A Guide to US University Entrance Tests: SAT or ACT?

Do you want to study abroad in the USA for University? Do you have questions about the US University Entrance Tests? We asked our friends at Dukes US Applications for their advice on the SAT and ACT. Here is what you need to know!

Having a hard time choosing between the ACT or the SAT?

Most likely, you will choose to take one or both of these tests to support your applications to US universities. It is possible to take the tests multiple times, in order to improve your score. Universities will use your best results in making their admissions decision.

While some universities say that these tests are optional, this is actually a chance to have something in your application that most US applicants will also have. The benefit of this is that it will let admissions officers compare your performance as an international applicant with your peers in the US. A strong score gives you one more highlight to include with your application.

Which test do top US universities prefer?

Both tests have been a part of the US university admissions process for decades and, despite historic differences between the two, they are now accepted fairly universally to support applications for admission, even at top universities.

There are concordance tables to compare scores between the two tests, and it is also useful to look at percentile profiles of admitted students at each of your shortlisted universities, to get a sense of where you should be aiming your score.

The SAT is comprised of two multiple choice sections: Maths and Critical Reading & Writing. Each section has a possible score of 200-800 for a total score range of 400-1600. The SAT is offered at more than 30 testing sites around the UK.

The ACT is made up of four multiple choice sections: English, Maths, Reading, and Science. Each section is scored from 1-36 and a composite score is created by averaging the individual scores. There are currently 13 UK testing sites for the ACT.

Both tests offer an optional essay, which is unmarked, but many universities still like to see this essay, as it offers a real-time example of your writing skills, in addition to your perfected application essays.

How should you prepare?

It is highly inadvisable to take either test without some sort of preparation. Not only will you spend time and money for the privilege of filling in bubbles on a test sheet, you may also not achieve the best results you can.

Answer ‘A Question a Day’

You can prepare under your own steam by answering a ‘Question of the Day’ – both tests have apps to support this.

Get a test preparation book

You can obtain a test preparation book: lots of companies publish them. The important thing to remember is to follow instructions for closely replicating test times and conditions so that you will get an accurate sense of where your performance is relative to where you want it to be. This requires a lot of discipline on your part – you need to analyse every question on the practice tests and know why you got it wrong or the principles for why you got it right. The same questions won’t be on the actual test, and you need to know the underlying premises for how to select the right answer.

Get a private tutor

You can have a tutor to help you through the entire test(s), or to focus on a specific subject area or section. A private tutor will assess your current level and tailor lessons to push you towards your score goal.

Enrol in a group class

You can enrol in a group class. Take care to select an instructor with a proven track-record of success and score improvement.

Whatever you determine works best for you and your learning style, start early and stick with it until you are happy with your result!

What if your score is not as high as you want it to be?

Try to remember that these tests were created to assess students in the US secondary system. If you are coming from a different educational system (e.g. A Levels, French Baccalaureate etc.), the methods of questioning and variety of topics covered may be quite different from other tests you have taken.

Practice makes perfect, and you will learn shortcuts for reducing the time you take on each question. Depending on the test and the section, you will need to spend between 36 and 83 seconds per question – the important thing is to keep moving through the test until you have had a go at all the answers, using any remaining time to revisit trickier questions.

Based on median test scores of previous cohorts of admitted students, you may see that your first (or second) test score needs to be higher in order to make you a competitive applicant.

Why would I take an official test more than once?

Many students will take one or both tests multiple times over a one or two year period. As there is a fee and an early alarm clock for each test, you want to try to be reasonable in your goal for a good score. Generally, people choose to re-take the test(s) because:

They are trying to reach a goal of matching at least the middle 50% of scores from the previous year’s admitted students to a particular university.

They need a higher score to be competitive for scholarships.

They want a perfect score so they can be one of the club of 300 out of 1.7 million SAT test-takers who achieve this impeccable result each year.

Universities generally look positively on more than one score from an applicant, as an increase both looks positive and can demonstrate that you are fairly focused on gaining admission to a US university. However, use moderation and know when you have done the best you can. Keep back some time for preparing the other aspects of your application.

The important thing is to prepare intelligently and systematically and to do the best you can so that your scores will supplement to an amazing application.

Find out more about Dukes US Applications

For more information or guidance with applying to a US university, please visit Dukes Education University Applications

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