Radhika Nihalani, Senior Manager & Co-Head Uprep, OnCourse Vantage Pvt. Ltd.

Radhika graduated from NYU Stern with a major in Marketing and Management. She then worked in the New York marketing agency world for a year before coming back to India. After her move back home, she quickly switched industries with a keen interest to understand the ground-realities of education in India through her two-year fellowship at Teach For India, where she taught 10th graders in Mumbai government schools. She then joined the OnCourse team as both teacher and mentor. Now as Senior Manager, Radhika oversees the UPrep products, trains faculty as well as team members, and curates course content.


Ah, the dreaded standardised tests! Why are they important again? Shouldn’t school grades suffice? And what exactly is the difference between the two?

Accounting for approximately 30% of the U.S. college admissions criteria, standardised tests help colleges establish parity between students applying from different countries/boards and across various streams of education.

Think about it: a student from Nigeria and a student from Japan, studying their respective local curriculums, are both applying to New York University for Economics. If both students are at the top of their respective classes, how can NYU gauge who of the two is more academically inclined? Suppose the Nigerian student gets an overall score of 1520 in her SAT, and the Japanese student gets 1450, NYU is able to use this data point as a ‘baseline’ to decide which of the two students they should admit (hint: the higher the score, the better!).

This brings me to my second point—standardised tests enhance your college application. If, for example, during the 11th grade, you struggled with a few subjects and your GPA dropped by a couple of points, getting a high score on your SAT/ACT may help redeem your application. So please don’t discount these tests altogether, they can most definitely help your application.

Lastly, the standardised tests are examining your critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Preparing for either of the two tests will help you hone these skills, which will not only help you as you venture forth into university but also in life in general.

So, what exactly do these tests entail?  Since both SAT and ACT are equally accepted by all US universities, which one should you give? Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the two tests.

1. Testing Format – The SAT is a paper and pencil test versus the  ACT is administered on a computer.

2. Content – Both the SAT and ACT, test your reading comprehension, knowledge of grammar, writing skills, and mathematical abilities.

A key difference here is that the SAT has 2 Math sections (1 calculator, 1 Non- calculator), while the ACT has only 1 Math section (calculator only). Another section featured on the ACT is the Science section. A common misconception is that someone applying for a STEM-related course must take the ACT. Inversely, it is also incorrectly believed that if you haven’t done Science in school you won’t do well on the ACT. In fact, the SAT also has science passages. These feature in the Reading section, where 1 passage will have science-related content with data and infographics. The difference in the ACT is that instead of including a science passage in reading, they have an entire section dedicated to it. However, the section merely includes science-based reading passages with graphs and tables, relying more on your ability to comprehend scientific data as opposed to testing your knowledge of science.

3. Time – Both tests are about 3.5 hours long (including breaks).

A key difference, however, is that the SAT has more challenging questions but gives you more time to solve them versus the ACT has easier questions but moves very quickly. The test format of the ACT requires students to ask many questions in quick succession, in a shorter period of time, while the SAT gives students a little more time per question. Each student may have their strength in terms of standardized testing – either the ability to deal with a higher level of difficulty or the ability to manage time well and answer questions quickly.

4. Testing Frequency – The SAT is conducted 5 times a year versus the ACT happens 7 times a year.

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600 whereas the ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The SAT and ACT are scored on two completely different scales. Nevertheless, there are some overlapping scoring practices both tests follow.

How are the tests scored?

  1. For starters, neither test uses negative marking for incorrect answers. So you should always attempt every question!
  2. Both the SAT and ACT follow a system of scaled scores. After correcting your answers, you will first have something called a ‘raw score‘ (the number of questions you got correct). The raw score is then converted to a scaled score for the section using the specific scale designed for the test depending on its difficulty level.

For any high schooler, preparing for standardized tests like SAT and the ACT may seem daunting at first. However, it doesn’t need to be a stress-inducing or a painful process if you follow these simple steps:

How to prepare?

  1. Start early by taking a diagnostic test towards the end of Grade 10. This includes taking a full-length test for each, without any preparation to see which test you’re better suited for.
  2. Spend two to three months to learn the syllabus and master each concept
  3. Register for a test date and then backward plan to complete at least 8-10 full-length practice tests before your 1st attempt.
  4. Plan for a 2nd attempt if you’re unhappy with your scores or believe you can improve performance to take advantage of ‘super scoring (using your best section scores across attempts).

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