Are the ACT and SAT Viewed Equally?

Question: My daughter is preparing for college by studying for the ACT. Do top schools like the Ivy League or Stanford prefer the SAT over the ACT? Even though the school might say either one is OK, in your opinion does one or the other have more advantage?

Back when “The Dean” applied to college, the SAT was the top-dog test, especially at the “elite” Eastern colleges. The ACT, which was then more common in the South, West, and Midwest, was seen by some as a poor relation. But that was many moons ago (as my teenaged son is quick to remind me). And, today, both tests are viewed–and accepted–equally.

And, lest you worry that “The Dean” is receiving a kick-back from the ACT folks for saying this, I assure you that I’m not. In fact, my aforementioned son took ONLY the ACT and not the SAT. (Well, he did take a couple SAT Subject Tests, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

Having watched other students (and their parents) suffer through standardized-testing stress, expense, and early-morning Saturday wake-ups, I chose a “minimalist” testing approach for my own child. I said that he should select a test, take it just once, in the spring of his 11th-grade year, and if his scores were decent, he’d be done. If not, we agreed that he might have to try the other test.

We picked the ACT because it has a Science section (his strong suit) while the SAT Reasoning Test (known as the SAT I) doesn’t. Conversely, the ACT does not include vocabulary questions (my son’s potential Achilles Heel) and the SAT I does. So that’s why I directed him to the ACT. His results were strong, and so I said he didn’t need to do a re-test or to take the SAT I at all. (And when I pointed to his perfect score on the Science section, I reminded him of his mother’s genius. 😉 )

Several students who favored the ACT over the SAT have told me that it’s because the ACT imposes no penalty for guessing. “There was a lot less pressure on me when I took that test,” conceded one girl who took both, “because I didn’t spend any time or energy worrying about whether or not I should guess.” But conversely, although the ACT Science section is more about interpreting charts and graphs rather than about knowing that Neon is chemically inert and forms no uncharged chemical compounds, another high school junior admitted to me that, “Just seeing the word ‘Science’ in the test booklet nearly brought on a panic attack!” Thus, with test prejudice truly a thing of the past, students should feel free to take the test that fits their strengths … or even their schedules … and many may wish to try both to see where they’re most successful.

But, as noted above, although my own son was definitely an ACT guy, and I don’t have any concerns that a single college … no matter how snooty … will hold it against him, he did take a couple of SAT Subject tests, too. Some colleges that require two Subject Tests will waive the requirement for applicants who take the ACT with Writing, as my son did. But others will not. It can be confusing to keep track of which schools demand which tests. Also, students who insist that all the colleges they’re considering will accept the ACT in lieu of Subject Tests may be shooting themselves in the foot if they decide to add new schools to the list in the fall of senior year. Moreover, Subject Tests, even when not required, can help students to show off strengths in areas that the SAT I and ACT don’t cover, such as history and foreign language. In addition, students aiming for the most selective colleges often submit more than the requisite scores. So an applicant who sends in only an ACT score and no Subject Test results might be at a slight disadvantage when “competitor applicants” have submitted stellar scores in multiple subjects.

Bottom line: The SAT and the ACT really are equally respected by all colleges, including the Ivies and Stanford, regardless of who might suggest otherwise. So as your daughter makes her college preparations, she can focus on the test which she feels will best showcase her strengths and meet her scheduling needs. I assure you that, if she doesn’t get the news she wants from her top-choice colleges, it won’t be because she took the ACT.