The Tests to Take to Get into American Colleges
Most colleges and universities in the United States require or recommend that you submit scores from one of two standardized tests - the SAT and the ACT - in order to be considered for admission. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are important to colleges because they are standardized - unlike high school grades and extracurricular activities, which will vary greatly from school to school and student to student. While there is much debate these days as to whether or not success on the SAT or ACT is a reliable predictor of how a student will perform during his or her freshman year of college, students can't get wrapped up in the latest academic debates on the matter. Nor can students graduating from high school in 2015 or 2016 become distracted by the changes that are coming to the SAT in March 2016 (more information about changes to the SAT can be found here). For the foreseeable future most colleges will continue to judge applicants and their perceived potential based on their scores on the SAT or ACT. If you want to have the most college options, you need to take the SAT and/or ACT.
The good news is that all of the American colleges that require submission of standardized test scores as a part of a student's application will consider a student's score on the SAT or ACT. Colleges look at your success on these tests as interchangeable (as long as you take the ACT with the optional Writing section) - even though the tests assess your skills and knowledge very differently. Thus, you need to be strategic about which tests to take and when to take them in order to ultimately submit to colleges your best scores.
Many students, depending on their particular strengths and weaknesses, will perform much better on one test or the other. Consequently, prepared students will study for both tests by purchasing and completing timed practice tests included in The Official SAT Study Guide Second Edition and The Real ACT, 3rd Edition (Real ACT Prep Guide). Next, students should sign up for and take the SAT and ACT at least once each in order to gauge which test casts them in the best light.
How do the ACT and SAT Differ?
Generally speaking, the ACT assesses your knowledge of basic English, reading, science, and writing and intermediate math, whereas the SAT assesses your critical thinking, problem solving, and test taking skills along with your basic critical reading, math, and writing skills. So in some ways it comes down to a battle between knowledge versus skills. While there is some overlap on both tests, there is no question that the SAT and ACT reward different aspects of one's academic aptitude; therefore, depending on your background, knowledge, and skills, one test could expose your weaknesses while the other could accentuate your strengths.
The seven most obvious objective differences between the two tests are:
The tests differ in length and organization.
The ACT's sections are broken down as follows:
- English: 75 questions/45 minutes
- Mathematics: 60 questions/60 minutes
- Reading: 40 questions/35 minutes
- Science: 40 questions/35 minutes
- Writing: 1 essay prompt/30 minutes
If you start taking the ACT+Writing at about 8:00 a.m., assume you won't get out of the testing center until about 1:00 p.m. Remember, you should sign up for the optional writing section because the ACT won't count at all colleges as if it was an SAT unless you take the ACT+Writing. If you happen to skip this advice your ACT test day would end about a half hour earlier than it would if you chose to stay for the essay.
Meanwhile, the SAT's ten sections come in random order except for two constants: the first section is always the essay, and the last section is always the shortest (ten-minute) writing section. By the end of the test you will have completed three Critical Reading sections, three Math sections, three Writing sections, and one Experimental (Unscored) section. For instance, your test could very well proceed as follows:
- Writing (Essay): 1 essay prompt/25 minutes
- Math (Multiple Choice): 20 questions/25 minutes
- Experimental: 25 minutes
- Critical Reading: 24 questions/25 minutes
- Math (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): 18 questions/25 minutes
- Writing (Multiple Choice) 35 questions/25 minutes
- Critical Reading: 24 questions/25 minutes
- Math (Multiple Choice): 16 questions/20 minutes
- Critical Reading: 19 questions/20 minutes
- Writing: 14 questions/10 minutes
If you start taking the SAT around 8:00 a.m., don't plan on getting out of the testing center until 1:00 p.m. or later (remember, you need to account for the time taken up by opening directions and breaks between sections).
The ACT's English section tests grammar, punctuation, and syntax. On the SAT, grammar skills are only assessed on the Writing section.
The SAT tests vocabulary to a much greater extent than does ACT.
The ACT Math section includes trigonometry. The SAT Math section tests your knowledge of more elementary math content.
The SAT has ten non-multiple choice math questions. The ACT has only multiple choice math questions.
The ACT includes a Science section that assesses students' basic science skills (no Physics, Chemistry, or Biology). The SAT does not even touch on science.
The SAT penalizes students who make random guesses. The ACT does not penalize guessing.
For every question you answer and get wrong on the SAT you receive a quarter point deduction to your raw score (which could result in a 10 to 40 point deduction to your scaled score). For every question you answer and get wrong on the ACT, you suffer no point deductions to either your raw score or scaled score. Multiple choice questions left blank and fill-in-your-own response math questions responded to incorrectly on the SAT will result in you neither earning nor losing points.
How the ACT and SAT are Scored
On both the SAT and ACT there is a difference between raw points earned versus scaled points earned. Basically, raw points are earned for correct answers, and on the SAT raw points are deducted for incorrect answers. On both tests no raw points are deducted for multiple choice questions left blank, while on the ACT no raw points are deducted for wrong answers to multiple choice questions.
Yet, the testing agencies responsible for the SAT and ACT hardly make things simple because they don't report to you your raw score (at least not directly in top-level summaries available on score reports). Instead they put your raw scores in the oven - they cook them! Instead of calling your final scores on these tests your cooked scores, they call them your scaled scores. Receiving cooked scores probably would rub people the wrong way. Go figure. Yet, how the SAT and ACT cook their scores is completely different. The SAT inflates and the ACT deflates.
The lowest score one can earn on each of the three sections of the SAT is 200. To earn a 200 on one section of the SAT would mean that you answered no questions right and a lot of questions wrong. Thus, 200 is a very rare score to get on any section of the SAT. A 200 still sounds better than 0 to the man on the street, so congrats if you get a 200. Thus, the lowest potential combined score one can get on all three sections of the SAT is a 600.
Alternatively, if you get every SAT question right (or nearly every question on some test administration dates) and also write a very strong essay on one of the Writing sections (quick note: your SAT Writing score is made up of 30% Essay results, 70% Multiple Choice questions results), you can earn as high as 800 points on each section. Thus, the highest combined score one can earn on the SAT is 2400. Now that's hot stuff!
The average scores for Americans taking the test come in at just above or below 500 per section depending on the year or exact test date of administration.
Meanwhile, the ACT has a scaled score that looks completely different, first because there are more sections, and second because when you go out to lunch with someone you don't just want to rattle off the sum of all your section scores like you would with the SAT. Remember, if somebody earned a 630 Critical Reading, 700 Math, and 800 Writing on the SAT, they would most likely be overheard saying something like, "So, guess what? I just found out that I got a 2130 on the SAT! Can you believe how awesome I am?" When referring colloquially to your greatness as it relates to your ACT score, you speak a bit differently. You share your average score of all the sections that make up the test. This score is referred to as your composite score. The highest composite score one can earn on the ACT is a 36, while the lowest composite score one can theoretically get on the ACT is a 1. So, again, assuming you are out with a friend after checking your scores online, you would say something like, "Oh my gosh! I just logged in and I got a 31!" For the student in this example to get a 31 means that he or she got section scores that averaged out to 31. So, for instance, he or she may have gotten a 29 on the English section a 34 on the Math section, a 30 on the Reading section, and a 31 on the Science section.
29+34+30+31 = 124 / 4 = 31
Note that in the above example we have not mentioned the student's ACT Writing score (which on the ACT is synonymous with a test taker's Essay score). This is because a student's Essay score does not affect his or her Composite score in any way. On the ACT+Writing the Writing is equivalent to how you do writing the Essay. This does not mean you should opt to take the ACT without the optional Writing (Essay) component. In fact the opposite is true. This is because for the ACT to count in place of the SAT at many colleges and universities, you need to take the ACT+Writing. Why do colleges care how you can write on a standardized test? The answer is that increasing numbers of colleges want to assess your writing skills on either the SAT or ACT in order to compare how you performed on these tests to the quality of your college application essay(s). The reason colleges want to compare how you write on a test and on the application is because they want to ensure that you in fact are the author of your application essay(s).
Both the ACT and SAT have two readers review your essays. Each reader gives your essay a score between 1 and 6, and your Essay score on both the ACT and SAT is the sum of these two scores. Therefore, if your essay on the SAT got a 4 from one reader and a 5 from the other reader, your Essay is given a 9. Luckily, this is a commonality between the SAT and ACT because the ACT scores the essay according to the same numerical scale.
Why this Site is Valuable
While competitive colleges will review how you did on your ACT or SAT essay, the scores that really matter to most colleges when comparing how you did on one test versus how you did on the other test are the scores that this site asks you to report and convert above.
First, colleges are comparing your SAT Critical Reading + SAT Math score to your ACT Composite score. Then, colleges also compare your SAT Writing score to your ACT English/Writing score (the English/Writing score of the ACT is in fact a cocktail two-thirds English and one-third Essay).
Comparing your SAT and ACT scores is incredibly frustrating if you don't do it the right way. The above conversion calculators are valuable because they help you see things from the perspective of college admissions officers as they review test scores from students. Your job as a student is to put your best foot forward on your college application. This site helps you do just that by allowing you to gauge which test is your best test.
But Wait. There May be More …
The vast majority of students applying to colleges that require or recommend standardized tests to be submitted for admissions consideration need not worry about anything other than what you read above. Yet, for a small and elite group of top students, additional test scores are necessary to report (in addition to exemplary grades, impressive extracurricular activities, a well-written application, and in some cases, a strong interview) in order to get into America's very best colleges. A handful of colleges - the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown, among others - require or recommend that students not only submit their SAT or ACT+Writing scores; these colleges also want you to submit anywhere from one to three scores from tests known as SAT Subject Tests.
Similar to the sections of the SAT, these tests have scaled scores ranging from 200 to 800, but unlike the SAT, these tests are purely content-based, take only one hour each, and cover exotic subjects like Physics, German, and World History. You can take up to three SAT Subject Tests in one day. To be a competitive candidate for admission to most Ivy League and Ivy League-level colleges, plan on taking two or three SAT Subject Tests at the end of the academic year in which you have taken a rigorous course in one of the following content areas:
- Biology E/M
- U.S. History
- World History
- Mathematics Level 1
- Mathematics Level 2
- Modern Hebrew
- French with Listening
- German with Listening
- Spanish with Listening
- Chinese with Listening
- Japanese with Listening
- Korean with Listening
Never take a real SAT Subject Test before first taking a practice SAT Subject Test at home. This advice is important because you don't want to bomb an SAT Subject Test since it is hard to take it multiple times with the expectation of doing much better from one test to the next. You either know the content or you don't. Just because you do well in, say, your high school Spanish V class does not mean you will do well on the SAT Subject Test in Spanish because the latter could be testing grammar and other content that don't figure into your success in the classroom. The best SAT Subject Test preparation books are The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests, 2nd Edition if you are practicing a sampling of SAT Subject Test options, The Official SAT Subject Tests in Mathematics Levels 1 & 2 Study Guide if you are practicing for either the Math Level 1 or Math Level 2 SAT Subject Tests, and The Official SAT Subject Tests in U.S. & World History Study Guide (Official Sat Subject Tests in U.S. History and World History) if you are practicing for the U.S. History or World History SAT Subject Tests.
Most colleges that require submission of SAT Subject Test scores are looking for scores of 600 or higher on such tests in order to be a competitive candidate for admission. Good luck with that!
Not Ever Going to Be a Fan of Standardized Tests?
Fairtest.org has a list of colleges that don't require the SAT or ACT. While the number of colleges is still relatively small, it is growing as more colleges realize that a student is far more than a score. Narrowing one's college search to only test-optional colleges will greatly limit one's choices; however, it will save one the time it takes to engage in SAT-ACT score comparison.