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The changing landscape of the SAT and ACT for International Students

ESM Prep ACT and SAT Exam Prep

The College Admissions landscape is as competitive as ever. Finding the right fit college, combined with the already byzantine admissions process, hasn’t been aided by the changing landscape of the two most important standardised tests for undergraduate US admissions: the ACT and SAT.

Be it politics, economics or standardised tests, people do not like change when it leads to uncertainty. I’ll help clarify what the changes are and what they mean for you as an international student or parent.

Part 1: The ACT Computer-Based Test (CBT)

The first noteworthy point is that, starting Fall 2018, the ACT is a Computer-based test for International students under normal time only (the ACT is still paper-based for international students with extra-time). There is no change in the content of the exam; the change is simply the medium through which it is tested. The SAT is still paper-based for all international students for the time being, despite initially promising that it would switch to computer-based testing outside the United States at the same time as the ACT. Despite the delay, we expect the SAT change to come as early as Fall 2019.

What does this computer-based change mean for the student? The ACT will provide a whiteboard and scrap paper for notes and math work; this disconnect between the question on the screen and your working-out can lead to a lag in selecting the correct answers and disrupt flow for some students. Furthermore, this can lead to a distinct disadvantage in the reading section, as you do not have the ability to quickly and easily annotate. However, as this is a disadvantage for all students and the international test has its own scaling, no student is at an advantage. Fortunately, our mentors have a host of strategies to work through this hurdle and perhaps even turn this dual processing method it into an advantage. For the essay component, editing  your essay on the computer is arguably easier as opposed to on paper.

On the positive side, the ACT is now able to produce your composite score for the ACT CBT exam within days, rather than the normal 2-3 weeks for any paper tests. This means that the ‘dead’ time between taking an exam and receiving your score is minimized, thus expanding the time between receiving your score and the next test date. This extra time is vital, allowing students greater chances of shoring up relative weaknesses before the next test.

Naturally, in terms of picking the correct exam, it is not as straight-forward as whether you prefer taking a computer-based exam or not. The tests are approximately the same length, but there are many other factors to consider. For the sake of brevity, there are two other main points to consider:  The ACT has on average 49 seconds per question vs 67 seconds on the SAT, and the SAT has no explicit ‘Science’ Section (the ACT does).

Some students may have already jumped to a conclusion as to which test they prefer (see: ACT Science).  I implore everyone to consider all of their options before choosing a test to pursue.

Last but not least, the SAT curve has changed drastically in the recent months, as discussed further in Part 2.


Part 2: The SAT Curve

Overall, scores on the NEW SAT have been deflated by around 40-80 points on average compared to their historical averaged before June 2018, approximately a 5-7 percentile difference.

What does this mean?  For students looking to score in the 99th+ percentile (>1450), they should spend more time considering ACT vs. SAT, especially for those who are prone to small mistakes. These changes won’t have as much of an effect on lower scoring students (<1350).

The SAT will still be better for some lower scoring students, and, compounded with the change in the ACT CBT, may be a stronger option for lower scoring students.

Strategy-wise, there are some direct takeaways you can implement straight away.

○ It is even more important to prioritize avoiding small mistakes on all sections.

○ Students need to have grammar and math concepts mastered so as not to miss “easy” points. There is no margin for error now.

○ Superscoring can be more critical to mitigating the effects of a bad curve.

In summary,  these curves are likely here to stay for the near future. The College Board has opted to make the curves harsher as opposed to adding more difficult/new content to the exam. If they do add more, the College Board will likely adjust the percentiles to reflect these changes, but we won’t know for sure until they release the 2019 data. Current juniors (class of 2020) will be the ones most adversely affected.

However, this decision is idiosyncratic and these should be taken with a pinch of salt, the ACT or SAT is an individual decision and all of the factors should be weighed.. The best method to decide certainty is to sit both tests in full and to discuss your results with an ESM mentor. While this sounds like a lot of effort, you can take comfort in the fact that all students are in the same boat.

Niall Molloy, ESM PREP

To find out more about ESM Prep and the work they do, please contact Alex Burston.

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