The ACT: A Great Alternative to the SAT

ACT is accepted by all US colleges and universities

By Peter Y. Davos

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Published: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 5:21 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 5:23 PM

Recently, headlines in the world of college admissions have focused on the resurgence of standardized testing requirements at leading universities in the USA. While Georgetown, the University of Florida, MIT, and Georgia Tech had required that students submit standardized test scores for the previous application season, these universities have been recently joined by a new host of top US universities requiring them for the upcoming application cycle, as well. Caltech, Dartmouth, Yale, Brown and - most recently - Harvard have reintroduced the requirement to submit SAT or ACT scores for admission. They are sure to be joined by an increasing number of other elite institutions of higher learning in the months ahead. While the SAT has traditionally dominated college standardized testing admission discussions, did you know that it is not the only option - and perhaps may not be the best one?

The ACT vs SAT

The ACT is a standardized university entrance exam and an alternative to the SAT that is accepted by all US colleges and universities, as well as over 200 foreign institutions. Universities use these standardized tests to predict their applicants’ future academic success, provide honest insight into their aptitude and academic achievement, and assess “how skillfully students solve problems, grasp implied meanings, draw inferences, evaluate ideas, and make judgments.” The exam is over 60 years old and is offered internationally seven times a year through a computer based test (which is not adaptive like the SAT, so all students sit exactly the same exam).

Peter Y. Davos, Founder and CEO of Hale Education Group
Peter Y. Davos, Founder and CEO of Hale Education Group

The ACT is scored on a 1-36 point scale, and has four sections - English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning - as opposed to the SAT’s two sections. While the ACT is a longer exam than the ACT (by about 45 minutes), the individual sections are shorter. The average ACT question is easier than the average SAT question, but there are more of them to answer in a short amount of time. The SAT is more aptitude based, while the ACT is more content focused, making it arguably easier to prepare effectively for the ACT. The ACT offers a STEM score, which is reported to all universities and tests students’ ability to use language in context - rather than their ability to memorize a long vocabulary list. Many universities offer students the ability to superscore the ACT, although more presently offer the opportunity to do so with the SAT.

Which exam should you take?

I encourage students to first sit a full-length SAT exam and then a full-length ACT exam separately to assess their baseline scores in each, without any preparation. Then, I can provide the student with impartial guidance as to which exam to take based on these data points, the student’s preference for each exam, and create a customized testing preparation timeline and plan for them. It is remarkable to see the disparity in achievement in exams that ostensibly test the same criteria.

Too often, students prepare for the wrong exam for months at a time only to realize that the SAT is not the only option after plateauing and not being able to improve their scores. The students that truly excel are the ones that exclusively and diligently prepare for the standardized test that is right for them from the outset. It is also useful to note that I have observed that STEM oriented students - particularly those enrolled in or that have completed GCSEs - outperform on the ACT. Recently, we had three such students from a single British School in Dubai secure perfect ACT scores of 36. Without proper guidance, they would not have understood that the ACT was even an option - much less, a superior one to the SAT.

The writer is the Founder and CEO of Hale Education Group

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