Hamilton College Consulting Blog
Why take the ACT, anyway? All About America’s Most Popular Test
For many prospective college students, the vast list of application requirements and considerations can be overwhelming. What extracurricular activities will best show your personality? What should you write in your essay? Should you apply early action, early decision, or regular decision? Among these questions, students also must decide which college entrance exam they’ll take—the ACT or SAT.
The choice can be difficult, especially whereas the ACT is a relative newcomer to the college application scene. However, despite being the SAT’s junior by roughly 30 years, the ACT is now the most popular college entrance exam in the United States—and has been since 2012. Last year, more than 64 percent of high school grads took the exam. So, what’s the draw? Should you take it? Here are a few of the most common questions and answers about the ACT to consider before making your choice.
Is the ACT accepted everywhere? Do colleges prefer the SAT?
The short answer is “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. The ACT is currently the most popular college entrance exam, and, as of 2007, it is accepted by all four-year colleges and universities. According to the nonprofit, its reach extends to all 50 states and more than 130 countries, with millions taking the ACT exam every year. In terms of preference, what happens behind closed doors in admissions rooms varies from school to school. Generally speaking, however, colleges do not—and should not—give preference to one exam over the other.
What’s the difference between the ACT and the SAT?
Today, there are actually very few major differences between the two tests, especially considering the changes incorporated into the new SAT. Both the ACT and SAT test reading, writing, and math skills to determine college readiness. Both feature an optional essay (though students should still take it on either exam, as many colleges do require essay scores). Both are roughly four hours long between the multiple choice portions and the essay.
One of the key differences is the ACT’s inclusion of a science portion. In fact, the ACT is the first and only exam to include such a section. Given that the ACT tests an additional subject in roughly the same amount of time, many students also find the pacing to be faster on the ACT than on the SAT. Additionally, the SAT features some math questions that don’t allow a calculator, while the ACT allows calculators for the entire math portion.
I thought taking the ACT or SAT depended on where you live?
This largely used to be the case, with the ACT historically favored in the Midwest and the South and the SAT favored on the East and West Coasts. However, with new policies and testing contracts, this is no longer the case. And, as mentioned, both tests are offered and accepted nationwide.
How can I decide which test to take?
Deciding which test to take really comes down to personal preference and performance. We encourage students to take practice tests and solve sample problems from both tests, offered on the SAT and ACT websites, to get a feel for which test they might prefer. Those who can work quickly or who have strong science skills may prefer the ACT, while those who are stronger in reading or prefer a little more time might prefer the SAT—but it’s really up to you. Given how similar the tests have become, preparing to take both is often a good choice. Our H3 courses have become popular options, allowing students to prepare for the ACT, SAT, and PSAT in a single effort.
Whichever test you take, preparation is key. To learn more about our test prep courses and college admissions counseling services, contact us.
Happy testing!Read More
3 Strategies for Writing Effective ACT and SAT Essays: Advice from an H3 Writing Teacher
For many, perhaps the most stressful part of the ACT or SAT is the dreaded essay portion. You’ve just spent three hours working through various sections of English, math, and reading (plus science on the ACT) multiple choice questions, and now you’re tasked with writing a compelling, thoughtful essay in just 40 to 50 minutes. Even though the essay is now technically optional on both tests, it’s still important to take it—and to do well on it—as many colleges require and consider the scores from this portion of the exams. To help you do your best on test day, here are three strategies to make the essay less daunting.
1. Know your task.
This is especially important if you’re studying for and taking both tests. The task for the ACT essay is very different from that of the SAT essay, and it’s vital to remember what you’re supposed to be accomplishing on both. The SAT essay is arguably more straightforward. You’re given an article, speech, or some other persuasive work to read. Then, you’re charged with analyzing how the rhetor (i.e. writer or speaker) builds his or her argument. This is essentially a rhetorical analysis. Consider the strategies he or she uses to persuade the audience—even better, identify who that audience is, as well as how and why these strategies might appeal to them.
The ACT essay assignment is different. Here, you’re not analyzing an argument, but rather building one of your own. You’re given three perspectives on a semi-controversial issue, and your task is to engage with them while advancing an argument on the topic. You may either choose one or two of the perspectives to defend (as long as they don’t contradict one another), or you can introduce a fourth perspective of your own, but keep in mind that will require more thought and time.
Note: Just as the tasks of both essays are different, your thesis statements will also look different. In either case, make sure to have a clear thesis statement that sets up your paper and then actually follow it. This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing, but it’s essential.
2. Have a plan, and execute it.
When teaching the essay, I always challenge my students to consider creating outlines or organizers. Not only is this extremely helpful on the SAT and ACT essays, but it’s also a wonderful skill to hone to prepare you for the longer, more complicated assignments you’ll be tackling in college. Every piece of writing has a purpose, including yours. Identify that purpose (i.e. step number one, above) and then work your ideas and arguments into an organizer. For some, a simple bullet point list that identifies the topic of each paragraph will do. Others like to make detailed outlines that reference which pieces of evidence and what quotes (if applicable) to use where. Others still may choose to do a bubble sketch or some other, more visual layout. Find what works best for you—ideally before test day—and practice working that into your writing process. Taking a few minutes to get your thoughts in order will keep you focused when you do go to write, and I suspect you’ll notice that your writing will get tighter and better.
3. Avoid personal pronouns.
As with number two, this also holds true for both tests, and, indeed, for much of the writing you’ll be doing in college and beyond. Many students have a habit of introducing their arguments with statements like “I believe” or “I think.” Something I always point out to my students (it’s okay to say “I” in a blog post, don’t worry) is that if you’re writing something, it’s already clear you do in fact believe it. Therefore, inserting such language not only weakens your writing but is also unnecessary. From now on, try crossing out any such “I” statements in your practice essays and see how it affects the tone. Similarly, you’ll want to avoid “you” in order to maintain a formal, third-person point of view. The one exception to this rule is if you’re using a personal anecdote as evidence on the ACT. In this case, because you are relaying something that happened to you or someone you know, it’s perfectly acceptable (and makes sense) to use first person. Otherwise, err on the side of caution and avoid personal pronouns throughout.
Regardless of which test you’re taking, the key to doing well on the essay portion is to prepare. Write practice essays, review old prompts and sample essays, read and write regularly, and keep these three strategies in mind. Above all, stay confident. Whether or not you like writing or consider it a strength, you can always improve. Good luck!Read More
Graduate Spotlight: William Shi
When I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, my priorities in rank order were food, swimming, video games, girls, and sleep. School was the last thing on my mind, and my grades reflected that. By the end of sophomore year, as my friends began thinking about the SAT and the difficulties of getting into college, I was getting pretty worried. At this point, I wasn’t sure if I could even attend college at all. That all changed when I met Mr. Hamilton. During my first meeting with him, I remember Mr. Hamilton looking up from my transcripts and saying, “William, why aren’t you getting straight A’s? You should be getting straight A’s.” I was quite taken aback. No one had ever said that to me before. Yet that was just the right motivation I needed, so I decided to give it a shot during my junior year. And I did it. Somehow, Mr. Hamilton knew exactly how to engage me, to help me see my potential in ways I hadn’t before.Read More
Brainiacs & PSAT: Top 3 Ways Enrichment Classes Benefit 5th-10th Graders
The college admissions process can be an imposing prospect for students and families alike—a frenzy of college visits, standardized tests, and the all-important personal essay. For many, this process formally begins in 11th grade, the most common time that students begin to prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT. In truth, though, preparing for these tests—and for college in general—begins much earlier. Beginning in elementary school, every reading assignment and math test primes students for what’s to come. And while we don’t advocate for excessive, long-term test prep, we can’t stress enough the importance of supplementing and building upon the skills students are already learning in school.Read More
The New SAT: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The new SAT, released in March of 2016, arrived shrouded in rhetoric about “fairness” and “access.” And indeed, the partnership with Kahn Academy promised access to free test prep, while the elimination of “esoteric” vocabulary and the dreaded “guessing penalty” was heartening to many high school students. So, now that thousands have taken the test, what can we say about it?Read More