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SAT vs. ACT: Which College Entrance Exam Should You Take?

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IvyWise counselors Nat and Eric offer advice on when and how students should start planning for standardized testing and discuss the important distinction between test-optional’ and ‘test-blind’ on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast, giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

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According to NACAC, 58.3% of colleges place considerable importance on admission test scores. Chances are if you’re applying to college you’ll need to take either the SAT or ACT to gain admission. But which test is right for you?

Colleges Weigh SAT and ACT Scores Equally

First, students and parents need to realize that one test isn’t “better” than the other. There’s long been a myth that colleges prefer the SAT over the ACT, but the reality is colleges don’t have a preference on college entrance exams. All colleges that accept the SAT also accept the ACT, so it’s a matter of determining which test is a better fit for your abilities.

SAT vs. ACT: The Basics

Both tests have undergone changes in the past few years, with the SAT undergoing a major overhaul in 2016. Here are the differences between the SAT and ACT that parents and students need to know before taking either.

Sections Math, Reading, Writing, Optional Essay (Science passages embedded in all sections.) English, Math, Reading, Science, Optional Essay
Time 3 hours, +50 minutes with essay 2 hours 55 min, +30 minutes with essay
Answering 4 answer options, no point deduction 4 answer options, no point deduction
Scoring Out of 1600 – 800 math, 800 reading/writing Out of 36 – 36 per section that is then averaged for composite; Essay scored separately on a 2-12 scale
Math Section Two sections: One calculator allowed, one no calculator; 80 minutes; Less geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus & trigonometry added One 60-question, 60-minute section. Tests pre-algebra through trigonometry. Calculator allowed entire time.
Reading Section 5 passages, 2 with charts/diagrams, 1 historic document 4 long passages with questions that require students to recall what they read. Questions in random order.
Science Section No science section, however science-related passages will be peppered throughout the exam. Science section covers reasoning, charts and graphs, and hypothesis.
Writing 4 passages and 44 multiple-choice questions; 35 minutes Just the essay.
Essay 1 prompt and one full passage; 50 minutes; essay is optional One topic and three perspectives; students evaluate and provide their own perspective with evidence; 40 minutes; essay is optional

Who Should Consider the SAT?

Since the SAT was updated in 2016, the differences between the two tests have been minimized as the SAT was redesigned to be more like the ACT. There are a few minute details, however, that might make the SAT better suited for some students. The SAT math section covers algebra, data analysis, as well as some pre-calculus, trigonometry, and geometry. There’s an entirely calculator-free section, so students who are not as strong in math without the aid of a calculator could struggle with this section. However, SAT does allow more time per question than the ACT, so the SAT could be a good option for students who benefit from additional time. Students who have strong calculation skills but may take more time to work through certain problems should consider the SAT. The SAT might also be a better choice for students who need testing accommodations, as the College Board tends to be more liberal with their accommodations than is the ACT.

Who Should Consider the ACT?

Students with strong reading, writing, and scientific reasoning skills can benefit from taking the ACT. Since the reading section tends to be longer and denser, students with strong reading comprehension and recall skills can be better equipped to score well on those sections. While the ACT also tests students on algebra, data analysis, trigonometry, and geometry, the strict time constraints favor students who are able to work quickly with the aid of a calculator, as calculators are allowed on the entire math section.

Both Tests Require Practice and Prep

Both tests require significant preparation and utilization of test-taking strategies like pacing, answer elimination, selective reading, and more in order to maximize your time and scores. No matter which test you take it’s important to practice under timed conditions, so you’re familiar with the testing format, timing, and strategies necessary in order to complete each section in the time allotted. While test prep usually begins in sophomore or junior year, all students should make time for summer test prep in order to be best prepared.

You Should Take a Diagnostic for Both

It’s important to know the differences between the two tests and which test might appeal to certain strengths, but the only way to know for sure which test is best for you is to take a diagnostic of each. By taking a practice test of the SAT and ACT you’ll be able to see which you did better on, your areas of strengths and weaknesses, and which test you can best prepare for to reach your goal score.

At IvyWise, we offer free diagnostic exams which are administered, graded, and evaluated by our expert tutors for both the SAT and ACT as part of our college counseling and test prep programs. To learn more about our tutoring services for the ACT and SAT, click here.


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