Understanding the Differences Between the ACT and SAT

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The ACT and SAT, college entrance assessments, are mainstays of the junior and senior years of high school for most students. But, according to a guidance counselor and test prep expert, the foundation for doing well on these exams starts years earlier.

Stan Huck, director of guidance at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, says parents can begin preparing their children for the test by exposing them to enrichment opportunities as early as the elementary-school years.

“Make sure they are developing problem solving and reading skills,” says Huck. “Enroll them in honors and advance placement classes in high school.”

The SAT, first given in 1926, was initially called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and then the Scholastic Assessment Test. The SAT covers critical reading, math and writing. Possible scores range from 600 to 2400, combining test results from three 800-point sections.

The ACT, first administered in 1959, was originally known as the American College Test. The test covers English, reading, math, science and writing. The main four tests are scored individually on a scale of 1-36, and a composite score is provided that is the whole number average of the four scores.

According to Huck, most students take the tests for the first time in the second semester of their junior year, and a second time in the first semester of their senior year. They can then take the better of the two scores and use those in their college applications.

Though the SAT has been the dominant test given in North Carolina for years, new state requirements are bring the ACT to the fore, says Huck.

“Beginning in spring 2012, all high-school juniors in the state were required to take the ACT,” says Huck. Those scores are part of the formula for the North Carolina Ready Accountability Standards. The state pays the fee for the test. High-school sophomores are now required by the state to take the pre-ACT test, called PLAN.

The composition of the SAT is more aligned with Common Core, the curriculum implemented with the 2012-2013 school year. The Common Core state standards in K-12 math and English language arts are taught and assessed. Huck recommends that students take the Preliminary SAT, or the PSAT, as many times as they can to prepare for the SAT.

Jackie Pace, executive director of Huntington Learning Centers in Charlotte and Huntersville, a test prep company, points out the differences in the two tests.

“The ACT is course-relevant. This means that the passages on an ACT relate to topics that students have discussed in their classes,” says Pace. “For instance, there could be a passage about biology. On an SAT, the passages do not relate to any particular subjects and may not have been studied by students in their high-school classes. A second difference is the length of the sections of the test because some of the ones on an ACT are 75 minutes long, but those on an SAT are 25 minutes long,” says Pace. A third difference is the scoring. Paces recommends test-takers limit guesses on the SAT because mistakes count against the total score, unlike the ACT where this is not true, she says.

Huck and Pace both say that almost all colleges and universities accept both tests equally.

“Colleges look at many things, not just ACT or SAT scores,” says Pace. “They will tell you that these scores are only one part of the admission process. It is important that a student’s grades in school be strong and that the student take academically challenging classes.”

And perhaps of equal importance if preparing your child is making sure he or she get a good night’s sleep and eat a well-balanced breakfast before test time.

Anne Wooten Green is a freelance writer in Winston-Salem.