As a private tutor in Los Angeles for more than 15 years, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of families we work with who choose the ACT over the more-traditional SAT exam on their path toward college admission. Scores from at least one of these tests are required for admission to most major colleges and universities, and every year thousands of students from Los Angeles schools have to decide between taking one or both exams in hopes of best positioning themselves for admission to their top schools.
While either test can be used to gain admission to college, it is important to note the differences between the two tests. The objective of the ACT is to measure what a student has learned in school, while the SAT is a logical reasoning test.
Another important difference is the structure of each exam. The ACT has five single sections (English, Math, Reading, Science and Essay), always given in this order. The predictability inherent in this format allows students to mentally prepare for each section on test day. The SAT contains 10 sections, with a single essay and multiple offerings of each of three subjects (Math, Critical Reading and Writing). These sections are shorter in length, but are presented in an unpredictable order.
Recently, parents have been asking how they can determine which test is best for their children, hoping to find any way they can to give their kids a leg up in the admissions process. Although the answer varies based on the specific details of each student’s academic background, personality, capacity for sustained attention and focus, among other factors, there are a few issues every student and parent should consider when making “The Decision.”
- Has the student taken a full-length practice exam for both tests (before undertaking any test prep), and was there any significant difference in score?
I typically suggest this as a starting point. Both exams require hours of preparation for most students to master, and most students prefer to climb a shorter mountain toward their score goals when possible.
- What are the student’s aspirations?
Knowing the types of schools the student is seeking to gain admission to helps everyone involved clearly understand what it will take to be a competitive applicant with regard to ACT and SAT scores. This information, along with the student’s scores from initial practice exams, grade point average, and extracurricular activities form a more complete picture of what type of work will be necessary to reach the goal of admission into one of the student’s top-choice schools.
- Does the student like to read?
This is a question I began to ask after noticing that students who do not enjoy reading have a much harder time improving their scores on the ACT than on the SAT. Time is often in limited supply when scheduling test prep among the student’s other responsibilities.
- Does the student have challenges maintaining focus for longer periods of time?
In this day and age, most of us suffer from some type of attention deficit. It is important to be aware of any sustained focus challenges a student may possess. If the student has been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or another learning difference for which they will receive accommodations on the actual test, this information helps make an informed determination on ACT vs SAT.
Whether a student should sit for the ACT or SAT is just one of many serious decisions to be made during the college application process. Although this time can bring with it a cloud of uncertainty, it is also a great opportunity for families to discuss aspirations and values. Once there is a relatively clear picture of the student’s goals, the excitement and anticipation of accomplishing those goals is typically a great motivator for investing the time and energy into doing whatever it takes to be a competitive applicant.
Stephen A. Johnson is the founder of Bright Minds Tutoring, www.brightmindstutoring.org. He is a UCLA graduate with a degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; a professional background in science and a passion for student achievement. He has provided Los Angeles-area K-12 students with tutoring services in curriculum-related subject matter and test prep for more than a decade.