Once upon a time, many colleges looked upon the ACT with suspicion. These days, however, schools give the ACT and SAT equal weight in the admissions process. Gone are the days when students would simply sit for the test that was more popular in their region of the country. The number of students taking the ACT has risen drastically, and a growing portion of students are even taking both exams.
Given this newfound freedom, which test should you choose? It’s critical to carefully evaluate which exam is best for you. While there is some overlap between the SAT and ACT, they are still markedly different. Because thoroughly preparing for each can take many months (make sure to start early), it’s generally best limit yourself to preparing for only one. If you prepare for both, you sacrifice valuable time that is often better spent developing your academic and extracurricular profile. That said, high-scoring students aiming for the most competitive scores do sometimes benefit from sitting for both.
The best way to determine which test is right for you is to take a full-length, timed practice test for each exam. Make sure the exam is an official one written by the actual test makers (send me an email if you’d like me to mail you one). If possible, have a parent proctor the exam. When you score the test, compare the two scores using the SAT-ACT concordance table (available on both test makers’ websites). If you score significantly higher on one exam, that’s usually the best exam to take.
If you perform equally well on both tests, consider which you found more enjoyable. The more enjoyable the test, the more effort you’re likely to invest in preparing for it, resulting in a higher final score.
In addition to taking a practice test on your own, here are some of the key differences between the exams that can help you best decide which is right for you:
• The ACT allows less time per question than the SAT. While many students can finish SAT sections and still have time remaining, students taking the ACT often struggle to complete the sections in time. If you’re a particularly slow test taker, the SAT may be a better choice.
• Reading is very different on each exam. The SAT, unlike the ACT, regularly features challenging passages in antiquated English (think Victorian novel) and questions that require nuanced, sophisticated critical reasoning to answer. ACT questions, by contrast, are more straightforward. Once again, however, time is much more limited on ACT reading. Students will often prefer one test’s approach to the other.
• Math counts for half of the composite SAT score, but only a fourth of the composite ACT score. While weaker math students might thus seek to gravitate toward the ACT, the ACT covers a much wider and more advanced range of content from algebra, geometry, trigonometry and precalculus, whereas the SAT generally focuses more narrowly on algebra. Prepping for ACT math—particularly if a student is seeking a very high score—can thus take substantially longer than prepping for SAT math. The difficulty level of the questions is similar, although the SAT features more text-dense word problems.
• The ACT contains a science section, whereas the SAT merely sprinkles a few similar science and data questions into its reading and writing sections. Little scientific knowledge is needed to do well on the ACT, however, as the test is primarily concerned with your ability to quickly analyze data like graphs and charts. Still, the science section can be a major factor in score differences between the SAT and ACT. For students aiming for the most competitive ACT scores, it is wise to review some scientific fundamentals, which can (as with the math section) make ACT prep last longer than SAT prep.
• The SAT has recently featured some very unforgiving curves, particularly on the math section, making it difficult to achieve perfect or near-perfect scores. That said, the SAT tends to be more predictable than the ACT, which has been known to surprise students with a few random math and science concepts it has never tested before. And as stated above, the SAT generally covers a narrower band of material than the ACT.
Use these tips to help decide which exam is best for you. While it may take some time to figure out which test is the right one, you won’t regret having done so. Carefully choosing between the two exams can help ensure you achieve your optimal score, maximizing your chances at college admissions and scholarships.