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What are the ACT and SAT?

While both the ACT and SAT can be used by parents, students, and educators to determine a student's level of academic achievement, the primary role of these tests is as college entrance exams. As such colleges and universities use exam scores to determine the probability that a student will be successful at their particular institution, if admitted. Institutions that have a higher level of academic rigour tend to have higher ACT/SAT entrance score requirements to ensure that only those students prepared for the higher academic expectations are admitted. While no one test is perfect at determining an individual's readiness for college, studies and research conducted over decades and including hundreds of thousands of students have supported the continued use of these tests to determine college readiness.

Why Two Tests?

Many people wonder why there are two college entrance tests that basically serve the same purpose and which are both pretty much accepted by all colleges and universities. Why not have just one? Well, there are at least a couple of reasons why we have both the ACT and SAT. The first reason is that historically, many schools only accepted one test or the other. Before both tests became as widely accepted across the nation as they are now, institutions from various regions in the United States tended to favor (or exclusively accept) one test over the other. At one time, colleges and universities in the Northeast, West, and Southwest favored the SAT exam, while those in the South and Midwest tended towards the ACT. Even today, you can still see the vestiges of this "test preference" if you look at the websites of different schools across the nation. However, nowadays most schools will accept either test.

While the first reason that we have both the ACT and SAT is somewhat a result of the historical adoption of the tests and really doesn't have too much bearing on students graduating high school today, the second reason has a little more substance for today's student. Simply stated, although both tests are used to determine college readiness, the ACT and SAT go about making this determination in different ways. The American College Test (ACT) is an "achievement" test; this means that the ACT measures the knowledge and skills that a student already possesses. On the other hand, the SAT was originally designed as an "aptitude" test, meaning that it measured an individual's ability to learn things in the future. However, over the years it has been determined that the SAT is not really an aptitude test but instead measures logical reasoning. [Note: the acronym SAT used to stand for "Scholastic Aptitude Test"; however, once it was determined that the test really didn't measure aptitude, this association was dropped. Now the test is simply the SAT Test, which now is the name of the test and is no longer an acronym.]

Another key difference of the test is how it is scored. The ACT test rewards students for guessing by not penalizing incorrect answers. So it only makes sense for a student to answer every question, even if he or she has to guess on some items. On the other hand, the SAT does penalize wrong answers, so it is not always in a student's best interest to guess on SAT test items. So, while there are equivalency tables used by colleges and universities to convert ACT scores to SAT scores and vice versa, some students may actually perform better on one test than the other based on the differences mentioned above.

So Which Test Should I Take?

When push comes to shove, most students only need to take one of the tests, either the SAT or the ACT. Even if students prefer one test over the other, usually the score differences between the two are small. And since most schools will accept either exam, you are relatively safe taking just one.

However, it is very important that students who are interested in particular schools visit that school's website or contact the school's Admissions Office to make sure that they don't have to take a particular test. For instance, some of the more prestigious schools (particularly those located in the Northeast) may require students to take SAT Subject Tests, which are not part of either the general ACT or SAT tests. Making assumptions can be dangerous, so make sure you have all the information you need before making a decision.

But, if you are a Louisiana student planning to go to a Louisiana school, and you can only take one test, the ACT is probably the way to go.

ACT Vs. SAT Side-by-Side Comparison

no science section science reasoning section
no trigonometry section math sections include trigonometry
vocabulary emphasized vocabulary less important
non-multiple choice items included entirely multiple choice
guessing penalty no guessing penalty
no English grammar English grammar tested
math accounts for 50% of score math accounts for 25% of score
questions go from easy to hard in most sections easy and hard questions are mixed together within sections
all of your SAT scores reported to colleges scores are reported only from the test dates you choose

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