This article addresses a question I am often asked by students and their parents. The answer (“both”) is simple, but deceptively so. Underlining the answer are several layers of complication that must be considered on a case basis.
Each SAT or ACT taken by a student costs her roughly $50 and half of a day of her life — a small price when compared to the potential benefits of admission into college. Now, consider this: one of the best ways to prepare for taking the SAT (or ACT) is, well, taking the SAT (or ACT). So, take both — as often as one can stand the effort and expense. But that could mean taking twelve tests a year! Surely that is too much. So what else should one consider?
Consider the history and purpose of each test. The SATs were created in the 1920s by and for several elite eastern colleges (i.e., the Ivy League) to supplement high school grades in the colleges’ evaluation of prospective candidates for admission. The tests have changed over the years, but the basic testing philosophy has not. The tests are designed primarily to measure the skills a student needs for success in college. Despite some controversy (regarding diversity fairness and “trick” questions), the tests correlate well with students’ success as freshmen in college. Today the SATs are taken nationwide, but are most popular among colleges (and their prospective students) located in states on or near the coasts.
The ACTs were created in the late 1950s by and for midwestern colleges unhappy with some aspects of the SATs. The ACTs are designed primarily to measure what a student has learned in high school. They also correlate with student success in college, but less so than the SATs (according to some experts). Today the ACTs are taken nationwide, but are most popular among colleges (and their prospective students) located in the broad middle of the country. Many students feel more comfortable with the ACT (thinking they did better on it than on the SAT), but they are often surprised to find that their percentile rankings on the ACT are no better than those achieved on the SAT.
Nearly all college admissions officers accept either test. I help prepare students for either or both. If time and money are not major concerns, I say “go for both.” If there is a limit, either test will do. Personally, I lean toward the SAT because of its emphasis on the skills needed for success at the college level. Getting into a college is only the beginning. A student must be prepared to succeed in the college learning environment – which is vastly different from that in high school.
In high school, the teacher covers the material in class. If she is conscientious, she will then assign reading and exercises. A student, even one weak in critical reading and problem solving, should then be able to do the assignment because the material was covered in class. In college, the professor does not cover the material. The student is expected to come to class having already done the necessary reading and exercises. The professor then “uncovers some of the material” and conducts a seminar with the (informed) students.
In high school a student is tested often. Most high school quizzes and tests do not emphasize writing or the solving of problems a student has not seen before. Most college courses test only three times: a midterm exam, a final, and a term paper. Depending on the course, each test will demand writing, problem solving, or both.
The skills required of college students are precisely the ones tested by the SAT. Preparing for the SAT thus helps a student develop the skills needed not only to get into college, but to stay there. So, for most students, my answer is to take both the ACT and the SAT, but to concentrate primarily on the SAT.
About the Author: Tutor Karl K. is a retired engineer, college lecturer and admissions officer, and high school teacher. He is an active and highly successful tutor in a wide variety of subjects including ACT and SAT preparation, English grammar, reading, and writing, mathematics from geometry to calculus, and science (especially physics and chemistry). He and his wife live in Atlantic Beach, Florida (near Jacksonville).