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Which college entrance exam is best for you?

By BY MARYANNE HOGAN/The College Auntie - | Mar 12, 2021

Yes, college entrance exams are back to being a thing. After a year off due to the pandemic and the resulting logistical issues surrounding administration of the tests, colleges will be resuming the use of standardized tests in their decision-making process for admissions starting this fall.

While the Class of 2021 largely got a reprieve (the tests were not required, but could be used if a student wanted to submit them), the Class of 2022 will see the return of the dreaded entrance exam process.

There are two different standardized tests that are almost universally used interchangeably: the SAT, which is administered by The College Board, and the ACT. In normal times, each test is administered on a monthly basis at a different high school on the island to accommodate more convenient access to the test for all students. The PSAT, which is given to juniors in the fall, is a good representation of what one can expect from the SAT, as well as being the entrance to the pool of students considered for National Merit Scholarships.

So how do the two tests differ? The first difference is the timing of the tests. The ACT gives a student three hours and 35 minutes to work 215 questions and an essay. The SAT gives a student three hours and 40 minutes for 154 questions and an essay.

Essays are “optional,” as many schools no longer require them. However, unless one is very weak at writing, I recommend students do the writing section in case any of the schools where they wish to apply require that section.

Next, the math section is different. For the SAT, the highest level of math is Algebra II. For many students, they have completed this as a sophomore (or maybe even freshman), so they will need to do some review to refresh their memories. The ACT will include more advanced math, into pre-calc.

The SAT will allow a calculator for a portion of the math section, and the ACT allows calculators. You need to check the respective websites to see which calculators are allowed, as not all of them are.

The ACT has a section specifically for science questions, which the SAT does not. The ACT section is 40 questions, 35 minutes long. So, if you are strong in science, you might wish to consider taking the ACT. The SAT does not have a science section, but there are random science questions in the other sections.

The final difference is the essay. Again, essays are optional, but I strongly recommend preparing for and taking the essay portion. The ACT will present different points of view and ask the student to argue one point versus another. The SAT presents a short passage and asks the student to analyze. These may seem like subtle differences, but one who is stronger in argumentation may opt for the ACT vs the SAT, where rhetorical analysis is more important.

The bottom line is that neither test is easy, and both require preparation. There are a variety of ways to prepare, but whatever you choose, you should be starting now. Take a practice test of each to see where your strengths lie and move on from there. Most students will take their stronger test twice — once in the spring and one in early fall.

Juniors, check your calendars and schedule those June tests now!

Maryanne Hogan is an Independent College Admissions Consultant. Visit her website, thecollegeauntie.com for more information or to make an appointment.