The Edge Our college admission blog

Decisions, Decisions…

by Katie Z, Ph.D May 18, 2015


Out there, spinning their webs on websites, there’s a great number of people with different opinions on whether you should take the SAT or the ACT.  At the end of the day, however, the choice is yours to make.  Like ice creams of different flavors, these standardized tests have both similarities and differences.  If colleges to which you’re applying have preferences for one test over the other, that’s a consideration, but you also want to take the test on which you believe you can best perform.  In making that assessment, consider the following:

1) The basic formats of the two tests are different, with the SAT breaking up its three content areas (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing) into ten sections, which you jump back and forth between. The ACT, on the other hand, asks you to complete each of its four content areas (English, Math, Reading, and Science) in one go.  The SAT also has a required writing section, while the ACT offers an optional writing test (which may not be as optional as it seems, since many colleges want you to take it)!

2) In scrutinizing the above-listed content areas, you may have noticed that the ACT has a science section. The SAT does not.  In general, the ACT has a reputation for testing more on materials that you have come across in your high school classes, while the SAT is more interested in how you apply that knowledge.  ACT questions are more straightforward, while SAT questions are more abstract.

3) Along these lines, while the ACT tests more advanced concepts in mathematics, the questions themselves are (you guessed it) more straightforward than those on the SAT. Keep in mind also that math accounts for 1/3rd of your SAT score and 1/4th of your ACT score…you do the math!

4) While the ACT is more reading intensive, the SAT loves vocabulary, and not necessarily the type that you’d use in your daily life – be prepared to tackle words like “deleterious”, “florid”, “ostentatious”, “perfidious”, and “surreptitious”.

5) Finally, the tests are scored differently. Randomly guessing answers to multiple choice questions can harm you on the SAT, since points are deducted for incorrect responses, but you aren’t penalized for a wrong answer on the ACT, so you’ll be advised to fill in all those lovely, little ovals, regardless of whether you know the correct answer or not.

Keeping the above points in mind, I recommend that you take some SAT and ACT practice tests (you can access free practice tests through companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan) and compare your scores on each.  From there, you’ll be able to make an informed decision!

Timing Is Everything

by Katie Z, Ph.D May 15, 2015


Thinking about test prep, you should begin planning for your standardized testing adventures well before the first important college admissions deadlines jump out at you, even a year or more in advance.  And I hate to say it, but your admissions strategy should involve taking the test more than once, so plan accordingly.  In terms of upcoming test dates, I’m looking at you, high school juniors!  You can take (or retake) the SAT or ACT in June, and the late registration deadlines for both tests are fast approaching:

May 15th Blog

If you’re not happy with your scores post-June, take a deep breath and relax.  There’s still time.  You can buckle down over the summer months and then take the test again in September/October of your senior year.  You’ll also have another chance to shine in November or December, if you need it, and time to schedule a SAT Subject Test, if that’s on your to-do list.  But should you take the SAT or ACT?  More to come!

The Details of Design

by Katie Z, Ph.D May 12, 2015


You’re going to be hearing a lot about the new SAT, coming to a test-taking center near you in March of 2016, and the debate on whether it’s an improvement will be heated.  But debate is important, as is a serious reflection on the test’s changes.  Recently, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled, The Big Problem with the New SAT.  I whole-heartedly agree with criticisms discussed by the authors.

My takeaways:

  • Though the content is revised, the new test is still designed to produce a bell-curve distribution of scores. This means that you will still be ranked compared to others taking the test rather than having your performance measured against a fixed academic standard.
  • This is problematic because small differences in correct answers can still have a large impact on scores, so those who can afford expensive test-prep services will continue to have an edge over their less affluent peers.

The College Board and Khan Academy have teamed up to make new SAT test-prep materials free and accessible to all (“a future determined by merit, not money”, an admirable goal) but until the underlying design of the test is altered, the college admissions playing field will remain noticeably unleveled.  The coming launch of the new SAT may well be a situation of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, and time alone will tell how it plays out.  In the meantime, did you know that there are test-optional schools out there?  Check out:

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