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SAT vs. ACT: Which is right for you?

By Mark Maier, Contributing Writer
Published On: Jul 23 2011 08:56:06 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 16 2013 09:48:36 AM CDT
Apple on top of school books

iStock / Liliboas

Throughout their high school careers, prospective college students know about the importance of things like grade point average and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, when it comes time for standardized tests -- the SAT and ACT -- students often find themselves with many questions.

What is the SAT test?

The SAT Reasoning Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and Scholastic Assessment Test) is a test used for college admissions in the United States. It is published and owned by a nonprofit organization, the College Board. For more than 80 years, the SAT has aimed to gauge students' critical-thinking abilities. The test takes about four hours to complete, and it contains three sections: critical reading, writing and mathematics.

What is the ACT test?

The ACT, similar to the SAT, is another test used for college admissions. The American College Testing Program was introduced in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT. The ACT test is produced by ACT, Inc., a nonprofit organization.

Structurally, the ACT has few differences when compared with the SAT. Its format contains four sections: reading, English, mathematics and science. Including its optional writing section, which has been available since 2005, the test takes about three and a half hours to complete.

What is the difference between the tests?

Aside from their relative structures, the tests differ in a number of ways. They are scored differently, and their information is distributed differently.

The SAT's overall score is calculated by adding together its sections' scores, as opposed to the ACT's overall score, which is averaged for a composite score. While both tests feature multiple choice and essay questions, only the SAT penalizes students for incorrect answers. A perfect score for the SAT is 2400 points, while a perfect score for the ACT is 36.Students who take the SAT are also subject to strict rules that require them to disclose all of their SAT tests to the schools to which they are applying. Students who take the ACT, however, may choose whether to disclose their scores.

Now that the ACT is formally recognized in all four-year U.S. colleges, the major difference between the tests remain a regional one. According to a USA Today article, the SAT is mainly taken by students who reside on the East and West Coasts, whereas the ACT is mainly taken by students located in the Midwest and mountain regions.

Which test should I take? Should I take them both?

While a student may take both tests, it is not required. Taking both tests may, however, improve their chances for college placement and scholarships because they may score better on one test than the other. Otherwise, because of each test's level of recognition, there should be no preference for either students or their prospective colleges. While the SAT requires more time, the ACT is just as challenging; there is no "easier" test.

What is the best way for me score high?

There are many ways for students to boost their SAT and ACT scores but, as educational experts always say, the best way is to simply practice.

While a number of helpful practice guides and courses are available to students, one of the most common ways to practice is to take a preliminary run through the test. Both of the tests may be taken a number of times, as long as students are willing to pay the money. Because of the aforementioned scoring rules concerning the SAT, many students take the PSAT (or preliminary-SAT) to avoid having a lower SAT score reported to their prospective schools.

Of course, students must have a solid grasp of the subject matter if they expect to do well on a test. If students are applying to colleges, though, they should already have a good understanding of what these tests will require them to know. A good score, paired with good grades, should get them into the school they prefer.

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