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Alex Mallory

Alex Mallory

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SAT vs. ACT: Choose Wisely

Posted: 03/ 1/11 11:47 PM ET

In November 2007 The New York Times published "SAT vs. ACT," an article whose title aptly suggested the new competitive status of the American College Test in relation to the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Comparisons of the two standardized college-entrance exams reflected the recently elevated rank on the East and on the West Coasts of the ACT, which for many years had been considered a regional version of the SAT, reserved primarily for students applying to colleges from high schools in Mid-western states. The article acknowledged the ACT's rapidly growing popularity and noted several strategies--for example, determining whether you're an underachiever or an overachiever--for choosing the "correct" test to take, and concludes: "choose the test you think you'll do better on" because "your performance is less likely to be impaired." Since the article's publication, the ACT has continued to gain in popularity, leaving college admission obsessed families yearning for clearer and more detailed guidelines on deciding which of the two is the more appropriate exam for their children.

It's not difficult to understand why the ACT has managed to gain market share in America's coastal urban centers. Plain and simple, it's a more straightforward test, less intimidating than its more established counterpart. For example, students can rely heavily on how words sound to identify errors in the ACT English section. By contrast, the SAT test writers purposefully insert words within long, compound sentences that make identifying common errors like subject-verb agreement nearly impossible without knowledge of grammatical rules. Other examples: in the Reading section, ACT questions refer to the passage directly preceding them. On the SAT, questions are often about two separate passages that deal with the same topic. To answer correctly, students must be able to predict how the author of one passage might feel about a statement made by the author of another passage discussing the same topic. In math, however, the ACT requires a broader range of knowledge than the SAT. Students must be proficient in trigonometry, a branch of mathematics left out of the SAT. Still, ACT questions remain direct and multiple-choice answers are typically integers that, to varying degrees, can be evaluated using common sense. SAT math multiple-choice answers, by contrast, often contain one or more variables, a trick designed to make simple algebraic problems appear insurmountable.

Regardless of the differences in the exams, colleges and universities maintain they do not prefer one over the other and there is absolutely no evidence to dispute their claims. So, when confronted by two roads leading to the same destination, taking the route that most conforms to individual cognitive needs and preferences seems to be the more direct and obvious choice. Indeed, for students with certain types of learning disabilities or those who simply find preparation for a standardized test distasteful, the more intuitive, content-based ACT is the right choice. In fact, the ACT is likely a better measure of what a student has learned in school. However, for those with a higher pain threshold for preparation, there is a distinct advantage to meticulously winding down the more circuitous path.

The SAT's style--tricked-up, puzzle-like, and logic-oriented--makes it a more teachable test because there are more test-specific concepts to teach. To varying extents, the tricks can be learned and the puzzles simplified. Once students become familiar with them, the test unwraps itself. Another advantage in taking the SAT is that there are nearly four times as many official practice exams available than there are for the ACT so that students preparing for the SAT have significantly more constructive practice material at their disposal. Furthermore, both the SAT and ACT are scaled exams--a student's raw score is never revealed. Instead, professionals reviewing college applications see a score that is generated by measuring it against the scores of other students across the nation. So, it may, in fact, be more difficult to excel on the ACT since everyone taking the exam benefits equally from questions that are more direct or more easily intuited.

Admittedly, the vast majority of students spend little or no time preparing for either the ACT or the SAT. But for those who are willing to diligently prepare, the very qualities despised by most of their peers taking the SAT make it possible to separate themselves from the pack.