ACT vs. SAT: Understand the Differences

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The ACT and SAT are mainstays of the junior and senior years of high school for most students when it comes to college entrance assessments. But according to many experts, the foundation for doing well on these exams starts years earlier.

Stan Huck, director of guidance at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, says parents can begin preparing their children for the test by exposing them to enrichment opportunities as early as the elementary school years.

“Make sure they are developing problem solving and reading skills,” Huck says. “Enroll them in honors and advance placement classes in high school.”

The ACT, originally an abbreviation of American College Test and now officially referred to as the ACT, was first administered in 1959. It covers English, reading, math, science and writing. Its four primary tests are scored individually on a scale of 1-36, and a composite score is provided that is the whole number average of the four scores.

The SAT, first given in 1926, was initially called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then later the Scholastic Assessment Test. It’s now officially referred to as the SAT and covers critical reading, math and writing. Possible scores range from 600 to 2,400, combining test results from three 800-point sections.

According to Huck, most students take the tests for the first time in the second semester of their junior year, and a second time in the first semester of their senior year. They can then take the better of the two scores to create a “superscore,” and submit those with their college applications.

Though the SAT has been the dominant test given in North Carolina for many years, Huck says new state requirements are bringing the ACT to the forefront.

“Beginning in spring 2012, all high school juniors in the state were required to take the ACT,” Huck says. Those scores are part of the formula for the North Carolina Ready Accountability Standards. The state pays the fee for the test. High-school sophomores are now required by the state to take the pre-ACT test, called PLAN.

Huck says the composition of the SAT is more aligned with the Common Core State Standards, the curriculum implemented with the 2012-2013 school year. The Common Core state standards in K-12 math and English language arts are taught and assessed.

Huck recommends that students take the Preliminary SAT, or the PSAT, as many times as they can to prepare for the SAT.

Jackie Pace, executive director of Huntington Learning Centers in Charlotte and Huntersville, a test prep company, explains the differences in the two tests.

“The ACT is course-relevant. This means that the passages on an ACT relate to topics that students have discussed in their classes,” Pace says. “For instance, there could be a passage about biology. On an SAT, the passages do not relate to any particular subjects and may not have been studied by students in their high school classes.”

A second difference, she says, refers to the length of the test sections. Some ACT test sections are 75 minutes long, while most SAT test sections are around 25 minutes long.

A third difference pertains to scoring. “It is important to limit guesses on an SAT because mistakes count against the total score,” Pace says. “This is not true on an ACT.”

Huck and Pace both say almost all colleges and universities accept both tests equally.

“Colleges look at many things, not just ACT or SAT scores,” Pace says. “They will tell you that these scores are only one part of the admission process. It is important that a student’s grades in school be strong and that the student take academically challenging classes.”

Anne Wooten Green is a freelance writer in Winston-Salem.

Tips to help students do their best on test day

  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Eat a nourishing breakfast.
  • Do some light exercise.
  • Know the location of the test center.
  • Check your gear. You will need sharpened No. 2 pencils and a calculator.
  • Show up early and be prepared to wait in line.
  • Leave your cellphone or smartphone at home.
  • Tune out. Be prepared to deal with annoying noises from other students.
Categories: College Planning, Education, Tweens and Teens