Faceoff – SAT and ACT
The SAT and ACT answer your most pressing questions
You probably know by now that most schools require students to take either the SAT or ACT. In view of the importance of the test results in the college admissions process My College Guide decided to go directly to the College Board which administers the SAT and to ACT Inc. the provider of the ACT test. We spoke to ACT Senior Vice President for Educational Services Jon Erickson and Vice President of the SAT Program Kathryn Juric. We asked each of them to answer some questions to help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to preparation for these standardized tests.
What factors should a student consider in deciding whether to take the ACT or SAT? What information or knowledge does your test cover?
ERICKSON: The ACT measures what students have learned in school — their academic achievement. It’s not an aptitude test. ACT scores are used by many colleges to place students into appropriate first-year classes that match their current skill levels so they have the best opportunity to succeed. The ACT includes tests in English math reading and science as well as an optional writing test.
JURIC: The SAT is the most widely used college admission test. It assesses the reading writing and mathematics knowledge and skills that students are learning every day in high school classrooms and that are critical for success in college and beyond. The SAT not only tests what a student learns in high school but also their ability to apply that knowledge.
What is the best way to prepare for the test in high school?
JURIC: The very best way to get ready for the SAT is to do well in school take challenging courses study hard and read as much as possible. One of the best ways to start practicing is by taking the PSAT/NMSQT— the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Competition — which measures the same skills as the SAT and also features the same format directions and question types. On average students who take the PSAT/NMSQT earn higher scores on the SAT than those who do not.
ERICKSON: The best way to prepare for the ACT is to take the rigorous classes offered by your school. Because the ACT tests the knowledge and skills students learn in school it is very similar to the types of tests students are used to taking in their classes.
Can students elect to send test results from certain test dates to colleges or must all scores be sent?
ERICKSON: Students may select the results from a specific test date or dates they wish to send to specific colleges. Students can have their ACT scores sent to other colleges and scholarship agencies after they test in addition to the ones they selected during test registration.
JURIC: Last year the College Board introduced SAT Score Choice™ a free service that gives students the option of submitting all of their scores or submitting scores from a particular test date.
Where can a student get practice test questions and/or questions from previous tests?
JURIC: In order to help students get familiar with the test the College Board uses official SAT test content to create numerous free and affordable practice materials that are available at http://sat.collegeboard.com/practice. These online practice tools include a full-length practice test The Official SAT Question of the Day™ practice questions with answer explanations The Official SAT Study Guide™: Second Edition (also available at bookstores nationwide) and The Official SAT Online Course™. We cannot emphasize enough that there are no tricks or shortcuts to doing well on the SAT.
ERICKSON: ACT offers free practice test questions a free question of the day free test tips free descriptions and a free “Preparing for the ACT” booklet online at www.actstudent.org/testprep. For a fee we also offer ACT Online Prep® and The Real ACT Prep Guide. Both are available at www.actstudent.org/testprep.
When do you suggest students take the test?
ERICKSON: ACT recommends taking the test during the junior year of high school because students will: 1) probably have completed the coursework corresponding to the test material; 2) have their test scores and other information in time to help plan their senior year. (For example students may decide to take an additional class in an area in which their test score was low.); 3) have information about themselves and the institutions they’re considering prior to campus visits; and 4) have the opportunity to retest. In addition colleges will know of students’ interests and will have scores in time to contact them during the summer before their senior year when many are sending information about admissions course placement scholarships and special programs.
JURIC: For most students the College Board recommends taking the SAT once during the spring semester of their junior year and again during the fall semester of their senior year.
Do you have any specific test-taking tips such as whether it’s better to guess or not?
JURIC: While there are no tricks to taking the test the College Board does provide numerous resources including test-taking approaches on our website (http://sat.collegeboard.com). Some of the tips students will find include:
- For the reading section you may want to work on sentence completion questions first. They tend to take less time to answer than the passage-based reading questions. All questions are worth the same number of points regardless of the type or level of difficulty.
- The level of difficulty of sentence completion questions increases as you answer them in order.
- If you are unsure of an answer … do not guess unless you can narrow the choices down. If you … cannot eliminate any choices skip the question.
- You do not need to memorize math formulas. Commonly used formulas are provided in the test book at the beginning of each math section. It is up to you to decide which formula is appropriate.
ERICKSON: Students who take the ACT are not penalized for wrong answers. Therefore if a student does not know the answer to a question it is best to make an educated guess.
Do your recommend taking the test more than once? What is the average improvement of students who take the test more than once?
ERICKSON: Many students take the test twice once as a junior and again as a senior. ACT research shows that of the students who took the ACT more than once:
- 55% increased their composite score on the retest;
- 22% had no change in their composite score on the retest; and
- 23% decreased their composite score on the retest.
JURIC: The vast majority of students take the SAT … more than once … [but] the College Board does not recommend that students take the SAT more than [twice]. Most students who take the test a second time improve their scores but there is no evidence to support the idea that taking the SAT more than twice results in significant score gains.