ACT vs. SAT – Which Should You Take?

If you’re from the eastern US, you likely took the SAT in high school to apply to college. While the SAT is still more popular than the ACT in the Washington DC metro area, we don’t expect that to hold true for long. In fact, in 2012 there were more students nationally who took the ACT than those who took the SAT. There are various reasons for this, one of which has been the ACT’s strong marketing efforts to get its test into school districts nationwide. But also, all colleges and universities now accept either the SAT or the ACT for admission. Several years ago this wasn’t the case – many schools accepted one or the other. Now, in most cases, students can choose which test they prefer. The SAT and ACT do have significant overlaps in content; however, they are quite different tests, at least for the time being (learn about the changes to the SAT set to take effect spring 2016). Let’s take a look.

Neither the SAT nor the ACT is purely an aptitude or content-based test. The SAT measures mostly verbal and quantitative reasoning, while the ACT measures mostly achievement related to high school curriculum. The difficulty of any standardized test stems from both the difficulty of individual questions and the degree to which time is a factor. For most students, question difficulty presents the bigger challenge on the SAT, while pacing presents the bigger challenge on the ACT.

Here are the most important differences between the SAT and ACT:

First, the SAT is ten short sections taken in 3 hours and 45 minutes whereas the ACT is five longer sections called “tests” taken in 3 hours and 25 minutes. While SAT questions involve more reasoning and deduction skills, the ACT requires content mastery and a quick pace. Both are long tests and it’s important for students to get in as much simulated practice as possible so that they don’t fatigue on test day.

Second, for incorrect multiple choice answers on the SAT one quarter of a point is deducted. There are no deductions for incorrect answers on the ACT, so every question should be answered.

Third, the SAT writing section includes a limited set of grammar topics intended to test a student’s understanding of standard English grammar and usage, whereas the ACT tests punctuation and writing strategy and organization in addition to grammar and organization.

Fourth, SAT math covers Arithmetic, Algebra I and II, and Geometry, focusing on core math skills and solving “tricky” problems. ACT math, on the other hand tests pre-algebra through basic Trig in a more straightforward manner, with a greater emphasis on word problems.

Fifth, the SAT Critical Reading places an emphasis on vocabulary, which is tested through sentence completion questions. It includes 7 short and long reading passages, which follow the order of the passage and include a higher concentration of inference, tone, and purpose questions. The ACT Reading test places little to no emphasis on vocabulary and includes four long reading passages, each with 10 questions in random order that are straightforward but require a close reading of the passage.

Sixth, the SAT does not include a science section, while the ACT does. The ACT science test is a reasoning test requiring students to navigate complex diagrams and tables to find relevant information. Contrary to what many students think, the test does not require specific knowledge from science classes.

Finally, both tests include a writing component; however, the SAT provides test takers with a broad theme that can be approached formulaically or creatively, while the ACT presents a narrow topic that is relevant to high school students.

Not sure whether to take the SAT or ACT?

Often, when families contact us about test prep they aren’t sure which test their student will take. Sometimes, they want to arrange prep for both tests. Except in rare circumstances relating to recruited athletes and certain scholarships, we advise against preparing for both tests. By doing so a student is splitting his time between two tests when he could be optimizing it for one test, likely resulting in better improvement and a stronger overall score.

For undecided students, we ask them to complete a full length practice SAT and ACT. At EC Tutoring we’ve found that about a third of students prefer the SAT, a third prefer the ACT, and the remaining third do not have a strong preference either way. On top of personal preference, we can use a concordance table  to look at the student’s diagnostic scores on both tests to determine if he does better on one over the other. Ultimately, we want our students to prepare for one test and to be confident in their test of choice.

If your student needs guidance on which test to take, contact us at 703.934.8282 to speak to our test prep tutoring specialist.