Q. I am the mom of an 11th grader. I grew up and went to school outside of the United States, so it is very challenging for me to understand the whole U.S. higher education system. Would you please explain to me what the SAT and ACT are? What is the difference between those two? Which one does my daughter need to take in order to apply to a 4-year college?
A: Most colleges and universities in the United States require either the SAT or ACT (with writing) for admission as a first-year student. These are nationally administered examinations, each one about three hours long, which provide a general assessment of a student’s skills in mathematics, reading and vocabulary, and writing. The tests are structured differently and scored differently.
The SAT comes from the Educational Testing Service, headquartered in New Jersey, while the ACT comes from a company in Iowa. Originally, most students on the East Coast took the SAT, while in the Midwest and West the ACT was the preferred exam. It was merely a matter of geographic preference. But now that all information is online, students in all areas are trying both tests.
There are numerous differences between the tests. The ACT includes a section of questions related to science, but it is really about interpreting data. The ACT is also more straightforward in its knowledge-based approach. I suggest that you and your daughter look at the websites of each exam and try the sample questions. Some students simply feel more comfortable with one format than the other. Your daughter could also take both tests, and then compare her results. Colleges truly do not care which test an applicant takes! You can find complete information, plus practice questions, at the SAT and ACT websites.
Some students do well on these tests with minimal preparation; others score better after tutoring. Students may have tutoring and prep courses and still obtain modest scores. Some people are just better test-takers than others. While many colleges and universities value a standardized, objective test score in addition to an applicant’s academic record, other institutions find these tests of limited value. Those schools have made the submission of standardized test scores OPTIONAL. See a list of test optional schools on the FairTest website.
High school students usually take these exams in 11th grade and/or in the first semester of 12th grade. The city offers the PSAT (a practice test) to all sophomores and juniors free of charge in city schools. This year it will be given on Oct. 17. SAT and ACTs may be taken more than once (though three tries should be the limit!). The SAT has three sections, and colleges will add the three highest section scores if a student has taken the test more than once. The ACT has a “composite” score, and colleges will use the highest composite if an applicant submits more than one ACT result.
Despite all the hype about these scores, and all the advertising by test prep companies, the ACT or SAT result is NOT the most important factor in a student’s application. What really matters is the student’s academic performance - the school transcript. This record of curriculum and grades is always considered more strongly than a test score. Solid test scores are good to have – but a powerful transcript is more significant. Of course, the more selective the college or university, the higher every factor will need to be.
You might also want to make an appointment with your daughter’s college counselor at school to discuss which test might be more suitable, and how your daughter’s academic record might indicate which colleges are within reach. Most high schools start preparing students for the college search process in the middle of 11th grade, so you have plenty of time!