Testing the Test: SAT vs. ACT

While the concept can be intimidating, standardized testing doesn’t have to be an ordeal. As a student, you have a variety of options. Though the SAT has traditionally been the most widely-used test, students are no longer required to take it. As of 2007, every school that accepts the SAT Reasoning Test now also accepts the ACT. Some states, including Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Wyoming, even incorporate the ACT into their high school curriculum, thus making the test mandatory. You may be wondering about the differences between the two tests, and which one you should take, or if you should take one at all! The short answer is that you should do what is right for you. I’ll explain what the difference is and how to figure out which is best for you.

The ACT consists of four main components: English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning, plus an optional Writing section. All sections of the ACT (except the optional Writing section) are entirely multiple-choice. This is unlike the SAT, in which students must produce hand-written answers to some questions in the quantitative (Math) section. The total ACT composite score is an average of all four sections, which are each scored on a scale of 1-36. The optional Writing section is not included in this score and is scored separately. Even though the Writing section is optional, many schools require it so make sure to check the testing requirements of the schools on your college list. In total the test lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes, or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the optional writing section.

The SAT has three main components: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. Each component has three different sections, and added to this is an experimental section, which results in a 10-section exam that lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes. Students are not informed which section is experimental; so all sections should be completed as though they count. The SAT Writing section includes an essay, scored from 2-12, which is factored into the overall writing score. Each section (Critical Reading, Math and Writing) is scored out of 800, making the highest possible total score 2400.

Due to the differences in formatting, time, and content you might find that you score higher on one test than the other. Here are some tips that might help you determine which test is best for you:

  • The ACT is more of a knowledge-based or achievement test than the SAT, and so you may prepare for the ACT by studying material in your high school curriculum. The SAT on the other hand, tests your ability to reason through an exam, which requires that you practice your test-taking skills, ideally with specific SAT preparation.
  • The SAT has fewer questions than the ACT and students are granted more time to complete each section, so if you prefer to reason through longer, more abstract questions you may want to consider taking the SAT. If, on the other hand, you have a wide range of knowledge and prefer to quickly answer straightforward questions, you may be more suited to the ACT.
  • The ACT only scores correct answers, whereas the SAT penalizes slightly for wrong answers. The SAT also has fewer questions, so each one is weighed more heavily than individual questions on the ACT. Consider how this may affect your test-taking strategies and performance.
  • If science isn’t your strongest subject, you might prefer taking the SAT, which does not have a science section. Conversely, if you enjoy math and science, you might prefer the ACT, which features trigonometry as well as general science. The SAT only tests up to the information students learn in a typical Algebra II class. So, the math on the ACT is slightly more challenging than on the SAT.
  • The ACT will assess your skills in sentence construction, grammar, syntax and punctuation, whereas the SAT critical reading section focuses extensively on vocabulary.
  • The ACT is more direct in the manner in which questions are asked, and so students with learning differences may fare better on this test.

Before deciding which test to take, it is worthwhile to take at-home practice tests of both the SAT and ACT and compare your initial scores. For example, IvyWise students take our SAT/ACT Challenge to help them assess which test is right for them. Remember to take these tests under testing conditions similar to those you will encounter on the actual test day by completing each test in one uninterrupted, timed sitting (you may take short breaks as needed). Once you’ve decided on taking either the SAT or ACT there are several ways you can prepare. Your school might provide students with access to test preparation resources, or as an alternative, IvyWise provides tutoring services. Test review books often have practice tests and may also provide helpful tips, and information. Additionally, there are many sites online that offer sample questions, and some even have full-length practice tests. You can also try learning in a group setting with a testing tutor.

To help you prepare, you should aim to take about eight at-home practice tests—one a week for two months prior to the actual exam. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to take the test before college applications are due. Generally your initial test date should be in the spring of your junior year. For the SAT, these would be the March, May, and June test dates. Registration for these tests happens early, for example you will want to sign up for the May 1, 2010 test by March 31, 2010. For the ACT, the dates are April 10, 2010 or June 12, 2010, and registration dates are March 5 and May 7 respectively. If you are unhappy with your first or second sitting, you can take the test again (scores generally don’t improve after the third time) early in your senior year. For the SAT, you should aim to retake the test in October (particularly if you’re applying early to any schools). The ACT has a test date in September as well as October.

Remember, there are more than 800 schools in the U.S. that are now test optional, which means that admission to one of those colleges does not require an SAT or ACT test score. For more information head to http://www.fairtest.org/, which has a searchable data bank of all test optional schools. If you feel that your standardized testing scores do not truly reflect your academic ability, you might consider applying to one of these schools.

Keep in mind that neither test will “look” better on your application, and you don’t have to take both tests. Above all, the most important part of the standardized testing process is to work hard and prepare, regardless of whether you take the SAT or the ACT.