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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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More than 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities are currently test-optional, test-flexible, or test-blind, which may lead you to think that standardized test scores are no longer important for college admissions. However, not all schools are test-optional, and good test stores can still give students a competitive edge when it comes to admissions decisions. That’s why we still advise taking the SAT or ACT if you can. If you’re not sure which test you want to take, keep reading.

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 going completely digital for international students in 2023 and U.S. students in 2024. Starting in February 2024, the ACT gives students the option of testing online or with paper and pencil.

Here are the differences between the SAT and ACT that parents and students need to know before taking either.

Sections ·       Reading and Writing

·       Math

·       English

·       Math

·       Reading

·       Science

·       Optional Essay

Time 2 hours 14 minutes 2 hours 55 min, +40 minutes with essay
Answering Multiple choice with 4 answer options (some math questions require you to enter an answer instead of selecting it), no point deduction for guessing Multiple choice with 4 answer options, no point deduction for guessing
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 ·       2 modules

·       Calculator allowed

·       70 minutes

·       44 questions/tasks

·       Tests algebra, advanced math, problem-solving and data analysis, geometry and trigonometry

·       1 section

·       Calculator allowed

·       60 minutes

·       60 questions

·       Tests pre-algebra through trigonometry

Reading Section ·       2 modules

·       64 minutes

·       54 questions/tasks

·       Short passages (25-150 words) followed by one multiple-choice question

·       Tests 4 content domains: information and ideas, craft and structure, expression of ideas, standard English conventions

·       1 section

·       35 minutes

·       40 questions

·       Tests your ability to read critically, analyze texts, and integrate knowledge and ideas

Science Section No science section; science-related passages are contained in the Reading and Writing section ·       1 section

·       35 minutes

·       40 questions

·       Covers reasoning, charts and graphs, and hypothesis.

English Section No English section; concepts are integrated into Reading and Writing modules ·       1 section

·       45 minutes

·       75 questions

·       Tests your understanding of standard English conventions and the purpose and focus of a written piece

Essay None ·       One topic and three perspectives; students evaluate and provide their own perspective with evidence

·       Tests ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, language use and conventions

Who Should Consider the SAT?

The SAT allows more time per question than the ACT, so the SAT could be a good option for students who benefit from additional time. However, the overall time for the test is shorter than the ACT. The new digital SAT is adaptive, meaning that how a student performs on the first module in each section determines the difficulty of the questions in the second module.

The digital-only format benefits students who prefer online testing to bubbling in their answers. Students use their own laptops or tablets for testing, or they need to borrow a device — installing the Bluebook app is required. The College Board also has loaner devices available upon request.

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 can work quickly.

The ACT is now offered in both the traditional format and an online format. Students who prefer paper and pencil testing may want to consider the ACT for that reason, while students who need enhanced accessibility can be accommodated with the online version. The content of the test is the same for both formats, but, unlike the SAT, the test is not adaptive to the student’s performance. Students who opt for the online format will take the test on a device that is owned and managed by the test center.

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.

IvyWise test prep programs include a free testing diagnostic for both the SAT and ACT with evaluations and recommendations from our expert team. To learn how we can help you achieve your academic goals, contact us.

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