The Tests to Take to Get into American Colleges
Most colleges and universities in the United States require or recommend that you submit scores from one of two standardized tests - the SAT and the ACT - in order to be considered for admission. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are important to American colleges and universities because they are standardized - unlike high school grades and extracurricular activities, which will vary greatly from school to school and student to student. While there is much debate these days as to whether or not success on the SAT or ACT is a reliable predictor of how a student will perform during his or her freshman year of college, students can't get wrapped up in the latest academic debates on the matter. For the foreseeable future most colleges will continue to judge applicants and their perceived potential based on their scores on the SAT or ACT. If you want to have the most college options, you need to take the SAT and/or ACT.
The good news is that all American colleges and universities that require submission of standardized test scores as a part of a student's application will consider a student's score on the SAT or ACT. Colleges look at your success on these tests as interchangeable - even though the tests assess your skills and knowledge quite differently. Thus, you need to be strategic about which tests to take and when to take them in order to ultimately submit to colleges your best scores.
Many students, depending on their particular strengths and weaknesses, will perform much better on one test or the other. Consequently, prepared students will study for both tests by purchasing and completing timed practice tests included in The Official SAT Study Guide (2016 Edition) and The Real ACT Prep Guide. Next, students should sign up for and take the SAT and ACT at least once each in order to gauge which test casts them in the best light.
How do the ACT and SAT Differ Starting in February 2016?
The SAT assesses students in the areas of Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) and Math (M). There is also an optional essay in its own section. The ACT tests students in English (E), Math (M), Reading (R), and Science (S). On the ACT there is also an optional essay.
The ACT's sections are broken down as follows:
- English: 75 questions/45 minutes
- Mathematics: 60 questions/60 minutes
- Reading: 40 questions/35 minutes
- Science: 40 questions/35 minutes
- Optional Writing: 1 essay prompt/40 minutes
The required sections of the ACT take 2 hours and 55 minutes. If you opt to take the optional Writing (essay) section, you will add an extra 40 minutes to the end of your test. The key concepts tested on each section of the ACT are as follows:
- English: Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills
- Mathematics: Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra and Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry and Triginometry
- Reading: Arts and Literature and Social Studies and Sciences
- Science: Data Representations, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints
- Optional Writing: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions
The SAT's five sections proceed as follows:
- Reading Test: 52 questions/65 minutes
- Writing and Language Test: 44 questions/35 minutes
- Math Test - No Calculator (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): 20 questions/25 minutes
- Math Test - Calculator Permitted (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): 38 questions/55 minutes
- Optional Essay: 1 prompt/50 minutes
The required sections of the SAT take 3 hours to complete. If you opt to take the optional Essay section, you will add an extra 50 minutes to your test-day experience.The key concepts tested on each section of the SAT are:
- Reading Test: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Analysis of Social Studies/Science
- Writing and Language Test: Same as Reading Test + Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions
- Math Test - No Calculator (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): Linear Equations and Systems, Quantitative Skills, and some Geometry and Trigonometry
- Math Test - Calculator Permitted (Multiple Choice + Student Produced Response): Same as first Math Test + Manipulation of Complex Equations
- Optional Essay: Must prove that you are focused, organized, and precise in your reading, analysis, and writing
How the ACT and SAT are Scored
On both the SAT and ACT there is a difference between raw points earned versus scaled points earned. Basically, raw points are earned for correct answers. On both tests no raw points are deducted for multiple choice questions answered incorrectly or left blank.
Yet, the testing agencies responsible for the SAT and ACT hardly make things simple because they don't report to you your raw score (at least not directly in top-level summaries available on score reports). Instead they put your raw scores in the oven - they cook them! Instead of calling your final scores on these tests your cooked scores, they call them your scaled scores. Receiving cooked scores probably would rub people the wrong way. Go figure. Yet, how the SAT and ACT cook their scores is completely different. The SAT inflates and the ACT deflates.
The lowest score one can earn on each of the three sections of the SAT is 200. To earn a 200 on one section of the SAT would mean that you answered no questions right and a lot of questions wrong. Thus, 200 is a very rare score to get on any section of the SAT. A 200 still sounds better than 0 to the man on the street, so congrats if you get a 200. Thus, the lowest potential combined score one can get on the two main sections of the SAT is a 400.
Alternatively, if you get every SAT question right (or nearly every question on some test administration dates), you can earn as high as 800 points on each section. Thus, the highest combined score one can earn on the SAT is 1600. Now that's hot stuff!
The average scores for Americans taking the test come in at just above or below 500 per section depending on the year or exact test date of administration.
Meanwhile, the ACT has a scaled score that looks completely different, first because there are more sections, and second because when you go out to lunch with someone you don't just want to rattle off the sum of your section scores like you would with the SAT. Remember, if somebody earned a 630 Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and 700 Math on the SAT, they would most likely be overheard saying something like, "So, guess what? I just found out that I got a 1330 on the SAT! Can you believe how awesome I am?" When referring colloquially to your greatness as it relates to your ACT score, you speak a bit differently. You share your average score of all the sections that make up the test. This score is referred to as your composite score. The highest composite score one can earn on the ACT is a 36, while the lowest composite score one can theoretically get on the ACT is a 1. So, again, assuming you are out with a friend after checking your scores online, you would say something like, "Oh my gosh! I just logged in and I got a 30!" For the student in this example to get a 30 means that he or she got section scores that averaged out to 30. So, for instance, he or she may have gotten a 29 on the English section a 33 on the Math section, a 28 on the Reading section, and a 31 on the Science section.
29+33+28+31 = 121 / 4 = 30.25
Please note from the example above that ACT will only round up to the next highest round number starting at X.50; therefore, a score of 30.25 is reported as a 30.
What About My Essay/Writing Score?
Note that in the above example we have not mentioned the student's ACT Writing score, which on the ACT is synonymous with a test taker's essay score. This is because a student's Writing (essay) score does not affect his or her composite score in any way. Similarly, on the SAT, a student’s Essay score does not affect his or her composite SAT score in any way. Yet, just because your essays don’t get factored into your composite scores does not mean that they are unimportant.
With the 2015 redesign of the ACT and the 2016 redesign of the SAT, colleges will be able to compare better than ever before one’s essay-writing score on the ACT to one’s essay-writing score on the SAT; therefore, if anything, it is likely that those students applying for Fall 2017 college and university admission (and later) in the United States will actually be split into two groups: those who only are concerned with how they do on the required parts of the SAT (EBRW + M) and ACT (E + M + R + S) and those who are concerned with everything we have dissected up to this point AND their optional essay scores. This is because only the most selective U.S. colleges and universities will require students to take the optional Writing section of the ACT and Essay section of the SAT, but if a college requires that you submit such scores, you can bet they want them for a reason.
Why do colleges care how you can write on a standardized test? The answer is that increasingly colleges need to assess your writing skills on either the SAT or ACT in order to compare how you performed on these tests to the quality of your college application essay(s). The reason colleges want to compare how you write on a test and on the application is because they want to ensure that you in fact are the author of your application essay(s).
Starting in Fall 2015, the ACT has two readers review your essays, and each reader gives your essay a score between 1 and 6 for four distinct domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Thus, your raw Writing (essay) score on the ACT is the sum of these scores (up to a maximum raw score of 48). The ACT then scales (cooks, which deflates) your score according to its standard 36-point scale. The full ACT essay-scoring rubric is available here.
For those taking the new SAT starting in March 2016, the essay scoring system is getting a makeover. While the SAT, just like the ACT, will have two readers review your essay, these two readers will assign your essay three distinct scores - for Reading, Analysis, and Writing - ranging from 1 to 4. The two scores given to each of these three dimensions are then added. Thus, you will receive three scores for your essay that individually will range from 2 to 8 and cumulatively range from 6 to 24. Yet, the College Board will not be scaling (cooking/inflating) this raw score. This raw score will be your actual essay score. Get it? Good! The entire SAT scoring rubric is available here.
Why this Site is Valuable
While competitive colleges will review how you did on your ACT or SAT essay, the scores that matter to most to ALL colleges when comparing how you did on one test versus how you did on the other test are the scores that this site asks you to report and convert above.
First, colleges are comparing your SAT composite (EBRW + M) score to your ACT composite (E + M + R + S) score. Then, colleges will also compare your SAT Essay score to your ACT Writing (essay) score.
Comparing your SAT and ACT scores is incredibly frustrating if you don't do it the right way. The above conversion calculators are valuable because they help you see things from the perspective of college admissions officers as they review test scores from students. Your job as a student is to put your best foot forward on your college application. This site helps you do just that by allowing you to gauge which test is your best test.
But Wait. There May be More …
The vast majority of students applying to colleges that require or recommend standardized tests to be submitted for admissions consideration need not worry about anything other than what you read above. Yet, for a small and elite group of top students, additional test scores are necessary to report (in addition to exemplary grades, impressive extracurricular activities, a well-written application, and in some cases, a strong interview) in order to get into America's very best colleges. A handful of colleges - the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown, among others - require or recommend that students not only submit their full and unabridged SAT and/or ACT results; these colleges also want you to submit anywhere from one to three scores from tests known as SAT Subject Tests.
Similar to the sections of the SAT, these tests have scaled scores ranging from 200 to 800, but unlike the SAT, these tests are purely content-based, take only one hour each, and cover exotic subjects like Physics, German, and World History. You can take up to three SAT Subject Tests in one day. To be a competitive candidate for admission to most Ivy League and Ivy League-level colleges, plan on taking two or three SAT Subject Tests at the end of the academic year in which you have taken a rigorous course in one of the following content areas:
- Biology E/M
- U.S. History
- World History
- Mathematics Level 1
- Mathematics Level 2
- Modern Hebrew
- French with Listening
- German with Listening
- Spanish with Listening
- Chinese with Listening
- Japanese with Listening
- Korean with Listening
Never take a real SAT Subject Test before first taking a practice SAT Subject Test at home. This advice is important because you don't want to bomb an SAT Subject Test since it is hard to take it multiple times with the expectation of doing much better from one test to the next. You either know the content or you don't. Just because you do well in, say, your high school Spanish V class does not mean you will do well on the SAT Subject Test in Spanish because the latter could be testing grammar and other content that don't figure into your success in the classroom. The best SAT Subject Test preparation books are The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests, 2nd Edition if you are practicing a sampling of SAT Subject Test options, The Official SAT Subject Tests in Mathematics Levels 1 & 2 Study Guide if you are practicing for either the Math Level 1 or Math Level 2 SAT Subject Tests, and The Official SAT Subject Tests in U.S. & World History Study Guide (Official Sat Subject Tests in U.S. History and World History) if you are practicing for the U.S. History or World History SAT Subject Tests.
Most colleges that require submission of SAT Subject Test scores are looking for scores of 650 or higher on such tests in order to be a competitive candidate for admission. Good luck with that!
Not Ever Going to Be a Fan of Standardized Tests?
Fairtest.org has a list of colleges that don't require the SAT or ACT. While the number of colleges is still relatively small, it is growing as more colleges realize that a student is far more than a score. Narrowing one's college search to only test-optional colleges will greatly limit one's choices; however, it will save one the time it takes to engage in SAT-ACT score comparison.