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News: SAT and ACT examine different kinds of skills

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SAT and ACT examine different kinds of skills

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Years ago, colleges in the Midwest and South asked for the ACT, while schools on both coasts preferred the SAT. Now that every college will accept either test, more students are taking the ACT. While both exams are used for the same purpose, to help predict the likelihood of a student's success in college, they are very different tests.

The SAT is considered a reasoning-based test, requiring critical thinking and problem-solving. Students who get top grades in school can be shocked when their SAT scores are not as high as they expected.

The ACT is a curriculum-based test, and strong students may find they do better on the ACT, which is more closely aligned with what they have learned in school.

The pacing is also different on the two exams. The ACT has fewer sections, but each one is longer.

While the SAT is 20 minutes longer, students who like a faster pace and get impatient working on one section for a long time may prefer the frequent section changes.

Longer sections on the ACT do not mean you can take your time, as the ACT actually allows less time per question.

While you can register for the ACT without the essay, it's not truly optional because many colleges require the essay. The ACT essay prompt is usually more related to life in high school, and while it asks for your opinion, a successful essay includes creative solutions rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with a premise.

Test preparation companies often suggest that students prepare for the SAT essay by coming up with several books and moments in history to use as examples that can be used to support an argument in response to essay prompts that tend to be broader.

On the multiple-choice writing section, the SAT requires more vocabulary, while the ACT emphasizes punctuation.

If your reading skills are stronger than your vocabulary, you may do better on the ACT. While the ACT has a science section, the questions ask you to read graphs and interpret data rather than apply science.

The science section is a form of critical reading, and the scores are often similar to those in critical reading.

The math section of the SAT is not difficult, but it is tricky. A few SAT math questions require intermediate algebra, but most of the math problems can be solved with basic arithmetic, algebra and geometry.

The ACT includes more advanced math, and a few questions require some trigonometry. If you do well in math classes, the more straightforward ACT could be a better fit.

Students who are problem-solvers and who use shortcuts often do well on the SAT. Unlike a math test you take in school, you don't need to show your work, so the student who works backward, trying out each of the five answer choices rather than struggling to come up with an algebraic equation for a word problem may be less likely to make mistakes.

The SAT scoring system is designed to prevent students from increasing their scores by guessing. On multiple-choice questions that have five possible answers, you lose a quarter-point for a wrong answer. Since you should get one out of five guesses right, you would earn one point for the right answer and that would be canceled out by the four quarter-points you would lose for the wrong answers.

There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, so you should answer all questions on that test.

It is more difficult to improve ACT scores, as there are fewer tricks and the exam rewards years of memorization. That's one of the reasons most test preparation companies did not offer ACT preparation until the exam became so popular that they had to add it.

Students who have great study habits and do well on finals are likely to do well on the ACT. Since the exam is based on what you have learned in school, many students take the exam without much preparation. I do think completing at least one practice test so that you know what to expect will help you feel more confident going into the exam.

Because the SAT does not look like tests you take in school, students often panic when they first encounter the exam. But since the SAT is not dependent on years of accumulated knowledge, it is possible to raise your scores fairly quickly. After five or six practice tests, you will start to recognize types of questions. Once the test is more familiar, anxiety levels go down.

While most students apply to colleges that require standardized test scores, more colleges adopt test-optional admissions policies each year, including most recently DePaul University. You can get a full list of schools that do not require standardized tests for admission at www.fairtest.org.

Some highly selective schools are on the list, including Bowdoin College and Wake Forest University.

Find at least one school that is a good fit for you that does not require testing, and then you can go into these tests knowing that whatever happens, you can still go to a college you like. That will lower your anxiety level and enable you to do your best on the exams.

Audrey Kahane is an independent college counselor. E-mail: audrey@audreykahane.com

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