College Profile: The University of California System

Applying for any of the nine prestigious schools in the University of California system may seem like a daunting task. While admission statistics vary widely from campus to campus (e.g., you would need a more competitive profile for a school like UC Berkeley or UCLA than for UC Merced), the minimum requirements are the same for each school in the UC system. The minimum requirements, as outlined on the official University of California website include:

  • Subject requirements – these are the college preparatory courses in grades 9-12
  • A standardized test – the SAT Reasoning Test OR ACT with Writing. The SAT Subject Tests (once known as the “SAT II” tests) are not required for UC admission but they will be considered if they benefit the applicant. For competitive schools and students, this is their coy way of saying, “you should take them.”

A good breakdown for competitive scores for the UC systems can be found on

In this post, we’ll look into some differences between the SAT and ACT.

Every score you receive, on both exams, will be shared with all the UC campuses you apply to, if you choose this option. Unlike some private schools, which allow you to “mix and match” your top scores from different test dates, only your highest scores from a single sitting will be considered by the UC system. While there is no maximum number of attempts students can take on the SAT, many private schools will frown upon multiple attempts; three tries is a good ceiling to set.

Choosing between the SAT and ACT is ultimately a personal preference, and students should choose the test they feel more comfortable taking.  One way students can get an idea of how well they will do on these exams is by taking the PSAT  and ACT Aspire in 10th grade. The official PSAT is offered at high schools nationwide every October, and scoring highly can put you in contention for scholarship awards . There are also free practice exams available on the College Board and ACT websites.

In my experience, students will consistently score higher on one exam over the other. This means that students rarely do well on both, and typically have a clear preference for one or the other. I have seen students spend many months studying for one exam, only to realize that they find the other easier. It is vital to get an idea of which exam best suits you before devoting hours of studying and practice to one.

On a high level, there are some major differences between the ACT and SAT:

  • The most significant difference, in my opinion, is that there is no guessing penalty for the ACT. Every incorrect answer on the SAT comes with a ¼ point deduction. Incorrect answers on the ACT do not carry an extra penalty.
  • The ACT is shorter than the SAT. There are four sections on the ACT, ranging from 35 to 60 minutes, compared with ten sections on the SAT,  each about 25 minutes. In all, the SAT is 20 minutes longer than the ACT, although there are also more breaks during the SAT.

There are some common characteristics that I’ve noticed in students who I help study for both the SAT and the ACT, characteristics that have been indicative of which test best suits them. Even after taking a practice exam for each test, students should ask themselves which test they more closely align themselves with.

SAT students, in general, will:

  • write persuasively by giving concrete examples
  • have a strong vocabulary, and good memorization skills to learn new vocabulary
  • have strong reasoning and logic skills
  • have a knack for grammar
  • be able to “switch gears” easily between subjects

ACT students, in my experience:

  • are strong readers (the science portion of the ACT requires no science knowledge, but rather the ability to comprehend and digest facts and diagrams quickly)
  • write argumentatively without relying as much on concrete examples
  • are stronger in math (the ACT includes trigonometry; the SAT does not)
  • are good proofreaders, focusing on punctuation and structure instead of formal English grammar rules

I have heard students say that the ACT is more objective, and is based more closely on a curriculum and cumulative academic achievement, but the pacing is more difficult, as there are longer sections to endure. Students who enjoy the SAT seem to thrive more on the switches between sections, which allow them to breathe between sections.

Of course, many of these traits will be learned through training and practice, either through self-study, or guidance from a teacher. But having some of these traits to begin with might be a good starting point in deciding which test to focus energy on.

There is no “right” test to take for the UC system, and there is no “better” test any one teacher can quickly recommend; the choice is a personal, informed decision that a student should make based on their strengths and test-taking preferences. The best thing  your student can do is take accurate practice tests for both the SAT and the ACT to see which one he or she prefers, and then really commit to a study plan for optimal results. And because both tests are normalized in the eyes of the UC admissions officers, it is in a student’s best interest to commit to the test they are most comfortable taking. There are many options for taking practice tests to assess your student’s best test fit. Revolution Prep is offering a Boot Camp Weekend that includes practice exams and strategy sessions for both of these high stakes exams. The Boot Camp event is coming up on March 15th and 16th, and is designed to give students the insight they need to decide where to focus their efforts.

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Written by Revolution Prep tutor, Edmund L.

Edmund (Eddie) did his undergrad at UC Berkeley before coming to Cornell. During college, he worked as a Residence Hall Director, was an assistant teacher in Stochastic Processes, and was the president of the tennis team.  Recently he has moved back to sunny California, where he likes to discover new places to eat, listen to good music and teach for Revolution Prep!

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