Making the Right Choice

DECISIONS,DECISIONS Students must choose whether to take the ACT, the SAT or both. Illustration by Evi

Students must decide whether to take the traditional SAT or newer ACT college entrance examinations

A typical high school student makes various tough decisions when facing the college admission process. The student must choose her level of academic rigor, her number of extracurriculars, the teachers for her recommendations and the number of schools to which she will apply.
The list goes and on and on. And for years, taking the SAT was a given. But with the rising popularity and now nation-wide acceptance of the ACT, students face another decision: which or both standardized tests to prepare for and take.
And this summer, many girls will engage in entrance examination preparation and find themselves forced to make a decision, but should they choose the old standby or the up and comer?
“The SAT is the older test, and people are more familiar with the scoring,” junior Nancy said. “Even when I was younger, I knew what people considered to be a good SAT score, but until this year, I had really no idea on the ACT scoring what was considered ideal or what was really good.”
But regardless of prestige, both tests offer equal merit, said Associate Director of College Counseling Heath Einstein. In 2007, when the ACT became nationally accepted in all four-year universities across the country, it finally became an equal counterpart to the SAT.
“Colleges have made it clear that they do not care which one they take if students are trying to maximize their chances of success,” Einstein said. “Because students have control over which exam results are submitted to the colleges, they can take both of them with impunity.”
Ever since national acceptance by colleges of both exams, students have followed suit. Last year, 1.64 million students from the Class of 2011 took the SAT while 1.62 million took the ACT according to College Board and ACT, Inc. In addition, the number of students taking both tests has increased, reflecting the equality in popularity of the aptitude examinations.
“We’ve noticed over the last four to five years that students are increasingly taking both exams. It used to be that the SAT was the test of choice and some girls would choose the ACT,” Einstein said. “Now, well over half of our students will try the ACT also. There are many students who will do the ACT in lieu of the SAT altogether.”
Generations ago, a geographic divide separated those students taking the SAT versus the ACT, according to the Princeton Review. Northeastern students, and students from other regions applying to selective colleges and universities, would largely take the SAT. In the Midwestern region of the country, however, students generally chose the ACT.
“They were just two completely different exams like they are today, and there was just not a whole lot of overlap,” Einstein said.
In recent years, an increasing number of students have begun to choose which test to take based on their academic strengths rather than their region.
“We find that students who are a little more literal, that are a little more math and science oriented, that can get to the answer quickly, tend to do a little bit better on the ACT versus the SAT,” St. Mark’s Director of College Counseling Veronica Pullido said.
The reason behind this trend lies in the different formats of the tests. The ACT includes a science section and more analysis of mathematical data such as graphs. It also tests students on what they are more likely to have learned in the classroom without penalizing them for incorrect answers. Students taking the SAT need to reason through and unscramble the wording and material on the exam.
The complexity of the SAT’s language requires different and possibly greater preparation than the ACT.
“I think for the SAT, because it is a reasoning based test, the preparation does need to be in terms of tricks of the trade; what makes sense, how can we eliminate answers,” Pullido said. “It’s more strategic, versus the ACT preparation, which I think, is more about knowing the format of the test.”
At Karen Dillard’s College Prep in North Texas, ACT preparation starts in the eleventh grade while SAT/PSAT prep may begin as early as ninth.
“My prep for the SAT was definitely more thorough,” senior Christin said. “When I did prep for ACT, it was mostly just for the science section. It was less test taking skills and more how to read a graph.”
Though traditionally the SAT is a reasoning based test as opposed to the ACT, which is a curriculum exam based on classroom material, other factors can also influence some students’ tendency to perform well on one exam and not the other.
“It really just depends on the kind of student you are,” Einstein said. “For example, the length of the SAT can be a factor. It’s a longer exam than the ACT so for the students that lack the stamina in long tests, then they might be better served to take the ACT. So it really just depends on what your strengths are as a person.”
Despite the differences between the tests, some argue that a student can perform equally well on both tests. Accordingly, many students opt to take both tests, relieved in having an alternative.
“People like the option that they can take two and compare rather than taking the SAT over and over again,” Christin said.
The introduction of the ACT as a second option has changed the test-taking strategies of many students. The whole rationale between testing has changed, including how much time the students choose to prepare for each test, when they test, how many times they do so and which scores they choose to submit.
At St. Mark’s, the college counseling department has taken advantage of the opportunity to maximize testing success and highly encourages every member of the junior class to take both exams at the beginning of the year.
“We do recommend and encourage our juniors to do a lot of the testing on the front end, so we have a little more time to figure out on the back end what we still need to do or not to do,” Pullido said. “Strategically, we want to make sure that the student is presented in the best possible light.
Though these tests have become an integral part of the college admissions process, schools such as Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., give the students the option of not sending in test scores if they believe the results do not reflect their academic ability.
“We’ve seen our applicant pool change. We have greater diversity and better students,” Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University Martha Allman said in defense of the University’s decision.
Though only a handful of other universities and colleges (such as New York University in New York and Middlebury College in Vermont) also conduct their admissions process with optional score submission, other colleges believe that the test scores do not wholly or entirely reflect the student’s academic ability.
While the addition of the ACT as an alternative testing option does provide students with another decision to make in the college admissions process, Einstein hopes to mitigate students’ testing concerns as much as possible.
“I always try to tell the students to not psych themselves out, that the SAT and ACT results are not nearly as important as they think that they are,” Einstein said. “A student’s grades, in addition to the curriculum rigor she has chosen for herself, is more important than how she fares on one Saturday in her junior year.”