Most colleges and universities require a standardized entrance examination as part of their admission requirements. Of the 500 member institutions listed on the Common Application, very few are”test optional.” All the rest accept either the ACT or the SAT. So, how do students decide which test to take?
The current form of the SAT, which will be in use through next year, consists of three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing (including a mandatory essay). The math component progresses as far as algebra 2. The ACT has four component parts: Reading, Math, Science, and English (with an optional essay). The math component on this exam includes some trigonometry topics. Therefore, students who intend to major in math, engineering, or science tend to gravitate to the ACT.
While one test is as legitimate as the other, the focus of each test differs: The SAT measures aptitude, whereas the ACT tests achievement. The Psychology Department at the University of California, Davis, delineates the difference between these types of tests. ”An aptitude is the ability to learn or to develop proficiency in an area (if provided with appropriate education or training). It is like talent.” Thus, the SAT provides information on a candidate’s ability to learn. Achievement tests, however, ”Measure the extent to which a person has “achieved” something, acquired certain information, or mastered certain skills – usually as a result of planned instruction or training. It is designed to efficiently measure the amount of knowledge and/or skill a person has acquired, usually as a result of classroom instruction.” Thus, the SAT is supposed to provide information about a test-taker’s ability to learn, including reasoning skills, while the ACT offers information about what a test-taker has already learned.
I usually advise students who are interested in majoring in the scientific or mathematical fields to take the ACT. The science section of the ACT requires good reading skills, as well as the ability to understanding charts and graphs. Students will perform better if they are already studying pre-calculus and trigonometry. Students who have progressed as far as algebra 2 may be better off taking the SAT. These recommendations will be valid until the “redesigned SAT” appears in 2016, as indications are that the new test, while still considered an aptitude test, will be more closely aligned to the ACT.