should do so. High scores can only help their chances of admission.
How do students determine whether the ACT or SAT is a better fit?
There are specific ways to determine in advance which test might be a better choice for a specific student. The broad strokes are these:
The ACT allows less time per question than the SAT does. While the SAT allows about 70 seconds per question, the ACT only allows approximately 40 seconds per question. Students need to move quickly and confidently through the ACT, so students who get anxious under time pressure may not be comfortable with the ACT. If the ACT is a speed test, the SAT is a reading test. Success on the SAT writing passages requires a higher level of reading skills than success on the ACT. Both tests reward educated guessing, with no penalties for wrong answers, and both tests are scored on the number of questions correctly answered in each section.
The ACT math sections test algebra and geometry about equally, while the SAT math questions are almost two-thirds drawn from algebra. The SAT math questions will typically involve multiple steps employing a number of concepts, while the ACT math questions normally require a direct application of a single math concept. In the ACT science section, students must interpret graphs and tables to draw conclusions and make inferences. If this is a weakness, steer clear.
We are not aware of a single college that is requiring the essay section for either test this year.
In our experience, very capable students will typically do well on either test. However, students who may have test anxiety often prefer the ACT as it provides fewer choices to pick from in all sections except math. Students who may have a hard time focusing may be more comfortable with the ACT, which is 20 minutes shorter than the SAT. Sample questions, problems, and a “question of the day” for both tests are available online (www.collegeboard.org/sat or www.act.com) and students can take practice tests at KhanAcademy (www.kahnacademy.org). Taking a practice test for each exam may illuminate which test better showcases your strengths.
Responding to a spring and summer of test date cancellations, the ACT has responded by offering eight test dates in September and October.
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Sarah C. Reese