The terms ACT and SAT are synonymous with the college application process, and a staple to life as a high school junior. We’ve all heard of them, but what really are these exams for, and how much do they actually affect getting into college?

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, entrance exams were specific to each school, with each college having its own version of a readiness test. The College Board, a non-profit group of 12 colleges, was founded in 1899 to combat the belief that non-uniform testing was giving high schools too much power over college admissions. As more and more high school graduates went on to pursue college education, the test was given to more and more students.

Trying to follow the success of the SAT, the American College Testing (ACT) was founded in 1956 to market to a wider demographic, as the SAT was primarily used by selective northeastern colleges.

Because of their similar purposes, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between the ACT and the SAT. According to Study Point, an online tutoring service, the fundamental difference between the two tests is that they’re set up differently, with slightly differing subject material and allotted times for subjects. 

Another key difference is that questions in the SAT are more evidence and context based, while questions on the ACT are more straightforward and less focused on application to real-world situations.

In addition, the scoring systems of the two exams are different, with the ACT out of 36, and the SAT out of 1600.

The total time given for each test is relatively the same, with the ACT being 3 hours and 35 minutes, and the SAT being 3 hours and 50 minutes.

While most four-year colleges will accept either score, the SAT tends to be more popular with private schools and colleges on the east and west coast, while the ACT is more popular among midwestern and southern schools.

In 2015, 1.7 million students took the SAT, and 1.92 million took the ACT. While it’s undeniable that it’s part of our culture, some are asking whether or not the test are an accurate reflection of a student’s high school experience, including Vincent Bryant, an ACT/SAT tutor.

“While reading comprehension is important to any academic pursuit, the manner in which these tests are administered- large group settings, yet no collaboration, stringent guidelines, early start times, etc., has a damaging effect on a person’s ability to concentrate and perform,” Bryant said.

On the other hand, senior Will Sears believes that these exams are a good tool for colleges, but that that it’s a stretch to say that it’s an accurate summary of a student’s four years in high school.

“I think that these tests are a decent representation of a student’s time at high school; however, I think that a student’s GPA is probably a better representation. It’s a good indicator academically, but it doesn’t represent any extracurriculars or [other] things,” Sears said.

In contrast, despite the increasing number of students taking college entrance tests, which has nearly doubled from 1986 to 2012, a growing number of colleges are beginning to embrace test-flexible and even test-optional policies.

A study found that half of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the U.S. now align themselves with one of these two options. In addition, more than 870 colleges reported changing their admission policies on requiring the ACT/SAT in 2016.

These colleges, however, are still a small number in comparison to other colleges whose current policies require test scores.

“Some colleges de-emphasize the tests. Others eschew the system altogether. But they are the minority,” Bryant said. “There are a great many options, however, for students with middling or below average test scores.”

In between these two arguments, Dr. Kathy Moore of the UAHS College Center believes that the importance of test scores can be both low or high, depending on which school a student wants to go to.

“The more selective the school, the more test scores matter. GPA is the best predictor of college success,” Moore said.

Moore also believes that it’s important for a student to vary themselves in terms of scholastic pursuits, and not rely solely on a test score as an entrance predictor.

“Extracurriculars, sports, etc. are important in that they help the school to learn more about you as a person and to find out what you are interested in outside of school,” Moore said.

Looking forward, the standardization related changes affecting the SAT and ACT are a mystery, as President Trump promised to dismantle the Common Core and nominated Betsy DeVos, a proponent for localized education, as his Secretary of Education.