Today’s article is a guest post from Lauren Gaggioli, the founder of Higher Scores Test Prep. She’s an expert at helping students get higher scores on the SAT and ACT, so we figured she’d be the perfect person to talk about the differences between the two tests.
As an online test prep teacher, I answer a lot of questions every week.
Day in and day out, I’m fielding specific testing and strategy-focused questions from my ACT & SAT students as well as test planning questions from families who are just beginning their testing journey.
Far and away, the #1 question I answer is “Should I take the ACT or SAT?”
So in this article, I’m going to answer the question once and for all. Here’s how to decide whether the ACT or SAT is better for you.
Across the country, there’s an unfortunate assumption that colleges prefer one test over the other.
Historically, this was true.
Until 2007, the geographic location of both the student and the colleges that they were applying to often dictated whether the student had to take the ACT, the SAT, or — in some cases — both.
Before that year, students and colleges on the coasts were primarily SAT-focused. Those in the Midwest and parts of the South were ACT-focused.
That trend ended more than 10 years ago.
Today, all 4-year colleges that accept test scores will accept them from either exam.
However, as you can see from this Google Trends map, the historical trend for testing holds today more than a decade after the need for it was eradicated.
As someone who advises students about the best way to improve their scores, I see this map as an indicator of a huge problem.
The fact that today’s Google searches are trending with historic geographic boundaries means that college-bound students and their families are relying on outdated information and assumptions to make a critical decision.
While the ACT and SAT test similar academic concepts, they do so in very different ways.
The differences between the ACT and SAT are akin to the differences between baseball and soccer.
Both sports are played by two opposing teams on a field. They both use 1 ball which switches possession between the two teams.
But, at that point, the similarities end.
Just as you need to know the two different sets of rules to play baseball and soccer correctly, so too do you need to have a clear understanding of the differences between the ACT and SAT to decide which test is a better fit for you.
Further, just as you likely prefer playing baseball or soccer, you’re going to be naturally inclined to prefer either the ACT or SAT.
And since your performance on these exams influences your chances of getting into college and receiving merit scholarships, you should choose the test that’s naturally a better fit.
While 99% of students can freely choose which test to take, there is just one exception that may impact your decision.
If you’re applying to a highly selective, specific college program rather than applying general admission to a college, your test choice may be dictated to you.
For example, if you are applying to an engineering, nursing, or pre-med program from the get-go, your program may state a preferred or required exam.
These instances are rare, as many such programs do not impose testing restrictions.
However, if you’re interested in such programs, do your research before you select your exam so you can be sure you’re covering all of your eligibility requirements and won’t have any unpleasant surprises down the line.
Struggling to choose a college? Check out this guide for help.
The 2 previous exceptions aside, all other students can choose which exam to take. Those students should take care to choose the exam that is naturally a better fit.
The variation in style between the exams can make all the difference in your confidence on test day and your resulting test scores. And you’ll have an easier time improving your score on the test that is your better fit.
Comparing the ACT and SAT before you decide which test to take will help ensure you have the best odds of getting your highest possible score.
So which is better for you? Let’s take a look at the main differences.
The best way to decide which test you like more is to take a free, timed, full-length practice ACT test and practice SAT test at home, score them, and then compare the experience and scores to one another.
But most students find the idea of 8+ hours of testing more than intimidating. And you definitely don’t want to take a real test to benchmark yourself.
So if you’re looking for an easier way to decide which test to take, here’s a summary of the main differences between the 2 exams:
- Straightforward wording.
- Less than 1 minute per question in most sections.
- Includes a science section, though it does not require outside knowledge; it’s more of an open book test.
- Each section deals exclusively with one subject area.
- Essay requires students to express their position on a current topic but address many sides of the argument as a part of their essay.
- Dense and/or tricky wording.
- More than 1 minute per question in most sections.
- Includes two math sections that are heavily based in word problems and algebra, one of which doesn’t allow the use of a calculator.
- Weaves in cross-disciplinary measures, such as interpreting charts and graphs in verbal sections.
- Essay requires students to assess the persuasiveness of an essay by analyzing the author’s stylistic choices.
Based on that description, you may be leaning one way or the other already. But let’s discuss 4 main differences that will help you be sure to choose the right test.
Difference #1: Tone & Timing
The tone on the ACT is fairly straightforward while the language used on the SAT tends to be more complex. But you have more time per question on the SAT. So which one would be better for you?
How To Think About Tone & Timing When Deciding Which Test To Take
More time on a test nearly always seems like a good idea, but keep in mind that extra time isn’t necessarily as beneficial as you might imagine if that test’s wording requires more time and effort to decode.
Because the ACT’s tone is more straightforward, it makes the ACT good fit for those who historically have struggled with close reading, are prone to missing questions based on moving too quickly, or prefer to work at a quick pace.
The SAT’s complex tone likely won’t be problematic for strong readers (think Honors-level, AP, or IB English students) and is a great fit for students who prefer to work meticulously and methodically.
Difference #2: Math
ACT math covers a wider array of topics in its 1 math section, but does so in less detail.
The 2 SAT math sections have a narrower focus on strong algebra skills, a heavier emphasis on word problems, and a full section that doesn’t allow you to use a calculator.
How To Think About Math When Deciding Which Test To Take
The SAT demands that students have a considerable facility with algebra and word problems. This may put stronger math students at ease so long as they feel comfortable working without a calculator at times.
While the ACT does test algebra, the broader array of concepts tested gives weaker math students an advantages.
Generally, the ACT tends to be the better fit for students who struggle with word problems or algebra in general, although many of my stronger math students prefer the ACT’s straightforward wording to SAT’s complex tone.
At the very least, I’d encourage all students to take a look at a few ACT math questions and SAT math questions so you can see the differences in action.
Here are free practice questions for both tests:
Difference #3: ACT Science vs SAT Reading
It may seem strange to put these 2 sections side-by-side, but they are the most distinguishing elements between the two exams.
The ACT Science section is, essentially, an open-book test that requires students to interpret charts and graphs and then answer questions based on the information provided within the test. No outside knowledge is required to answer these questions. Everything is provided to the student on test day.
While the ACT has a Reading section, the SAT Reading section is much more challenging. The SAT Reading section includes AP-level passages, often asking questions about narrative fiction passages from the 19th century as well as historical passages.
Further, within the SAT Reading section, students are often required to interpret charts and graphs in a manner similar to the work required on the ACT Science section.
How To Think About ACT Science and SAT Reading When Deciding Which Test To Take
When it comes to comparing the ACT Science and SAT Reading sections, the ACT is the easier exam for most students.
The challenge, though, is that the simplicity of the ACT Science section is hard to see without a few helpful strategies and practice sections in your back pocket. It’s certainly a section in which a little bit of planning and prep can go a long way towards improving your score.
That said, students who are confident with denser reading passages and are comfortable shifting gears to answer data questions in the middle of verbal sections may have an advantage on the SAT. If they can outperform their peers on test day, the curve on the test can favor them greatly and give them the ability to distinguish themselves.
It all comes down to which path you feel is the best fit for you.
Difference #4: The Essay
The ACT essay requires students to state and defend their position on a topic that’s usually inspired by current events. The SAT essay requires students to assess the persuasiveness of an essay by analyzing the author’s stylistic choices.
While it’s important to tick the box and write the essay, the essay isn’t the most impactful consideration when deciding which test to take since an essay is impossible to truly standardize.
Even the colleges that require the essay know this, so use the essay considerations here as a tie-breaker if the previous 3 considerations have the ACT and SAT running neck-and-neck for you.
How To Think About The Essay When Deciding Which Test To Take
The ACT essay allows students to argue their own position while the SAT essay requires students to leverage knowledge of rhetorical devices to explain how another author crafts his or her argument in a provided passage.
The SAT essay won’t be too much of a stretch for strong writers and seasoned AP English students, but it will most certainly challenge weaker writers or those unaccustomed to analyzing the persuasiveness of an author’s work.
Again, use the essay as a tie-breaker only when all else is equal across the multiple-choice sections. If in doubt, err on the side of the easier ACT essay.
Before the March 2016 update to the SAT, I did recommend that students who were applying to the most competitive colleges take both tests.
Today, though, that advice is outdated.
Because the ACT and SAT are more similar now than they were in years past, you can simply select the exam that’s easier for you and focus on that test.
If you do choose to take both tests, though, be sure to focus on one test at a time starting with your better fit. Prepare for and take your chosen exam at least twice before switching to the other test.
And if time doesn’t allow you to focus exclusively on one test at a time, I would recommend sticking with your stronger test and leaving the other one alone entirely.
Once you know which test is your better fit, the next step is to decide when to take that test.
You can take that next step by selecting the appropriate article below:
Or, if you’re antsy to get on the path to higher scores ASAP, head to the Higher Scores Test Prep website to download my Insider’s Guide to the ACT & SAT – a free eBook with 35 score-boosting strategies that will help you take your ACT or SAT score to the next level fast.
Head to higherscorestestprep.com/start to get started for free right now.
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