Knowing the Score: The Ins and Outs of the SAT and ACT

Affording College, Featured Article, Planning & Saving
on December 16, 2014
Standardized Testing

There’s a question you won’t find on either the SAT or ACT, perhaps because it’s so tough that even parents have trouble answering it without lots of study. That is: Does one method of standardized testing offer advantages over the other that can help a student’s college prospects, as well as the amount of financial aid he or she might anticipate?

Though both examinations share three-letter acronyms, crucial differences exist between them—which you can put to your advantage if you know the rules of thumb beforehand. To that end, we called on Mark Kantrowitz, Senior Vice President and Publisher of and author of “Filing the FAFSA” (which you can download for free by clicking the title link). He did his homework, and so did we, in the name of helping you ace the testing game.

SAT and ACT: The Basics

And now, another stumper: What do SAT and ACT stand for?

The answer is: nothing. Decades ago, the acronyms had meaning (Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Testing respectively). But as the exams evolved, both became vestiges, to the point where the initials now serve as the titles themselves.

Yet the tests are far from meaningless to college hopefuls. The SAT is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 for math, verbal and writing—with combined scores of up to 1,600 for math and verbal, or 2,400 for all three categories. The ACT has a distinct scoring scale, ranging from 5 to 36.

Costs for the two tests are virtually the same. The SAT charges $52.50 for the test, which includes sending score reports to up to four colleges. Each additional score report costs $11.25.

The ACT charges $54.50 ($38 for the version that omits the writing section), which includes sending score reports to up to four colleges. Each additional score report costs $12.00. Bot the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers, which can be obtained through the help of a guidance counselor if you qualify.

Aside from the normal restrictions of looking ahead at sections, or behind at finished ones, the ACT prohibits the use of calculators that have downloaded algebra functions. The SAT also prohibits section hopping and specialized calculators. Remember to bring photo IDs for both tests, and leave the smartphones, iPods and any equipment capable of taking photographs at home.

But here, the major similarities end. Kantrowitz says that the tests cover mostly separate turf, and their objectives in terms of measuring aptitude work in dissimilar ways.

A Test of Popularity

As for which test is more popular, it largely depends on where you live. “The ACT is more popular in the Midwest and South while the SAT is more popular with students who live on the East and West coasts,” Kantrowitz says.

Selecting the right test, if given a choice, depends largely on your strengths. “The ACT may be better for students with a STEM focus: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” Kantrowitz says. “The SAT may be better for students with a liberal arts focus. For example, the SAT has a greater emphasis on vocabulary than the ACT, while the ACT has a science section and includes questions about Trigonometry in addition to basic arithmetic, Algebra I and II and Geometry.”

“The ACT may be better for students who are weak in one area and strong in other areas, since colleges tend to focus more on the ACT composite score, while colleges look at the SAT verbal and SAT mathematics scores separately,” he says.

And according to Kantrowitz, “Students report that time management is a more important skill for taking the SAT than the ACT, especially in the reading comprehension sections.”


The Bottom Line

While there seems to be some correlation between the money received by high scorers on both exams, it’s hard to tell how precise the link is between tests and grants.

Analyzing data from the 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), Kantrowitz finds that those scoring above 1400 on the SATs received $5,647 in private source grants. With the ACT, those scoring above 33 received $6,207—10 percent more.

“But it isn’t necessarily a causal relationship,” Kantrowitz says. “Very few scholarships ask for information about the student’s GPA or test scores. Rather, students who are talented in one area tend to be talented in other areas too.”

In other words, high scores on either test may indicate how much chance a student has at a scholarship, but they won’t impact the final result significantly, if at all.

Right now, a crucial distinction between the SAT and ACT lies with how wrong answers are treated. “The ACT gives no penalty for guessing, while the SAT subtracts a quarter of a point for each wrong answer,” Kantrowitz says.

But starting in spring 2016, the SAT will eliminate the penalty for wrong answers as part of its redesign. Math and reading sections will also be more geared to the kinds of assignments students might face in college. Changes to the ACT “have been, and continue to be, evolutionary,” according to the test’s website, though updates are continually posted there.

If your colleges of choice give you the option of taking either test, Kantrowitz says you might not want to choose at all: “Some students take both the SAT and ACT and then send score reports for just the test where the scores are higher.”

Other Standardized Test Tips

Some schools don’t base their admissions on standardized testing at all, according to the non-profit Fairtest. Their website lists hundreds of such higher ed institutions across the U.S. and some are fairly prominent.

In the Chicago area, two such schools include Wheaton College (considered by some as the Harvard of conservative Christian education) and Columbia College (which has a Hollywood campus, and has produced such talents as Mauro Fiore, the groundbreaking cinematographer on James Cameron’s “Avatar.”) And it’s hard to imagine a more prestigious arts school than Julliard in New York, where SATs or ACTs aren’t part of the admissions equation.

In the end, the tests appear equal both in terms of how much they cost to take and the minimal amount they garner in scholarships.

The rest is up to you: Talk to students and parents in your area to get feedback and advice; if it makes you feel more prepared, take a test prep course.

And though it may seem tough, don’t let the weight of either test increase the weight on your shoulders. Hopefully you have grades, accomplishments and letters of recommendation working in your favor. As for cold comfort, remember: You’ll have many more exams to tackle in the years ahead.

Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters and covers investment U.S. News and World Report. He scored 1290 on his SAT—high enough to get him into Rutgers College.